Friday, October 28, 2011

Horror Thoughts ’11 Week 4: Oct. 21-27

The Dark Crystal (1982) ***
Directors: Jim Henson, Frank Oz
Writers: Jim Henson, David Odell
Starring: Stephen Garlick, Lisa Maxwell, Billie Whitelaw, Percy Edwards, Barry Dennen, Michael Kilgarriff, Jerry Nelson

Dad, “This week’s family movie night is ‘The Dark Crystal’.”
Mom, “Yuk, I didn’t like that one as a kid. It creeped me out.”
Dad, “That’s why I want us to watch it for Horrorfest. It’s creepy.”
Kid, “It’s creepy? Maybe we should watch something else.”
Dad, “Well, it’s not scary creepy. It’s just kind of cool creepy. Don’t worry it’s appropriate for you. I saw it in the theater when I was your age.”
Kid, “Oh, well if it’s appropriate then, sure. Let’s watch it.”
Mom, “Ugh. It creeps me out.”
Dad, “I’m sure the kids will love it.”

They did.

Scream 2 (1997) ***
Director: Wes Craven
Writer: Kevin Williamson
Starring: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courteney Cox, Elise Neal, Jerry O’Connell, Timothy Olyphant, Laurie Matcalf, Jamie Kennedy, Liev Schreiber, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Duane Martin, Rebecca Gayheart, Portia de Rossi, David Warner, Lewis Arquette, Tori Spelling, Luke Wilson, Omar Epps, Jada Pinkett

“Scream 2” is not as good as the original, but by its own rules, it shouldn’t be. There is a nice film discussion in it about great second installments in series, which says that the second movie in a franchise is never as good as the first. Several examples are brought up to disprove this theory, but as I’ve stated on this site before, this rule can only be broken with a planned number of movies. Here the Jamie Kennedy character claims it is only possible with a planned trilogy, which might’ve indicated that “Scream 2” would be the best in the series. “Scream 4” was an inevitability since it wasn’t.

They do everything they’re supposed to with the sequel though. They up the star count. They up the body count. They stick to the formula established by the first movie. A big name star dies earlier than you’d expect. There are two killers. There are several good suspects. The real killers aren’t the obvious choices. Dewey and Gail rekindle their love interest. And Sidney wins.

Like the first, this movie is at once a spoof of the slasher genre and a legitimate slasher flick to boot. You know how in the first movie the main characters were in high school and were obviously played by actors in their late 20s. Notice how in the movie within the movie, called “Stab”, they get actors, Tori Spelling and Luke Wilson, who are obviously in their mid 30s to play the actors who were obviously in their 20s in high school in the first movie. Brilliant.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) ***
Director: Samuel Bayer
Writers: Wesley Strick, Eric Heisserer, Wes Craven (characters)
Starring: Rooney Mara, Kyle Gallner, Jackie Earle Haley, Thomas Dekker, Katie Cassidy, Kellan Lutz, Connie Britton, Clancy Brown

I watched Wes Craven’s original “A Nightmare on Elm Street” for last year’s Horrorfest and confirmed that I am not a fan. I didn’t find Freddy to be a frightening horror monster because there is nothing real about him. The movie has some great horror visuals, but not the visceral human core to makes the horror effective on any other level than the shock and awe. The remake somehow finds a way to fix the original’s problems without drastically changing the story.

I’ve always been a believer that the less explanation for horror monsters the better, but that might not be the case with Freddy Kruger. In the original, he’s just a goofy guy in a striped sweater with clawed gloves. Maybe there was some explanation offered as to why he haunted the dreams of teenagers, ultimately ending in their deaths; but Craven didn’t really worry himself with the reasons as much as with the imagery. This new version puts much more emphasis on Freddy’s past and his connection to his victims. This grounds him in the same reality that the teenagers find themselves, making the horror more visceral, less superficial.

In the original, the horror was all in the images, and there were some cool images to be found here. Wisely, the filmmakers of the remake don’t abandon those visuals. Most of the key images from the original find themselves into the new movie. The face pushing against the wall from inside it, the Kruger hand in the bathtub, the murder of Kris five feet above her bed, and the boiler room climax—they’re all there, but this time they support what’s going on around them rather than everything around them existing solely as an excuse to show us these cool images. These scenes are almost down played, many ending before you realize they’ve begun. The only one that doesn’t work is the face in the wall because it’s done with CGI instead of practical effects.

This new “A Nightmare on Elm Street” is a creepy movie that I can actually get behind. It’s based on one of the coolest myths from youth, the notion that if you die in a dream, you die in real life. Now, they’ve found a good reason to explore that notion, instead of just trying to make it look good.

Western of the Week

Priest (2011) *½
Director: Scott Stewart
Writers: Cory Goodman, Min-Woo Hyung (graphic novel)
Starring: Paul Bettany, Karl Urban, Cam Gigandet, Maggie Q, Lily Collins, Brad Dourif, Stephen Moyer, Christopher Plummer, Alan Dale

Watching the western/action/vampire/comic book movie “Priest”, I had too ask myself, “Is it really fair to judge this movie on a horror basis?” The truth is this movie does achieve quite succinctly exactly what it sets out to do. It strings together a series of action scenes and special effects sequences that are quite skillfully executed with a storyline that hardly matters. Will this movie satisfy those who will seek it out? Probably.

Does that mean it deserves credit for achieving what it sets out to achieve? For much of the movie I felt I couldn’t really take too many points away from it because of that. But in the end, the movie succumbs to its own lack of ambition and delivers what can only be described as dissatisfaction. So I can’t really give it any credit either. It has no ambition to rise above the sum of its parts, which don’t amount to much.

