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. 

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