Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Exorcist

I didn't watch scary movies as a kid.  I think the first horror movie I ever watched was Scream; I was seventeen or so at the time, watching it at a friend's house, and I remember being very self-conscious about my reactions to the movie.  I didn't want to give myself away by shrieking like a little girl or wetting myself.  For some reason, I imagined horror movies as being genuinely disturbing, the very stuff of nightmares.  Obviously, I got over that presumption.  After a solid month of watching (and reviewing) nothing but (often awful) horror movies this month, I have finally come to the film that was, at one point, the highest grossing --- and some still say, the scariest --- film of all time, The Exorcist.  Will it live up to my childhood expectations for horror?  Let's find out.

Successful actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) has a tween daughter named Regan (Linda Blair).  Shortly after announcing that she has a new (invisible) friend in Mr. Howdy, Regan falls ill.  Not cough cough ill, but things flying around the room ill.  Despite exhibiting surprising strength, an ability to rock her entire bed while she's on it, and speaking in a croaking male voice during these incidents, doctors suspect some sort of brain cancer.  Because cancer makes girls talk like life-long smokers.  When modern medicine turns up nothing, Regan is taken to a psychiatrist.  No help there, but if Regan has thrice weekly visits for the next year, they suspect that perhaps they can improve "no help" to "next to no help."  However, around this time, Chris' director (Jack MacGowran) is found murdered outside the MacNeil home; when Chris checked on Regan, she was asleep, but her window was open to the bitter cold evening air.  Hmm...I wonder...?  When medicine for the body and brain both fail, Chris turns to the church.  Her Catholic priest, like the girl at your party that keeps doing the Mary Katherine Gallagher impression, is obviously flattered at being a third choice and is eager to help.  Unfortunately, this priest, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), is one of them new-fangled ones that has a psychology degree and might even be losing his own faith.  Father Damien doesn't believe that the Catholic church will allow him to perform an exorcism, and he is even less certain that it will do any good (except from a psychological perspective).  But he asks his bosses anyway, and is surprised that they agree to proceed, but a rookie like Damien cannot do it alone.  The church decides to team him up with one of their heavy hitters, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow).  The two approach Regan's exorcism just as (pea green) spit is about to hit the fan.  What does this film have in store for these do-gooders?  Projectile vomit of pea soup?  Of course.   Impossible physical feats?  Fo' sho'.  Creative vulgar insults?  Absolutely.  And smoking, every character smoking!

Director William Friedkin has built his career on the back-to-back successes that were The French Connection and The Exorcist, and deservedly so.  Friedkin's direction is apparent throughout the film.  He does a very good job composing visually attractive frames, particularly with the shot of Max von Sydow preparing to enter the MacNeil home, which would eventually become the movie poster.  The special effects are handled well (even better than in Poltergeist, released nine years later) and Linda Blair's make-up is fantastic.The acting is all very good, with Max von Sydow (who has looked 70 years old for the last 40 years) and Jason Miller managing to portray depth and poise from two characters that could easily have been ciphers.  Ellen Burstyn looks positively haggard as the film goes on, which is appropriate, but I felt that her character was a little too over-dramatic in the beginning of the film; yes, she's playing an actress, but even drama queens aren't as moody as she was portrayed.  Linda Blair does a pretty decent job, for a child actor, but I personally believe her character was too immature to be a twelve-year old.  Seriously, a twelve year-old with imaginary friends would get sent to the psychiatrist even without the supernatural powers.  Most of the other actors --- aside from the always reliable Lee J. Cobb --- were okay, but not particularly impressive.  Still, Bursyn, Blair, and Miller were all nominated for acting Oscars, and Friedkin was nominated for direction; all in all, the film was nominated for ten Oscars and took home Best Sound and Adapted Screenplay.  Not too shabby for a genre film.

Obviously, the film was well-made.  Did I like it? was okay.  I appreciated the way it was made more than I actually enjoyed the movie, though.  Does that indicate that the film has lost its edge over the years, or am I just jaded after seeing so many gory horror movies?  While it's true that a lot of time has passed since this film came out, and it is a film that suggests more than it shows, I think it still packs as much of a punch as ever.  There are some seriously disturbing scenes, particularly the violent masturbation scene and the first possession scene.  However, I was unimpressed with the classic pea soup vomit and Blair's head turning like it was on a lazy susan; they looked technically fine, but I thought they were the least frightening aspects of the possession.  So, I would argue that the film has aged pretty well and that the more explicit scenes were my least favorites.

The key to a film like this is that, since it is not aiming for brainless gore, it has to build the suspense.  Maybe I have just absorbed the basic plot elements through popular culture, but I was never curious as to what would happen next.  Despite the quality of the film-making, I was never frightened or uneasy (well, the needles and blood spurting at the hospital made me uncomfortable).  The story spends a lot of time getting to the exorcism because it's not a normal Catholic practice; because I knew basically how the story went, the build up to legitimize the act of exorcism felt unnecessary to me. Would this movie had been more effective if I was completely unaware of the storyline?  Probably.  Would it be more frightening if I were a Catholic, like the characters in the movie?  Again, probably; this movie didn't attack my beliefs as much as it did any chance of me eating pea soup. Is any of this the film's fault?  Well, that's debatable.  I think I will give the movie another try next Fall and see if it grows on me.  As it is, I can't argue quality work, even if I didn't particularly care for it.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

My Bloody Valentine (2009)

I considered waiting until Valentine's Day to review this one, but something in my gut told me I should check it out for my Month of Horror Reviews.  And if I was a character in this movie, my guts would then be pulled out by a pickaxe. 