There’s a ridiculous amount of set up for the plot of this film, which takes place in an apocalyptic future where creatures referred to as vampires, although they don’t really resemble what we’ve come to know as vampires, have conquered the world and been conquered by the church state the rose up to fight them. Now that the vampire threat has been contained the church state has cast aside the warriors referred to as priests, although they don’t really resemble what we’ve come to as priests, for no apparent reason other than the fact that there is no threat for them to fight. Anyway, the vampires are just biding their time and blah, blah, blah, until they can clash with the outcast priests in visual, photographic, and acrobatic trickery that they refer to as fighting, but doesn’t really resemble anything close to what passes for realistic combat in the world that we actually know.

Red State (2011) ****
Director/Writer: Kevin Smith
Starring: Michael Parks, Kyle Gallner, John Goodman, Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun, Melissa Leo, Kerry Bishé, Stephen Root, Kevin Alejandro, Mark Blucas, Patrick Fischler, Kevin Pollack

It’s important to note right from the start that Kevin Smith’s new movie “Red State” is in no way a horror movie. It is also nothing like anything anyone ever expected from a Kevin Smith movie. Smith himself marketed and distributed the movie, so it was no accident that it was marketed as if it were a horror movie. He wanted people to think they were getting into a horror movie, when in fact he really wanted them to think about was something that, while quite horrific, has nothing to do with the horror genre.

Now, I will boldly state that this is the best movie Smith has ever made. It was the last thing I ever thought this particular filmmaker had in him. It does not look like a Kevin Smith movie. It does not act like a Kevin Smith movie. That means it is not filled with juvenile humor. It does have one sign of Smith in it. It is an incredibly intelligent script.

But what… what is “Red State” about? I suppose it’s about fanaticism and our government’s frightening approach to what they call the war against terror. It’s a horror movie on those terms. It’s directed like a good low budget horror movie. Smith uses a lot of low angles and the production design is built upon the grime of our humanity. You can no longer say that Smith doesn’t have directing style. This movie is drenched in style. It’s somber and serious and disturbingly violent.

It follows three high school boys who answer an internet sex add only to find they’ve been duped by a religious cult set on punishing them for their intended sins. Funeral picketers like the Westboro Baptist Church and their leader Fred Phelps are the inspiration for Smith’s cult and it’s enigmatic leader, played by the greatly undervalued Michael Parks. Parks’ preacher illustrates the charisma emanated by such figures to draw those in search of answers to their twisted moral guidance.

Wisely, Smith does not keep is focus on the high school victims. His interests in the people inside the cult and the FBI action taken against them guide the film into more profound considerations. John Goodman plays the Special Agent in charge of the siege against the cult’s compound. It’s one of his best performances. He warns his superiors against hasty action. He follows his orders. He bites his tongue when he learns of his superiors’ disregard of any reasonable solution.

There is much more here than I’ve even begun to imply with this brief review, but the profound nature of the movie’s true subject can’t help but lead one to question Smith’s horror marketing strategy. Smith knows his audience base very well. He even knows more than most people would guess about mainstream film going tendencies. He knows he made a movie very few people would think they have any interest in seeing. But, he wants people to hear what he has to say about this subject. He knows no one would expect this from him. A horror movie on the other hand is less of a pill for people to swallow as a legitimate career directional change from Smith. I only hope his misdirection really gets people talking about his movie, rather than complaining that he didn’t deliver exactly what he promised. What he did deliver was much more important and much better than any mere horror movie. It makes me sad to think that Smith intends his next film, “Hit Somebody”, to be his last.

Vampires Suck (2010) **½
Directors/Writers: Jason Friedberg, Aaron Seltzer
Starring: Jenn Proske, Matt Lanter, Diedrich Bader, Christopher N. Riggi, Ken Jeong, Anneliese van der Pol

Of all the movies inspired by Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight” books, “Vampires Suck” is by far the best. That’s because its makers realize how ridiculous and inane the source material is. That’s not to say “Vampires Suck” isn’t ridiculous and inane. That’s kind of the point.

This movie follows in the footsteps of countless spoof movies before it. Many of the jokes are expected. Many of them are uninspired. It does have the tenacity to stick to just spoofing the “Twilight” movies, however. Well, I guess there’s one “Alice in Wonderland” reference in there, but for the most part, it sticks to the faux teen/vamp angst of cinema’s lamest vampire love story.

Honestly, I laughed much more than I expected to while watching this. I can’t say it’s in line with spoof royalty like “Blazing Saddles” or “Airplane!”. If you are unfamiliar with the material, there isn’t anything here that will make much sense. But if, like me, you have watched the “Twilight” movies even though you don’t like them, you should enjoy this skewering.

Faust (1926) ***
Director: F.W. Murnau
Writers: Gerhardt Hauptmann, Hans Kyser, Johann Wolfgang Goethe (play)
Starring: Gösta Ekmann, Emil Jannings, Camilla Horn, Frida Richard, William Dieterle, Yvette Guilbert

F.W. Murnau was the German master of striking gothic images. He mines some of his best from Goethe’s tale of “Faust”, the man of science who is tempted by Satan’s wares. The images that open this silent classic are so striking; the rest of the movie can’t possibly live up to those opening passages. The first image of Lucifer is one of the more frightening images to be put to celluloid. He looks like the beast described in so many other horror films.

As the movie goes on, the Prince of Darkness will become more of a comic character in the hands of the great actor Emil Jannings, yet Jannings allows you to accept Satan in either form. There’s not much to say about any of the other performances, which might as well be just elaborate details in the set that help tell the story, but Jannings is spectacular.

I may have forgotten much of my Goethe, but it feels like the movie grows thin on story for the middle passages. There is a strange and perplexing love story that occupies much of the movie’s time. Jannings mugs up his role in these sections to give them some life, but on their own they run the risk of dragging the whole thing down. Still this is one of the fascinating silents that proves how much could be done with sets and production design in cinema’s early days.

