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.

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