If absolutely nothing else, this movie gets started quickly.  The back story is presented with a series of newspaper headlines and voice-overs.  Tom Hanniger (Jensen Ackles), whose father owns Hanniger Mines, where he works, forgot to "bleed the line" before leaving work one Valentine's Day.  What does that mean?  Well, I'll tell you because the movie chooses not to bother; it basically means that he failed to vent the natural gas out of the mine, which means that a dangerous amount of gas built up.  The thing about natural gas is that it likes to go boom.  Boom it went, the mine had a cave-in, and six miners were trapped for days.  Only one man, Harry Warden, was rescued; the rest were found with pickaxe wounds in their heads.  Harry, who was discovered comatose, was sent to a hospital to recover (or not) and stand trial (or not).  I mean, maybe the axe wounds were self-inflicted, like with Elliott Smith.  Anyway, Tom was responsible for a cave-in, but also got the blame from locals for the work of Harry because the locals were irrational.

Fast forward one year, and it's Valentine's Day once again.  After being comatose for a year, Harry Warden awakes, feeling refreshed and apparently not suffering at all from muscle atrophy.  He proceeds to kill everyone he encounters in the hospital, cutting some in half and removing the heart from one victim.  Because he's a sweetheart, he places the heart in a heart-shaped box of chocolates and draws hearts on the hospital walls in blood.  Aww!  Meanwhile, Tom and his girlfriend, Sarah (Jaime King), decide to attend a kegger at the mine shaft where the cave-in occurred.  It's not like the mine is abandoned or anything; it's just closed for the night.  So, I guess kids are stupid.  Tom is understandably uncomfortable and makes an excuse to take an extra couple of minutes before entering; Sarah enters with Axel (Kerr Smith) and Irene (Betsy Rue).  In the mine shaft, the newcomers find a bunch of dead bodies and Harry Warden, dressed in full-on mining gear and carrying a bloody pickaxe.  These three manage to escape, but Harry chases them; Tom happens to be entering the mine as his three friends are skedaddling, so he was unprepared for Harry to show up and attack him.  Tom survives, but his friends drive away to safety and he is forced to run deeper into the mine to avoid Harry.  Just when it looks like Harry will kill Tom, though, Sheriff Burke (Tom Atkins) arrives to shoot Harry and save Tom.  Harry didn't die, but he scampered into the mine and was presumably trapped in another cave-in.

Not a bad movie, right?  Well, that's just the first fifteen minutes.  That's how the entire movie goes, though; it feels very compressed, like they're trying to fit fifteen gallons of plot into a five gallon movie.  Well, fast forward (again) and it's Valentine's Day (again) ten years later.  Remarkably, the characters haven't aged much; Axel grew a beard, Tom stopped wearing a baseball hat, and Sarah took her hair out of a ponytail.  Basically, Tom's dad has died recently and Tom returns to Harmony to sign some paperwork that will finalize his sale of the mine.  That's right, this is a horror movie that takes place in Harmony.  I don't have a problem with optimistically titled horror movie towns (after all, who would want to live in Depression Village or Darkness Falls?), but it is a pretty tired convention.  Anyway, Tom's going to sell the mine (because he hates it, with good reason), and that upsets the townsfolk because the mine is the town's chief employer.  Tom's been out of town ever since the last Valentine's Day "incident," so he is mildly surprised to find that Sarah and Axel are now Mr. and Mrs. Axel, and that Axel is now the sheriff.  Axel's not a particularly good guy, though.  Aside from making some completely arbitrary decisions about who should leave town (a la Brian Dennehy in First Blood), he has been cheating on his wife with a younger woman (Megan Boone) and --- oopsie! --- just found out that he got his mistress pregnant.  I'm sure you will be shocked to learn that, after a ten year gap, Harry Warden returns and picks up where he left off --- killing people with a pickaxe, dressed in full mining gear.  But...didn't Harry die ten years ago?  And...what has Tom been doing all this time?  And...isn't Axel acting awfully suspicious?  Repeat those questions in turn every few minutes for another hour and half, and you've got a pretty good picture of how this movie works.

Let's start with some positive comments.  Many people died in this movie, which is usually a good thing for a slasher film.  I counted a total of twenty-seven kills in the extended prologue, but only three of those were on-camera.  However, one of those was my favorite kill in the movie --- I have to give props to the awesome shovel-to-the-face death.  It made me giggle.  The rest of the movie has nine more kills, which is still a respectable number.  The best of those involved a little person getting a pickaxe uppercut and ending up hanging from the ceiling.  The gore is pretty solid, too.  This movie also has a lot (a lot) of nudity, but it's not what you think.  Instead of being three or four random naughty teens, it is one extended sequence with one actress.  Poor Betsy Rue spent ten minutes completely nude and completely visible as her character had sex, got in a fight, ran for her life, hid under a bed, got murdered, played a naked corpse, and then had the sex replayed from a video camera by the police.  Normally, horror movie nudity makes me offer up double high fives, but this was just so very, very much.  And yes, she's kind of funny looking.  Still, in terms of sex and violence, this movie definitely delivered.