The Mummy’s Curse (1944) *½
Director: Leslie Goodwins
Writers: Bernard Schubert, Leon Abrams, Dwight V. Babcock
Starring: Lon Chaney, Peter Coe, Virginia Christine, Kay Harding, Dennis Moore, Marin Kosleck, Kurt Katch, Addison Richards, Holmes Herbert

Thankfully, “The Mummy’s Curse” actually provides a slightly different storyline from the previous three movies. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really do much for the monster. Using so much of the backstory that we’ve been forced to view in each and every episode of this movie, we find that once again a protector of the mummy is plotting to bring the mummy and his mistress queen back to life.

This time the mistress queen is actually brought back to life in the form of another woman. She walks around skipping between herself and the mistress queen mummy while the male mummy terrorizes the workers in a swamp. The body count is up pretty high this time around; but there is so little story or character development, there’s no reason to care.

I’ve very much enjoyed most of the Universal Monster Legacy series of DVDs, which all provide several movies from the franchise of each of the major Universal monsters. There are some hidden gems to be found among them. None of them are contained in “The Mummy” set, however.

Scream 3 (2000) **
Director: Wes Craven
Writers: Erhen Kruger, Kevin Williamson (characters)
Starring: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courteney Cox Arquette, Patrick Dempsey, Scott Foley, Parker Posey, Emily Mortimer, Deon Richmond, Matt Keeslar, Jenny McCarthy, Lance Henriksen, Patrick Warburton, Liev Schreiber, Kelly Rutherford, Carrie Fisher, Jamie Kennedy

I suppose in getting it wrong “Scream 3” actually gets it right. With movie number three everything goes down hill. The stars aren’t quite so big. The original screenwriter has skipped town. They’re bringing characters they shouldn’t have gotten rid of back from the dead. They’ve even dumped a bunch of the rules they had established in the first two movies. Only one killer?!

I suppose it was inevitable. It was a series that really skirted the bounds of horror effectiveness anyway, since it was kind of a spoof of the genre and a legitimate slasher flick at once. Something had to give. The third movie has left scary far behind, not that any of the previous films were particularly frightening. The soap opera that are the lives of the ongoing characters have taken over completely at this point and something like a secret illegitimate brother is nothing but an expected development.

Even the kills in this movie seem a little underwhelming. The first doesn’t involve the big starlet surprise murder that has opened each of the previous films. Even in 2000, I couldn’t have told you who Kelly Rutherford was. I suppose Jenny McCarthy was supposed to be the surprising early kill, but just how famous was she at any point. The deaths themselves seemed to lack imagination, not that that was ever a “Scream” signature. Most victims have died by stabbing, but in this one the fights aren’t quite so vigorous, the struggles not quite so violent, the evisceration entirely eliminated. As soon as both victims and killers start using guns and bulletproof vests, you’ve left horror territory and ventured back into basic thriller.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Paranormal Activity 3 / *** (R)

Kristi: Jessica Tyler Brown
Katie: Chloe Csenergy
Julie: Lauren Bittner
Dennis: Christopher Nicholas Smith
Randy: Dustin Ingram

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. Written by Christopher B. Landon. Based on characters created by Oren Peli. Running time: 85 min. Rated R (for some violence, language, brief sexuality and drug use).

Hollywood has proven throughout cinematic history that one of the best ways to make money from filmmaking is to take a successful formula and milk it until it’s dry. The third movie in the “Paranormal Activity” franchise delivers the same quality and quantity of scares as the previous entries. It begins to stretch the bounds of the format, however.

“Paranormal Activity 3” continues to fill in the backstory of the first phenomenally frightening movie by spinning off from a little information provided in the first installment about the childhoods of the two sisters who are terrorized by a demonic ghost in both previous movies. It’s 1988, and we meet Katie (Chloe Csenergy) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) as little girls at a birthday party. We meet their single mother, Julie (Lauren Bittner, “Bride Wars”). We also meet the grandmother, who because of the rule of economy of characters wasn’t introduced to for no reason.

Like the previous films, this is another found footage movie, meaning that the events were supposedly video taped by those involved and discovered later. The person doing the video taping here is Julie’s boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), who makes his living making wedding videos. Because the movie takes place in the late eighties, the video resources aren’t quite as impressive as in “Paranormal Activity 2”. But, like so many people video taping horrific happenings in movies lately, the guy is persistent in his devotion to the camera.

The PA formula has been pretty well established by the third outing, and the movie plays pretty much as expected. We meet the family. Some creepy things start happening. Dennis decides to capture everything in the house on tape. He even devises an oscillating camera in order to capture more of what goes on at night, or what doesn’t go on. The important question: Is what we see scary?

I think it’s still pretty scary. There are no big surprises, but the scares work through both anticipation and surprise. The first real scare, which occurs when Dennis and Julie are playing at the idea of making a sex tape, doesn’t really work. An earthquake interrupts the couple and is not really the proper incident in which to introduce the paranormal entity. It does give Dennis proper fuel to start taping everything, however, and the rest of what’s in store works very well. There are even a couple of incidents where I believe the directors, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (“Catfish”), tip their hats to “Halloween” and “Poltergeist”.

It does seem that this franchise is starting to push the boundaries of its found footage format, though. This one gets mired in some of the pitfalls of the format more so than the previous two movies. Most found footage movies fall into the trap of having the cameraman character continue to film long after any reasonable person would’ve stopped. Dennis is guilty of this. For however much this guy is into video recording, I cannot believe he had any good reason to film the last 15 minutes of what goes on here. Of course, if he didn’t, we wouldn’t know how it ends.

