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.


Catherine said...

Wow. I'm impressed with the variety of movies reviewed. And appreciative! Hocus Pocus (for the 7 yr old), Scream (cause the honey & I love it) and Triangle (just b/c) will be added to our weekend film fest. Thanks!

Andrew D. Wells said...

Well, thank you, Catherine. It's always nice to hear some appreciation from the readers. I pride myself as a film critic who actually likes movies, even ones I don't necessarily recommend. With the amount of effort that goes into making them, they (almost) all deserve some credit. My Penny Thoughts usually provide a wide range of genres and varieties of film because I chose the films mostly by whim as I watch them. I hope I continue to impress you.

Likewise, I can't wait to follow your exploits in Italy.

I migliori auguri.