But then there's everything else.  The plot doesn't really work.  They figure out that Harry Warden has been dead for ten years, so the new killer is just a copycat.  The only two characters that would make any sense as the killer both have several scenes that make them illogical suspects, but logic doesn't get in the way of one of them turning out to be the killer anyway.  SPOILER ALERT: Okay, so Tom ends up being the killer, unbeknownst to him.  He has mental problems that give him a split personality (or something) that assumes the identity of Harry Warden.  Or maybe he's possessed by Harry Warden.  Whatever.  But he has drugs for his mental problems, and he can be seen taking the drugs, oftentimes just before a murder occurs.  So...his anti-psychotic pills help him murder people?  Maybe he needs to get his prescription adjusted.  And, with Tom as the villain, that means that Axel is the hero.  So we're supposed to root for the adulterous jerk cop that is jealous and overprotective of the wife he doesn't touch?  I think I'll pass.   And you know how the killer reveals himself?  By being sloppy.  You know the old how-did-you-know-such-and-such, you-told-me-blah-blah, no-I-didn't exchange that has been done to death in horror and suspense movies?  Yeah, it's done worse here.

The acting is not particularly good, but it's not terrible.  Jensen Ackles has some pretty good moments when he's trying to be charming, but he falls short in the key dramatic scenes.  Kerr Smith needs to stop acting.  Seriously.  His presence makes any film automatically a B-movie.  Jamie King is okay, I guess, as the heroine, but I got tired of her scared voice after only a few minutes; she sounded legitimately frightened, which is good, but it's the sort of frightened where you wish someone would give her the 1950s snap-out-of-it slap to the face.  Edi Gathegi was decent in his small role.  Betsy Rue was, um, very naked and apparently comfortable with her body image, so good for her.  I liked seeing some veteran actors in supporting roles, including Kevin Tighe (owner of the Double Deuce!), who spent his last scene using a voice that was supposed to indicate drunkenness, but instead just sounded like Ronald Reagan.  Director Patrick Lussier did a good job filming the violence and gore in this movie and I can tell, even from my standard-definition viewing of the film, that he threw in a lot of special effects for the 3-D version (this movie is also referred to as My Bloody Valentine 3-D).  I particularly liked a scene with the final confrontation with the killer, where he had the killer (whose identity was now known) replaced for a few frames with an image of Harry Warden.  It's too bad that Lussier does such a poor job with his actors.

I wanted to like this movie, but the plot was just way too convoluted.  It's supposed to have a twist, or at least a mystery, but there is no suspense.  So you know that the mystery is going to be revealed, and you're waiting for it, and then it turns out to be even more ridiculous that the rest of the film.  You know what would have been a better movie?  If they had stretched out the first fifteen minutes into the entire film.  There's no mystery, sure, so it's just a standard slasher pic, but this movie is not art, so who cares?  And then we would have gotten to actually see Harry Warden at work, which would have been pretty sweet because I still can't figure out how he cut people in the hospital, after he awoke from his coma.  That, I would have enjoyed.  This?  Not so much. 

Friday, October 29, 2010

Halloween II (1981)

What does Skelepumpkin have to do with Michael Myers?
The original Halloween is a classic horror film, so it's not surprising that the movie's villain was brought back for another round.  What is surprising is that it took three years for it to happen.  But how to make a sequel that doesn't immediately fall short of the original?  Apparently, the answer is to have the sequel pick up at the instant that the original left off.

Halloween ended with Michael Myers giving the murder of poor Laurie Stroad (Jamie Lee Curtis) the good ol' college try; he never gave up hope, even after a stab wound to the neck, a stab wound in the eye, and a stab wound in the chest.  When Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) shows up and unloads six bullets into him, well...that's a persuasive argument to take a break from the Laurie Stroad project.  After being shot, Michael falls out of a second story window and lands on the ground.  However, when Dr. Loomis looks down, Michael has vanished.  He didn't go very far.  About a block away, Michael heals his wounds the best way he knows how: by stabbing some elderly people with a kitchen knife.  And then he goes after their teenage neighbor, for some reason.  Meanwhile, Dr. Loomis and the police scour the town, looking for Michael.  They eventually find someone matching his costume (really?  Who wears a William Shatner mask painted white with coveralls before Michael Myers was famous?), but he runs for some reason, gets hit by a police car and slammed into a van, which explodes, and he silently burns to death.  That is good enough for the police, but Dr. Loomis needs more proof that Michael is dead.  If only he knew where to find Michael!

Meanwhile, Laurie was taken to the hospital to treat her injuries from the first film.  The hospital has about six people working on Halloween night, which sounds a little short-staffed to me, but I'm not in charge of scheduling shifts at fictitious medical centers.  Laurie spends a good deal of the movie drifting into and out of consciousness, flashing back to her childhood, where she learns that she's adopted and she meets a quiet older boy...somewhere.  Michael figures out where Laurie is, so he hoofs it to the hospital and starts killing his way through the staff.  Will Laurie wake up in time to save herself?  Will Dr. Loomis figure out what Michael will do next?  Why does Michael keep picking on Laurie?  The answers to all these questions and more await you in...Halloween II!