Still this movie will scare you. There is one scene where Katie suggests that they play Bloody Mary in the mirror that will get your heart pumping. And, you need not worry that the studio spoiled this scene with the trailer for the movie, because the scene in the movie is completely different than the one in the trailer. In fact, very few of the scenes in the trailer are actually in the movie. I think those scenes must’ve been created especially for the trailer, as some of them couldn’t even fit in with the story of the movie. Ah, what won’t a ghost do to sell its movie? Milk that cow. Milk it!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Horror Thoughts ’11 Week 3: Oct. 14-20

Hocus Pocus (1993) **
Director: Kenny Ortega
Writers: Mick Garris, Neil Cuthbert, David Kirshner
Starring: Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Nijimy, Omri Katz, Thora Birch, Vanessa Shaw, Sean Murray

It’s always a struggle for me to find good family oriented films to feature at Horrorfest, because I like my horror flicks to be scary. Sometimes it’s a good idea for me to lean on my wife a bit for the family friendly programming at Horrorfest. “Hocus Pocus” comes from the canon of movies she enjoyed as a child. While I’m not a fan of the movie, I suppose it is a pretty good one for kids.

This is a silly movie with silly performances by the marquee names playing three witches terrorizing child heroes on Halloween. The performances by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy are absurd and I guess that’s what they need to be with a target audience that still participates in trick or treating. The heroes are adolescents, a very young Thora Birch, and a talking cat. The set up involves the participation of a virgin; and as a parent, I sat there trying to prepare an answer for what a virgin was to my youngest, which thankfully he never asked.

I can’t recommend this movie to anyone above the iCarly mindset, but I will admit that for those tweenies, I can see this movie having just the right amount of Halloween fun to set in their minds as a good movie. Of course that means years from now they may return to it, remembering how fond they were of it as children and wonder just what they were thinking.

Scream (1996) ***½
Director: Wes Craven
Writer: Kevin Williamson
Starring: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Jamie Kennedy, Henry Winkler, W. Earl Brown, Drew Barrymore

I haven’t seen the original “Scream” since it was released in theaters. As a horror aficionado, I enjoyed it, but wasn’t incredibly impressed at the time. I didn’t think it was very scary. I did include it in a list of my favorite spoofs a couple of years ago, and I stand by that. “Scream” is a send up of the very genre that Wes Craven helped make so popular.

Upon this viewing, however, I was struck by how good a horror movie it really is. I wasn’t scared by it originally because I was so used to the conventions it utilized, both as a spoof and as a legitimate slasher flick. I’d forgotten how gory it was in some sections, most notably the opening sequence with Drew Barrymore. But, it also withholds the gore at key moments. It isn’t an exploitation movie, the way so many so-called horror movies are today. I like the term torture porn, because it so accurately describes what so much of today’s “horror” is about. “Scream” does not fall anywhere near that category. It’s a classically constructed slasher movie, if by classic you mean the early ‘80s. It may not be one of the best horror movies ever made, but as cinema, it’s not too shabby.

The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) **
Director: Harold Young
Writers: Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher, Neil P. Varnick
Starring: John Hubbard, Elyse Knox, Turhan Bey, Lon Chaney, Wallace Ford, Dick Foran, Mary Gordon, Virginia Brissac, Cliff Clark, George Zucco

Torture porn is also most certainly not what “The Mummy’s Tomb” is. These old Universal monster movies were content to talk their audiences to death. It’s almost as if what they had figured out at that time was that audiences just wanted to see the monsters some more. They didn’t care how they got to see them, they just needed to see Lon Chaney Jr. appear as the Mummy again.

The writers were hired to come up with some excuse for this to happen and they were given free reign with how to get there. Explaining it seemed to be their only direction. It didn’t matter how long that explanation went on. The audience would sit through it, just as long as they got to see that monster. None of these movies are really bad. They just aren’t very good.

I found the use of actor Turhan Bey interesting here. He’s one of the few examples in early Hollywood of an actor of some Middle Eastern heritage being used for Middle Eastern character work at that time. “The Mummy” franchise in particular had several characters within it that were Egyptian. Bey, whose father was Trukish and mother was Czechoslovakian, is the closest the series would come to casting an actual Egyptian in one of their roles. Bey only appeared in this film of the series.

Triangle (2009) **½
Director/Writer: Christopher Smith
Starring: Melissa George, Michael Dorman, Henry Nixon, Rachel Carpani, Liam Hemsworth

As is often the case with Horrorfest, sometimes a movie just swims onto the radar, and I watch it for no other reason than that. Such a movie is “Triangle”, a sea bound horror gimmick flick that is much more interesting than it has any reason to be.

I call it a gimmick flick because it involves a trick of the mind suffered by the main character, who finds herself on board a ghost ship with some other survivors of a freak squall while on a sailing trip. She relives the same period of time over again trying to figure a way out of the time loop in which she seems to have gotten stuck. Each time around involves the murder of each of the survivors in an attempt to get off the ghost ship.

For the most part a plot like this is merely an exercise, something more fitting for a horror anthology series like “The Twilight Zone” than its own feature length movie. I liked how the loop was explained in the end, however. It was unexpected and yet within the bounds of the rules established. The loop itself goes on a little too long and would be more effective in a shorter format than a feature-length film.

The Thing (1982) ****
Director: John Carpenter
Writers: Bill Lancaster, John W. Campbell Jr. (short story “Who Goes There?”)
Starring: Kurt Russell, A. Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, Joel Polis, Thomas Waites

I did not come right out and say this in my review of the new version of “The Thing”, currently playing in theaters, because it was news to me going into that movie, but the new movie is actually a prequel to the 1982 horror classic “John Carpenter’s The Thing”. Apparently, I just wasn’t paying attention, because now that I’m looking at the press for the new movie, I find that everyone seemed to know it was a prequel ahead of time. It’s much more effective if you don’t know, though.

I’m very glad I didn’t feel the need to watch the ’82 version in preparation for seeing the new one. The new one works well with the previous movie only remembered vaguely. However, I could not resist popping this one in my BluRay player as soon as I got home from watching the new one. The new one ends right at the moment this one begins, with those hollow electronic notes from the Ennio Morricone credited score. I say credited because if you watch this movie with the audio commentary by Carpenter himself, you’ll discover that he replaced the opening score by Morricone with his own composition. If you know Carpenter’s music, you might’ve already figured that out. He uses this piece to close the movie as well, but the rest of the score is Morricone’s.

What you really miss in the new version that is such an integral part of the ’82 version is the stop motion creature photography and animitronics. Despite the fact that the older special effects are more primitive, there’s something more real about them as well. When a guy’s head pulls off its own body, sprouts legs and crawls away, there’s are creepiness about it that can’t be matched by the new version’s seamless CGI of a woman’s body becoming a gaping jaw of teeth.

The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) **
Director: Reginald Le Borg
Writers: Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher, Brenda Weisberg
Starring: John Carradine, Robert Lowery, Ramsay Ames, Lon Chaney, Barton MacLane, George Zucco

These “Mummy” movies are actually starting to become a little tedious. As I described for the last installment, these movie only seem to exist as an excuse for people to see Lon Chaney as the Mummy monster yet again. The reasoning within the plot of the movie is inconsequential.

This time they’ve dragged down yet another big name star to try and keep some life in the paint by numbers story they’ve assembled. The poor victim this time, John Carradine as the Mummy’s new handler. Carradine is a strong screen presence, far too strong for the story contained here. What boggles my mind the most is why the movie could possibly be titled “The Mummy’s Ghost”. There are no ghosts in the movie. The mummy’s isn’t a ghost, nor does it have one. I suppose they thought the Mummy was destroyed in the last movie, so maybe they think it’s a ghost this time. But, nobody says that. Thank God I only have one left.

Lips of Blood (1975) **½
Director: Jean Rollin
Writers: Jean Rollin, Jean-Loup Philippe
Starring: Jean-Loup Philippe, Annie Briand, Natalie Perrey

When I scheduled the French erotic vampire movie “Lips of Blood” for this year’s Horrorfest, I had read some customer reviews on Netflix about how the streaming version of this movie had no subtitles. That seemed to be the main complaint against this very European cult film. I was intrigued to see the movie without the English language to guide me. As it turns out, Netflix Instant most certainly does have subtitles on this Dario Argento wanna be.

The movie is a little light on the eroticism and on the shock and awe of an Argento, but it does have its charms. It has the same European photographic notions that horror should contain a broad pallet of bright colors. The colors are striking and beautiful. There are some images that transcend the material as well, although not as plentiful as those found in Argento’s classics.

The plot is rather flimsy, involving a man who remembers a place from his childhood where something happened to him and his family. He is pursued by a coven of vampires who try to seduce him to free their vampire mother. That’s really about all there is to it. The movie has some fun getting there, but is a fairly minor effort in terms of European 70s horror.

Western of the Week

The Burrowers (2008) ***
Director/Writer: J.T. Petty
Starring: Karl Geary, William Mapother, Sean Patrick Thomas, Clancy Brown, David Busse, Alexandra Edmo, Doug Hutchison

“The Burrowers”, like all the horror westerns I’ve looked at this year, is very low budget. Unlike the others, it does a lot with what it doesn’t have. First, it approaches the material like a western, showing echoes of Brad Pitt’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” in its opening moments. It keeps the material squarely planted in the western style of filmmaking as it introduces a monster into the American West mythology.

The story follows a posse looking for a missing family they think has been abducted by Indians. They come across a girl buried alive in the dirt. She seems to be awake yet in a comatose state. How did she get there? What is wrong with her? Eventually all these questions will be answered for them in a way that probably leaves them wishing they didn’t know.

I like that writer/director J.T Petty doesn’t feel the need to give every storyline closure and that he’s willing to leave the hero with a bleak outlook on how things turned out. He handles the monsters well by making them creatures that are hard to get a visual on in any situation. This allows the director to make a competent movie without all the special effects usually required for a creature feature. “The Burrowers” stands next to “Dances With Wolves” as another reminder of our arrogance in the way we treated the buffalo.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Thing / *** (R)

Kate Lloyd: Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Braxton Carter: Joel Edgerton
Dr. Sander Halvorson: Ulrich Thomsen
Adam Goodman: Eric Christian Olsen
Jameson: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Colin: Jonathan Lloyd Walker
Griggs: Paul Braunstein
Edvard Volner: Trond Espen Seim
Lars: Jørgen Langhelle

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Mattijs van Heinjningen Jr. Written by Eric Heisserer. Based on the short story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr. Running time: 103 min. Rated R (for strong creature violence and gore, disturbing images, and language).

I went into the latest cinematic version of John W. Campbell’s short story “Who Goes There?” without much thought about the previous versions. 80’s horror maestro John Carpenter famously remade the Cold War horror analogy “The Thing from Another World” as simply “The Thing” with considerable changes to the anti-communist story. It was one of the rare examples of a remake being better than the original. It is also one of our greatest horror director’s best films. I didn’t want all of this weighing too heavily on the new movie’s shoulders, so I put Carpenter’s movie out of my mind going into this new one. This made discovering some of the new movie’s secrets a surprising pleasure.

2011’s “The Thing” is good, not great, sci-fi horror. But, noting where it relates to the 1982 version makes it a little bit more interesting. Made with a mostly Norwegian cast and crew, save for a few key leading roles, the makers of this new version appear to have studied the earlier movie intently, yet set out to make their own individual story.

The movie opens in a cold barren landscape. Antarctica, 1982. Some scientists in a snow cat are searching for something. They find it. Soon a young American paleontologist is being recruited for a top-secret project. This is Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, “Live Free or Die Hard”). She’s being recruited by Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen, “Season of the Witch”) to extract some type of animal from the ice. It’s all very hush hush.

These opening passages are done with patience, allowing the audience to understand the situation and get to know the characters. Kate doesn’t come across as a strong woman and doesn’t seem to be respected by Sander for any more than her experience at extracting things from ice. There’s even a sense that as an American she’s looked down upon by the Norwegians. For a moment, I thought all this was the start of a thematic statement by the filmmakers, but I think it has more to do with setting the time period. Women were becoming more prominent in the workforce in the early eighties but were not highly respected. The globalization of the work force had not quite gotten into gear then either. The world was more segregated in terms of nationality at that time.