First, the bad news.  Halloween II is nowhere near as good as the original.  The main reason for this is the change of directors; John Carpenter did co-write the script with the original film's other writer, Debra Hill, and he did go back and re-shoot some of the kill scenes to amp up the gore.  Having input into the film is not the same as directing it, though, and his absence is felt.  Rick Rosenthal took over the role of director, and he does his best to follow in the footsteps of Halloween.  This is his first time directing, though, and it shows.  The POV shots are not handled as well and the acting is much worse this time around.

Actually, I take that back.  The acting isn't terrible, it just doesn't use the best assets in the film.  Jamie Lee Curtis is sleeping for most of the movie (so she couldn't utilize her famous scream) and Donald Pleasence spends waaaay too much time bossing the police around.  No, the problem is that the characters got infected with a serious case of stupiditis.  Examples?
  • "Damn you for letting him go, doctor!"  Uh, Myers escaped.  And this doctor spent all day trying to convince you that Myers was a danger.
  • A nurse can't work a walkie talkie, even with brief instructions.
  • An EMT can enter a room with blood covering the floor, but the second he realizes that there's blood on the floor, he slips and knocks himself out.  He's not Wile E. Coyote; he's a guy who should probably have shoes designed not to slip.
  • Michael kills a (naked) nurse by scalding her to death.  Kind of lame, but kind of awesome.  But his hand that keeps her face in the water doesn't get scalded.
  •  Why doesn't the Haddonfield police have an officer guarding Laurie?  She is the only surviving victim of a killer that is still at large, you know.
There's more than that, but when every character does something dumb, it gets tiresome to list every example.

The music in this film is very different from the first, as well.  The main themes return, but they have been affected by 80s synthesizers and sound tinnier.  And crappier.  Those themes aren't used much, though.  Instead, some generic horror score is provided and "Mr. Sandman" (Yeeeeeessss?  Bring them a dream) by the Chordettes opens and closes the film.  Um.  Okay.  Weird.  I guess Laurie is asleep for most of the movie, but...huh...that's just a bewildering musical choice.

The movie is not all bad, though.  In an attempt to compete with other slasher movies, there are more kills, more gore and more nudity this time around.  The kills are usually pretty cool.  This is the earliest movie I have seen a hypodermic needle to the eye kill someone.  Michael proves to be creative, too, by draining the blood of one victim, scalding another, and just having fun with the rest.  The body count in the first film was five.  I counted fifteen this time.  As a standard slasher film, this is a respectable movie.

As the sequel to an awesome slasher movie, it falls short.  The changes made from movie to movie make sense, for the most part, but I think this film was dumbed down to compete with lower quality films.  I had several small but serious gripes when watching the movie.  First, Myers' mask has more detail; I thought the pure white of the first film's mask was scarier.  Michael takes a ridiculous amount of damage without dying, even if you don't count the first movie; if you do count the first film, he survived eleven gunshot wounds, a knife wound, a needle to the neck, a wire to the eye, a two story fall and then --- after all that --- he gets shot in each eye and keeps fighting.  Seriously, what the hell.  Perhaps my biggest problem with the movie is that they answer why Michael is chasing Laurie.  One of the most frightening things about the first movie was the randomness of his obsession, but if he has a reason then he has a logic that can be understood, and you don't fear (as much) what you understand.  And, in the first movie, Michael primarily killed those that he knew Laurie cared for.  This time, it seems to be some (but not all) of the people he meets.  I just liked it better when I didn't know why or who he would kill.  Now, I feel reasonably assured that I would survive a trip to Haddonfield, Illinois, and "assured" isn't a feeling I like to have after watching horror flicks.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Paranormal Activity

I don't usually catch horror movies in theaters.  This is partly because I go to the movies with my wife and she's a horror wuss, and partly because I'm not a huge fan of listening to teenagers explaining the movie to each other.  That is why, despite the ridiculous amount of success that Paranormal Activity had last year, I had not watched the movie until just recently.

The set-up is pretty basic.  Katie (Katie Featherston) lives with her boyfriend, Micah (Micah Sloat), in a pretty nice house.  Katie insists that she is being haunted by a ghost or something; she hears things in the night, finds items moved in the morning, and has even heard something whisper her name in the dark.  Micah is less convinced, but he's committed to being halfway supportive of his woman.  You gotta admire the man's half-assed support.  Katie consults with a psychic, who is pretty confident that Katie does not have a ghost problem.  She has a demon problem.  That sucks, right?  The psychic doesn't know how to help with demons, so he recommends they consult a demonologist friend of his ASAP and, in the meantime, don't piss off the demon.  Sounds pretty reasonable.  Micah is not buying any of that psychic mumbo jumbo, though, and convinces Katie to let him handle things himself.  Micah had already purchased a high-end video camera to record their days and a digital audio recorder to catch subtle noises in the night, and he throws himself into finding any signs of X-Files-type stuff.  Step one is mounting the camera on a tripod to record the night's happenings.  Step two is ***muble mumble mumble*** and step three is, of course, profit.  At first, it's pretty minor stuff, like some bumps in the night, or a door opening and closing itself by a few inches in the dead of night.  The more Micah finds, the more he wants to find, so he starts heckling the demon.  Remember what the psychic said about angering that thing?  Kids, don't do as Donnie Don't does.

The first thing you will notice about this movie is the hand-held camera work.  Don't worry, it's not like that the entire time.  In fact, most of the big action scenes happen at night, when the camera is mounted on a tripod while they sleep, so you don't have to worry about any Blair Witch-style motion sickness.  I'm not always a fan of movies that aim for a documentary feel to them, but writer/director Oren Peli makes good use of the style here.  I liked the camera's footage during the nighttime hours; when nothing was going on, the footage would go into fast forward, but when something was going to happen, time slowed back down.  Since a lot of the demon's work was quiet noises or small movements, I found myself leaning forward, paying special attention to those scenes.  Of course, that left me wide open for a jolt when the sound or whatever was loud and sudden.  The build-up for these scenes is pretty good, so these little scares don't feel cheap, as they often do in slasher movies ("Oh, it's just the cat" KNIFE IN THE FACE!).

There is one obstacle to enjoying this film.  That would be Micah.  Man, is his character annoying.  Micah the actor is fine, I guess, but the character is is a size 14 asshat, and that's pretty huge in hat sizes.  Has he never seen a horror movie before?  "Oh, I've got proof that something supernatural is going on around me.  I better taunt it and challenge it to fight me."  It's like this, kids, even if you don't believe that Jason Voorhies can rise from the grave and murder you, you still don't go to camp Crystal Lake to have premarital sex and take drugs.  Seriously, everything bad that happens in this movie is so obviously Micah's fault because it is all caused by him being douchey.  The fact that Katie lives with him makes her less likable, too, and (aside from dating Micah) she is one of the most reasonable female leads I have ever seen in a horror movie.

Look, if you try at all, you will be able to predict where the plot is heading.  This movie isn't going to scare everyone, and I totally understand anyone who tires of the film because Micah's an idiot.  I did jump when the movie wanted me to, though.  I watched the movie alone in the dark and then went straight to bed and, I'll admit it, I spent a few minutes being creeped out by the noises in my home.  Of course, then I realized that I was freaking myself out and got over it, because I'm a man.  It is what it is (at its core, a pretty standard haunting movie), but it's a very good example of what it is (I just told you what).  If haunting-type movies freak you out, then this movie should do the trick.  If you're more into gory movies or psychological thrillers, then you might want to take a pass.  Personally, I'm not a big fan of haunting movies, but I thought this was pretty solid.  If half of the characters weren't terminally stupid and annoying, then this might be a classic.  But man, that Micah is dumb.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

An American Werewolf in London

It's easy to forget that director John Landis is still alive.  After a string of truly fantastic work, his production fell off sharply, with the hits becoming smaller and the jobs seemingly getting harder to come by (presumably because of his involvement in The Twilight Zone fatal accidents).  Nowadays, he directs odd television episodes, but that's about it.  An American Werewolf in London was made during his string of hits, but it doesn't bear much similarity to his more famous comedies.  If you watch this movie with the assumption that it will rival Kentucky Fried Movie's slapstick or The Blues Brothers' all-around awesomeness, you're going to be pretty disappointed.  However, if you look at this as the horror film from the director of Michael Jackson's Thriller, then I think you'll be in the right mindset for this movie.

The story begins with two American students walking through the moors of England on a cold and wet night.  They agree to take refuge at the first pub they come across; the pub they find is called the The Slaughtered Lamb.  Inside, they find locals unused to travelers.  When the boys try to make small talk and ask about a pentagram on the wall of the pub, the room gets silent and they are more or less forced out of the building.  They are given the cryptic advice to stay on the road, off the moors, and to beware the moon.  Some of the patrons are glad to be rid of the boys, but the matron bartender is distraught that the boys are out on the moors during the full moon.  Soon enough, the boys are walking and talking, trying to find the next town, when they hear a terrifying howl.  They then notice that the moon is full.  And they have accidentally left the road and are lost on the moors.  Well, they were warned.  Sure enough, they are attacked by a savage beast; Jack (Griffin Dunne) is torn to pieces, but the Slaughtered Lamb patrons kill the beast before it can do more than bite and scratch David (David Naughton).  Before David passes out, he sees a naked old man dead next to him.

It's a werewolf story, what do you want?  You know what's going to happen next.  Somebody's going to tell David that he was bitten by a werewolf, which makes him a werewolf.  David isn't going to believe that, because it sounds crazy.  And, at the next full moon, David will transform into a werewolf and kill people and/or animals.  An American Werewolf in London mixes things up a bit, though.  By setting the story in modern times, the Gothic horror and superstitious element that are usually included in werewolf tales is gone.  Instead, David is treated by doctors and nurses, who assume he has some sort of post-traumatic stress syndrome (which I know I would have, in his place).  A love interest is also added to the story in the form of his nurse, Alex (Jenny Agutter), who lets him move into her apartment after being discharged from the hospital; normally, werewolf love interests tend to be virginal women with an implied, but not lusty, relationship with the wolf.  The biggest change to the formula is definitely the person who tells David that he's a werewolf.  David sees the mangled corpses of his victims, starting with his buddy Jack; Jack and all of the werewolf's victims are wandering around in a state of limbo, trapped between heaven and hell.  Jack's advice to David is to commit suicide and release all the innocent victims to their destined afterlives.