The helicopter pilots at the snow bound research station are also Americans.  One, Braxton Carter (Joel Edgerton, “Warrior”), reaches out to Kate, but there seems to be a class separation there as well. By the time the movie ends, none of these things will matter anymore, and Kate will be in charge.

What the Norwegians have found frozen in the ice is an alien spacecraft and an alien specimen. As it turns out, they don’t need as much of Kate’s expertise in extracting the alien as they first though, since it eventually extracts itself from the ice. But, what is the nature of this alien life form? Anyone familiar with the previous versions will know that it can replicate any life form it comes into contact with. Out in the isolated Antarctic, it has the people in the research station and their sled dogs. That’s about it, but it’s a start for an entity that acts as a kind of virus, spreading from host to host.

The filmmakers don’t rush the characters into any leaps of logic in their conclusions about what will happen once the creature escapes. It’s interesting how these characters take slightly different approaches to reach their conclusions about the alien than the characters in the previous film. It all amounts to the same thrilling story, but with different beats, different details. What cannot change between the versions is that no one can trust anyone else to be who they think they are. This is a story built upon a heightened paranoia that may well just be a natural part of the human condition.

This new “The Thing” doesn’t just tell a similar story to the previous incarnations, however. There are many plot point quotes in this movie’s homage to the 1982 movie. In the ‘82 movie the scientists knew at least one of them had been infected by the alien when ripped underwear was found, in this one they find tooth fillings made of inorganic material that the creature couldn’t replicate. Braxton is a pilot, like the Kurt Russell character in the previous movie. Both characters go missing at one point, and when they return no one trusts them. A test is developed by both research crews to determine who is still human. Even some of the images are duplicated, like the double-faced creature and the crewmember who is burned by a flamethrower while sitting at a book shelf.

It seems, however, as if the movie is needlessly held back by its 1982 setting. It doesn’t really seem to have much to say about our current world, playing mostly as homage to the earlier movie. If you’ve seen the earlier movie, however, it will become apparent that the new version is no mere homage. It acts as more than just a stand-alone version of the movie. That works in its favor for those who are fans of the 1982 film, but not so much for those who aren’t familiar with that movie. Still, it is a patient sci-fi horror film that pays off in terms of scares and tension. Its winter location and isolation fuel the paranoia felt by the characters and impress the ramifications should the alien find its way to the main population of the planet. Since it takes place in 1982, we know it didn’t. Or do we?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Horror Thoughts ’11 Week 2: Oct. 7-13

The Mummy (1932) ***
Director: Karl Freund
Writers: John L. Balderston, Richard Schayer, Nina Wilcox Putnam
Starring: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, Arthur Byron, Edward Van Sloan

I introduced the kids to the classic Universal monsters this week with the original “The Mummy”, starring Boris Karloff as the titular Imhotep. This was an interesting one to start them off on, since it is essentially a talkie. There isn’t much in the way of scares or action of any kind. Karloff is a mummy raised from the dead, but he spends most of the movie looking like and old man, with some pretty intense eyes. It was no surprise that Jack and I were the only ones who stuck with it out through the whole thing.

Despite the features mentioned above, which might turn some horror fans off, it’s not at all a bad movie considering it’s 80 years old. Yes, you have to listen to all those words and follow their intentions instead of just sitting there and getting shocked by a barrage of images. Certainly, the filmmaking community still hadn’t figured out some of the delicacies of pacing in film. But, they also had the bravery to hold silences, and that is a practice that works pretty well for horror.

Then there is Karloff himself. Most of these Universal monster characters actors were never given much credit for the work they did. Most people attributed their performances to their make up. This is really selling them short. You could put a bunch of make up on one of the time period’s romantic leads and their performances would look ridiculous, because the make up requires an even subtler approach to facial expression. Karloff isn’t given much in the script or direction to portray the fear his character imposes, but he does it with his unwavering tone and nearly expressionless face. Look at the eyes in the picture above and you’ll see a true monster performance.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) **
Director: Mel Brooks
Writers: Mel Brooks, Rudy De Luca, Steve Haberman, Bram Stoker (characters)
Starring: Leslie Nielsen, Peter MacNicol, Steven Webber, Amy Yasbeck, Lysette Anthony, Harvey Korman, Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks’s send up of the classic monster, “Dracula: Dead and Loving It”, was one of the unplanned features in this year’s Horrorfest. Sometimes it’s necessary to inject a little laughter into Horrorfest. In typical Brooks style, this spoof undermines all of the genre clichés and more specifically Francis Ford Coppola’s vision of the vampire legend in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”.

This one lacks the brilliance of Brooks’s early work. His later spoofs lack their own originality and act more mock ups that merely set up the jokes. The jokes are all referential, while movies like “Young Frankenstein” and “Blazing Saddles” also offer up their own material to harp on. “Dracula: Dead and Loving It” adds nothing to the spoof canon and is essentially just a bad movie with a series of independent jokes strung through it. There are a few classic Brooks moments within it, however. The spider web that Renfield walks through, “What are you doing to the furniture?!”, and the torrent of blood from the staked Lucy, “She just ate!”, all provide pretty big laughs in this minor Brooks effort.

Season of the Witch (2011) **
Director: Dominic Sena
Writer: Bragi F. Schut
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Ron Perlman, Stephen Campbell Moore, Claire Foy, Robert Sheehan, Stephen Graham, Ulrich Thomsen, Christopher Lee

I was surprised to find that if the filmmakers had just avoided a few hackneyed ideas, this could’ve actually been a pretty good movie. The biggest mistake they make is showing that the woman that a couple of deserter Crusader knights are charged with transporting to a monastery where she will be tried as a witch is actually imbued with supernatural powers. It should’ve been a question as to whether she was actually capable of creating obstacles for their journey. All of the evils she conjured up should’ve been easily explainable by natural causes, therefore Nicolas Cage’s knight, who questions his faith, would have more to question.

The filmmakers also incorporate cheap thrill CGI effects into a pack of wolves that would’ve been more frightening had they just been allowed to be wolves, as opposed to demon dogs controlled by the witch. The film begins with an introduction that reveals too much and doesn’t leave room for the possibility that the church is executing women for being witches without reason. And, the montage of battle scenes that introduce us to the hero Crusaders is clunky and awkward, where a dialogue scene explaining their experiences and one battle scene would’ve sufficed.

I liked the mood of the story and where it went at the end, however. I did not expect the witch’s true intentions, and Cage gives much more depth to his knight than the story deserves. I also liked that his friend didn’t turn out to be something else.

Videodrome (1983) ***½
Director/Writer: David Cronenberg
Starring: James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits, Peter Dvorsky, Les Carlson, Jack Creley, Lynn Gorman, Julie Khaner

“Videodrome is the second film screened this week that was not scheduled to appear during this year’s Horrorfest, but after launching this year’s film festival with Cronenberg’s “eXistenz” I’ve seen several signs pointing me in the direction of revisiting this Cronenberg horror classic. When I saw Deborah Harry perform on Leno last week, that was the final straw. It was long past time for me to return to this movie that I hardly understood as a teenager.

I can’t say as I have any greater understanding of Cronenberg’s exploration of video eroticism and violence desensitizing than I did before, but I do have a greater appreciation for it. The craft here is undeniable as Cronenberg seduces the audience into his twisted vision in much the same way his main character is seduced by the pirated television signal he discovers where the only programming involves torture and death. He’s so deceived by his television commanded world that it doesn’t even occur to him at first that what he’s seeing is real.

The way Cronenberg works sex into this world dominated by television violence has you thinking that the two are not related at first, and again the audience’s reaction to Deborah Harry’s first invitation to James Woods to inflict pain upon her during sex is filled with the same amount of fascination as the character’s.

Cronenberg’s images are those of pure cinema. The type that imbed themselves into your brain and will never be forgotten: Woods inserting his head into the television screen as if it’s a sexual orifice, the dream recorder that makes him look as if he’s some sort of alien explorer, and the gun that attaches itself to Woods’s hand. These are unforgettable images from an alienating, yet unforgettable film.

The Rite (2011) ***
Director: Mikael Håfström
Writers: Michael Petroni, Matt Baglio (book)
Starring: Colin O’Donoghue, Anthony Hopkins, Alice Braga, Marta Gastini, Ciarán Hinds, Rutger Hauer, Toby Jones

“The Rite” offers us yet another true life possession story. I guess it’s not really a possession unless it’s based on fact. I would question just how much fact this film is really based on however, since the true story told in the book upon which it is based was only a “suggestion” according to the film’s credit sequence. But, it’s not too bad.

This fact isn’t even mostly due to the fact that Anthony Hopkins plays an exorcist plagued by a demon. The film’s power is found in the way it classically builds its horror story with good characters with solid background foundations and an old school horror sensibility that getting the story out is just as important as the scares.

I did have some problems with the way the story was structured around a young priest’s doubts about possession and his own faith in general, while the pregnant woman who claims to be possessed is so obviously taken over by a supernatural force. Like this week’s earlier entry, “Season of the Witch”, a story based on doubt would work better if the audience could doubt the validity of the possession as well.

Also, the supernatural aspects of take over the story for its climax, so the movie becomes more about scares than catharsis. For the most part, however, this is solid horror filmmaking. We’re given a character that we can relate to, who is placed in an extraordinary situation that scares the hell out of us. If the church is good for one thing, it’s always been great for scaring the bejeezus out of people. I suppose there are other benefits. But that’s one of my favorites.

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) ½*
Director: John Boorman
Writer: William Goodhart
Starring: Richard Burton, Linda Blair, Louise Fletcher, Kitty Winn, Max Von Sydow, James Earl Jones

There have been five films in the “Exorcist” franchise. Two were very good. Two were terrible. One was just boring. All three of the series’ failures came from the idea of exploring the exorcism in which Father Merrin, the priest played by Max Von Sydow in the original, first encountered the demon who possesses the young girl in that film. “Exorcist II: The Heretic” is the worst of the bunch.

It was the first attempt by Warner Bros. at either a sequel or a prequel, and it acts as both, following Regan MacNeil after her exorcism only to find that she is still slightly possessed by the demon. Richard Burton is brought in by the Vatican to investigate Merrin’s death and determine whether he held any fault in the events that occurred in the first film. Merrin’s previous exorcism of the same demon is dealt with in flashbacks in Africa.

This movie has lost all touch with what made the first film so good. It has attempted to reproduce the winning elements by providing a priest at the center of events who has his doubts about his own place with God. Regan’s psychiatrist, played by Louise Fletcher, bears a striking resemblance to Ellen Burstyn, who played her mother in the original but declined to reprise her role in this one. It misses the depth of the Catholic Church’s involvement in the business of exorcism. It doesn’t depict their stance as quite so skeptical or serious as the first film. It involves modern psychology into the notion of possession, just as the first film did, but this time it creates some pseudo-post modern psychology that involves a device that allows two people to share one participant’s memories.

Most of all, this story seems aimless. Having no clear goal, besides capitalizing upon the success of the original, the filmmakers pander to the audience with cheap thrill devices, like having a cab crash through the gates of the house where the first film took place. The whole movie plays as if no one really knew how to follow up the original. More than a decade later it would dawn upon producers that they should use the original author’s own sequel novel, “Legion”, as the source material and hire him to make it, and “Exorcist III” became the only other “Exorcist” movie worth watching.