Obviously, this is a fresh take on the werewolf movie, and it is a welcome change.  Setting the film in modern day England allows the characters to be sarcastic and occasionally funny, something rare in most over-serious werewolf movies.  This also allows the actors a little more range.  Instead of just being a tragic figure, David Naughton is allowed to be charming and romantic, as well as a tortured monster.  Griffin Dunne does a great job in a difficult role; he manages to be sympathetic and funny, despite having the goal of convincing David to kill himself.  Jenny Agutter is pretty good, too, as a well-meaning woman that has no idea what she's gotten into.

The real star of the show, though, is the special effects.  The work done to Jack throughout is fantastic.  When he first shows up as a talking corpse, he looks pretty awesome.  In most movies, this would be the special effects scene you would be talking about.  But, in each successive appearance in the film, his body continues to rot, giving him a progressively more shocking appearance each time.  He's not the only one, though.  All the victims look awesomely gory, and they all come back to haunt David, although some are more polite than others.  This movie was made in 1981, so the effects are entirely done with make-up and prosthetics; the scenes where David transforms are obviously done with a lot of special effects.  These scenes don't look particularly realistic, but they are obviously high quality.  Despite the movie's age, I would put these effects at least on par with the recent Wolfman remake.  It's also nice to see that, in wolf form, David looks like a scary beast.

This movie isn't really scary, but it is definitely gory.  I liked the little touches of humor throughout and like the modern twist on this classic tale.  The soundtrack shows some dark humor, with tracks like "Blue Moon," "Bad Moon Rising" and "Moondance," but I was disappointed that "Werewolves of London" was not included.  Yes, it's obvious, but it's still awesome.  And his hair was perfect.  The humor doesn't detract from the grimness of the tale, with David's death seeming to be the only possible ending to the tale.  While I haven't done extensive research in the werewolf film sub-genre, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this is the most entertaining werewolf movie of the past thirty years.

For more opinions on Landis' work, check out the link to some LAMB reviews:
Large Association of Movie Blogs

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

When I was told by a friend that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was a good movie, I was pretty skeptical.  It stars Michael Rooker, for Pete's sake (and, of course, I am referring to the Disney Pete), a man who had a brief period in the early 90s where he was cast in small supporting roles, but since then has been in mostly direct-to-DVD fodder.  "But who else is in the movie, Brian?"  No one.  This is a Michael Rooker vehicle, all the way.  Despite this glaring flaw, the movie received almost universally good reviews when it was eventually released in 1990 (it was filmed in 1986).  So, how does a moderately talentless actor carry an independent film into the good graces of every critic?

The movie starts out slowly.  The first scene has Henry (Rooker) driving around, doing his thing, with several still shots of murder scenes interspersed; these aren't quick shots, meant to startle you, but slow zoom outs that show dead bodies.  The murder scenes only show the "after" part of the murder, but the soundtrack switches to sounds of women screaming and struggling against an attacker.  Obviously, it is implied that Henry is the (serial) killer.  Henry shares an apartment with his friend Otis (Tom Towles), whose sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), has just moved in with them.  Becky is clearly attracted to Henry, who is kind and gentlemanly to her, but gets nervous whenever she pays too much attention to him.  Becky learns from Otis that he met Henry is prison; Henry was in for murdering his mother.  Becky doesn't believe it and eventually asks Henry about it.  Henry confirms that he killed his mother for being a mean whore, but he changes the murder weapon each time he summarizes the story.  Hmm...interesting.  For a while, the movie continues like this, with Henry doing his thing and murder scenes being sprinkled in every so often.

After about half an hour of this, Henry and Otis decide to pick up some hookers and do their business in Henry's car.  Henry suddenly starts choking his date and kills her.  Before Otis or the other prostitute can react, Henry lunges over the car seat and breaks the neck of Otis' date.  The two men dump the bodies outside the car and drive away.  Now, if I was Otis*, I would have freaked the hell out.  Maybe I would have kept a calm exterior (I certainly don't want to share in the state of being murdered), but my insides would be waiting for the opportune time to piss and crap my pants.  Henry takes Otis to McDonald's, though, and some fries seem to calm him down considerably.  It isn't that Otis has never killed before (um, okay, now I have a new first question for any future roommates), but this wasn't self-defense.  Henry tells Otis that it's them against the world, so it's always self-defense.

Henry then takes Otis on as his serial killing apprentice.  He teaches him to change his modus operandi from victim to victim, so the police can't detect a pattern.  The two start sharing murder victims, either out of spur-of-the-moment rage, or with careful planning.  It is these scenes that give the film its disturbing tone and well-earned reputation.

This story is loosely based on the confessions of Henry Lee Lucas, who was at one time believed to be the most prolific serial killer ever, with anywhere from 14 to 600 possible victims attributed to him (most of his confessions have since come under scrutiny).  Despite the real-world basis for the movie, the lack of a dramatic arc (which adds to the "real life" feel) and the documentary tone of the movie (caused, in part, by the cheap camera) --- all of which make the actions in this film seem disturbingly plausible --- what bothered me most was killer's approach to murder.  Henry kills in a fashion similar to how I rent movies.  He knows that he likes to do it and, whenever one catches his eye, he makes the time to take care of business.  Very nonchalant and rarely with fore-planning, and he always seems perfectly calm until he attacks. 

That attitude is present in the entire film.  With Henry's seemingly random taste in victims, it quickly becomes apparent that anyone can be his prey, for any reason.  That's scary enough, but when he is paired with Otis, things get worse.  Otis takes joy in killing like a child takes joy in going to Dairy Queen.  At one point, Henry and Otis team up to murder a family; it's all fun and games until someone almost escapes, which causes Henry to get businesslike with his killing.  They videotaped the act and watched it afterward; when it was over, Otis rewound it to watch it again.  At no point is any of this enjoyable to watch.  This isn't a movie that you're going to want to share with your friends.  This is a draining experience, made more so by the randomness of the victims..

There are a lot of things to like in this movie.  The acting and directing, while not amazing, are perfect for this film.  Director John McNaughton (who directed Wild Things's pretty much it) obviously made many of his choices thanks to a very low budget, but it worked out for the best.  Most of the murders are done off-screen, without interrupting the story.  That allows the sheer number of victims to overwhelm the viewer and saves time and money from the shooting schedule.  The violence that is shown on screen seems pretty realistic, although not terribly gory --- they save the gore for the climactic kill, which is very, very bloody.  The documentary tone of the film adds to the sense of realism, which is ultimately the reason this movie is so disturbing.  I particularly liked how there were some little unexplained things here and there, nothing important enough to distract you from the movie, but things that normal movies would explain.  The most obvious example of this is Henry's explanation of his mother's murder; I imagine that he mixes up his method for killing her because he pictures her when he kills most of his victims, but that is just my own speculation.  The story never returns to that point.

Against all odds, I was very impressed by Michael Rooker's acting in this movie.  It wasn't just his matter-of-fact killings, though.  I liked his interactions with Becky, too.  He was awkward when she showed him affection, gallant when responding to Otis' rudeness, and clearly not listening to a word she said when she tried to converse with him; at one point, Becky confesses her love for Henry and his response is a distracted, "I guess I love you, too."  Least convincing "I love you" ever.  Tom Towles was also very convincing as the gleefully morbid Otis.  In many ways, he was more disturbing than Henry, which is quite an accomplishment.  As for Tracy Arnold's portrayal of Becky...well, the movie's not really about her, so it doesn't matter.

Again, I have to stress that this is not a movie to watch for a fun time.  This is a slow-moving film that does a great job of capturing some eerily plausible killers and their attitudes.  This isn't a move for people looking for cheap scares or gore, either.  This is a movie that makes you sit quietly for a few moments after finishing.  For what it is, though, it is certainly effective.  I would have preferred a more distinct dramatic arc to give the story a more defined plot, but it was effective despite that lack.  I'm glad that I watched it, but I have no plans to see it again.

* I'm not Otis, though.  I don't pick up street walkers.  And even if I did, I wouldn't feel comfortable getting my money's worth in a well-lit alley.  And even if I was comfortable with that, I wouldn't want to do it in my car, which I would then have to clean.  And even if I was okay with hookers, the alley, and the car, I certainly would prefer a private experience over one I would share with my roommate.  Fine.  Call me a prude.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Unborn (Unrated)

Sometimes you watch a movie because it stars an actor that you like.  Sometimes, you're a fan of the director.  Big film buffs (like me) will even choose films because of the writer.  It is unusual for a movie to use the writer as a big selling point for a movie, though.  The writer/director of The Unborn happens to be David S. Goyer, whose writing credits include Dark City, the Blade trilogy, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and, uh, Kickboxer 2: The Road Back.  That's a pretty impressive list of credits.  The Unborn also features actor's actor Gary Oldman and Idris Elba in the supporting cast.  This is definitely a film with promise.

But before I go into the plot, I would like to point out the promotional poster for the movie.  Judging from that image, I would assume that the plot of The Unborn is heavily involved in female butts.  Perhaps this is a supernatural thriller about an entity that has one of those FoodSaver vacuum sealers, only instead of vacuum sealing food pouches, it sucks the air out of panties.  And that creepy kid in the mirror is like, "Hey, that can't possibly be comfortable, lady."  Or maybe later, he asks, "If you fart in vacuum sealed underwear, is that smell kept fresh?"  Yeah, I feel pretty safe assuming that this movie's story follows something along those lines.

The film opens with Casey (Odette Yustman) jogging down a road, when she sees a blue glove in the road.  When she stops to look at the glove, the movie takes a brief detour into my favorite string of commercials.  Look at the glove.  Now at me.  Now, look behind you; there is a creepy and possibly dead child staring at you.  Look again; he has become a dog wearing a mask.  Look down, now up; where is the dog?  He is gone, but you hear him scampering in the woods.  Follow the dog, find the mask, dig under the mask and you find...a fetus in amber.  And it's looking at you.  And all this time, you have kept your iPod earbuds in.  Anything is possible when you smell like Old Spice.  Or when, in Casey's case, you are dreaming.