The Mummy’s Hand (1940) **
Director: Christy Cabanne
Writers: Griffin Jay, Maxwell Shane
Starring: Dick Foran, Peggy Moran, Wallace Ford, Eduardo Ciannelli, George Zucco, Cecil Kellaway, Charles Trowbridge, Tom Tyler

Universal let their “Mummy” franchise sit on the shelf for a while whilst some of their other monster properties, Frankenstein and Dracula, played some of their sequels out. By the time they returned to the series, they had decided to switch directions a bit. They use some of the footage from the original movie in flashbacks, but they pretty much ditch the story line of that one in favor of a new, more aggressive mummy, who is more monster than man. He’s more ferocious… well, by mummy standards, and less imposing than Boris Karloff was in the role. His eyes are much creepier, however.

It’s also glaringly apparent that they were not given any sort of budget upon which to reboot the series. The mummy’s tomb is a stony outcropping on a grassy hill that is obviously located somewhere in the Hollywood Hills, rather than somewhere in the Tunisian desert that it claims to be located. Some portions of the film look as if they could belong to an Ed Wood production.

The leads are a sort of Abbott and Costello pairing of Dick Foran and Wallace Ford. Foran tries to retain a fairly serious and stable demeanor, while Ford is the comic relief. It’s not a terrible approach and acts as a kind of distraction from the less impressive production values. Unfortunately, the movie never really gets its footing as a horror show. It’s a fun distraction at best, not one of the movies that helped to make the Universal monster series into an iconic catalog in cinematic history.

The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009) **
Director/Writer: Tom Six
Starring: Dieter Laser, Ashley Williams, Ashlynn Yennie, Akihiro Kitamura

“The Human Centipede (First Sequence)”, the first in a planned trilogy, has become one of the most controversial horror movies in recent years. It’s a controversy that has found new life as the second film “The Human Centipede (Full Sequence)” is about to be released in American cinemas. It won’t show up in a lot of American cinemas. It’s a German film, and after the reactions the first film received upon its release, I can’t imagine there is much demand for the second.

What people just can’t get past in this unique movie is its horror premise. It’s about a mad scientist who creates a human centipede by connecting people together at the mouth and anus, using the gastro-intestinal system as the shared organ of the new organism. This is disturbing, yes. It’s not an idea you really want to see, even if you enjoy depraved horror. But, there it is.

What’s interesting is that movie isn’t really all that bad as an entry into the forced imprisonment horror subgenre. The scientist, actually a surgeon here, is a true horror monster. As played by Deiter Laser, he is freakish in appearance and behavior to go along with his truly horrible desire to connect three human beings in the manner explained above. The direction is cold and tense. A good portion of the action involves an escape attempt by one of the victims. It’s well constructed, and provides a satisfying conclusion that makes you wonder just how they’re going to make two more movies out of the concept.

But, that very concept just sticks in your craw. The movie is as tasteful as it can be in depicting such a tasteless fate for three people. It covers all the uncomfortable necessities of such an arrangement, but tries not to dwell on them. Writer/director Tom Six realizes that the audience will dwell on them enough. That’s just the movie’s problem, though. There is no way to get past the facts of this human centipede condition. I could never recommend this movie for that very reason. I can appreciate it, however. You’d have to be a pretty heavily devoted horror fan to do that.

Best Worst Movie (2009) ***
Director/Writer: Michael Stephenson
Starring: George Hardy, Michael Stephenson, Jason Wright, Darren Ewing, Jason Steadman, Margo Prey, Connie Young, Claudio Fragasso, Rosella Drudi

During last year’s Horrorfest I watched a movie that has become known as the worst movie ever made. “Troll 2” was pretty bad, but I wouldn’t call it the worst movie ever made. I can see how many people would, however. I can also see why some people would latch onto it as a classic cult flick of the ilk of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. It is so gloriously bad that it could be fun to make a point to convert people to its horridness with midnight madness screenings and film club parties devoted to it.

“Troll 2” is the subject of the documentary “Best Worst Movie”, made by one of its stars. Too much of the doc focuses on the film’s worshipers. It would’ve been nice to see a little more on the critics and detractors against the film. I suspect they’d be easier to find. The greatest critics of the movie according to the doc, however, seem to be the people who starred in it. George Hardy, a dentist from Alabama who played the dad in the movie, is the film’s primary focus. The doc was made by the boy, now a man, who played the lead.  They’re horrified by their own involvement in the film, but are astounded to discover that so many people love them for their failings.

It’s hard to find too much fault with the doc because these people are actually very charming and fun to hang out with as they discover their infamy has turned into fame. It even begins to build my own affection for “Troll 2” itself. But, I was able to refrain from a second screening, for now.

Western of the Week

The Quick and the Undead (2006) *
Director/Writer: Gerald Nott
Starring: Clint Glenn, Nicola Giacobbe, Parrish Randall, Erin McCarthy, Dion Day, Jeff Swarthout

The ultra-indie horror western “The Quick and the Undead” was produced by Nott Entertainment. Writer-director-producer Gerald Nott should’ve considered longer the accuracy of his production company’s name before he settled on it. There is very little entertainment value to be found here. There will be some cult followers that liken it to the genius of “Troll 2”. It doesn’t have the charm of that one’s innocence. It does have a little more logical progression than that piece of horror misery, however.

The hero is a version of the Man with No Name, popularized by Clint Eastwood in the Italian westerns directed by Sergio Leone. The story similar to Louis L’Amour’s “The Quick and the Dead” involves the hero’s former gang betraying him and leaving him for dead, this time to be eaten by zombies. What they don’t know is that he’s long injected himself with the very virus that has caused the zombie apocalypse in which they live, making him immune to it. So he chases his old companions down for revenge.

Now, absurd as it sounds, this might make a good premise for a horror western. Unfortunately, an indie feature of this extremely limited budget cannot pull it off. Between the terrible production values and atrocious acting provided by all the friends and family Mr. Nott could gather and agree to put zombie make up on, the story just can’t survive; and the horror becomes like a zombie itself, on autopilot, surviving in an undead state that no longer has any appeal to the living.