Yeah, it's a dream.  Too bad, since that scene was decently creepy.  The film then cuts to Casey discussing her dream over the phone with her friend Romy (Meagan Good), who reads from her Psych 101 textbook and tells Casey that dreaming about dogs can mean something about death.  I bet that doesn't foreshadow anything.  Casey goes to check on the baby that she's sitting and finds the infant's four year-old brother, Matty (Atticus Shaffer), holding a small mirror up to the baby, trying to get it to look at itself.  When Casey asks Matty what he's doing, he surprises her by smashing the mirror into her face (HA!) and telling her "Jumby wants to be born now."  That doesn't seem so bad; that poor genie has been a disembodied head since the 80s.  Mecca lecca hi, mecca hiney ho, right? Oh, wait, that's Jambi.  Never mind.  For a while after this, Casey starts hallucinating all sorts of things, like seeing the phrase "Jumby wants to be born now" and the dead kid.  She handles these images in stride, offering just a quizzical tilt of the head.  But when her hallucinations start to include bugs, GET OUT OF HER WAY.  Bugs?  Game over, man, game over.

About this time, one of Casey's eyes starts to change color, from blue to brown.  Like a smart lady, she gets it checked out; her doctor (CS Lee) asks if she was a twin.  Apparently, she's not sure, so she asks her father (James Remar), who tells her that, yes, she had a twin in the womb, but her brother choked on her umbilical cord early in the pregnancy.  Did he have a name?  I knew you'd ask that.  The answer is no, since it was so early, but they did have a pet name for him: Jumby.  That's right.  Casey was damn lucky to get named "Casey" and not, say, "Fu Schnickens."  Okay, so dead baby brother wants to haunt his big sis/murderer.  Not a bad premise.  Apparently, that was not nearly enough plot on David S. Goyer's proverbial dinner plate.  The second half of the movie ties into Auschwitz (the concentration camp, not the theme park), Nazi medical experiments, Jewish mysticism (specifically Kabbalah), and exorcism.  What the hell, Goyer?

As you might imagine from the plot vomit, this movie is a mess.  There is way too much exposition in this film and none of it get more than a few moments to sink in.  To be fair, the awesomely overcomplicated plot does try to distract viewers from the main actors' talents.  Specifically, Odette Yustman is better off playing that girl in Transformers whose car attacks her than an actual character with dialogue and alleged depth.  The best thing she did in this movie was allow somebody to airbrush her underwear on for the promo poster.  Her fellow actors are no big help; Meagan Good and Cam Gigandet (Casey's boyfriend) are just as vapid as she is.  That's too bad, since the adult supporting cast consists of solid actors who don't have the opportunity to shine.  Gary Oldman is pretty decent, but his role is not extraordinary.  Idris Elba, James Remar, and Jane Alexander all make brief appearances, but none of them are memorable.  I will give writer/director Goyer credit that the movie does maintain a decent pace through this breakneck plot.  He needed to spend more time on his principal actors, because they were, without exception, dreadful.

That's too bad, because this movie had a lot going for it.  Like what?  Oh, lots.
  • The script has plenty of hep sexual dialogue that is not awkward at all.  I love to hear characters reference their "wood" and "disease filled vagina," especially when the characters are not in raunchy comedies.
  • All the college age characters attend the same university, and yet all of them live with their parents.  Really?
  • When women are home alone, in an obviously chilly house, their comfy clothes are always paper-thin tank tops and tighty whities. 
  • After hallucinating in a club, running to the bathroom and vomiting in a stall, does Casey take the opportunity to peer into her stall's glory hole?  Of course she does.
  • Little known fact: Odette Yustman is Megan Fox's long-long, less talented sister.

What utter garbage.  I will give Gary Oldman and Idris Elba credit for pretending that they were in a legitimate exorcism movie, but that is nowhere near what this movie needed to not be awful.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Child's Play

It can be interesting when you go back to the beginning of any movie series.  For instance, the first Friday the 13th didn't have Jason Voorhies as the killer, Freddy Kreuger wasn't always making corny jokes, and Death Wish was a movie trying to make a point about a complex social issue.  I know!  I didn't believe any of that either, but it's all true!  I never watched the Child's Play movies as a kid, catching only the Ronny Yu-directed Bride of Chucky and Seed of Chucky as an adult.  Not bad movies, I guess, but they certainly contain more goofiness than actual scares.  I was prepared for more along that vein, but was surprised to find that the original Child's Play actually tried to be a traditional horror film.  Who'd a thunk it?

The film opens with a police officer, Detective Norris (Chris Sarandon), chasing a suspect, Charles Lee Ray (Brad Douriff) on foot through a city.  Ray is suspected of being the Lakeshore Strangler, which I would assume would be a loner activity, but apparently not; he had a getaway driver that got spooked by Ray's street-level shoot-out and left him behind.  Suffering from a nasty bullet wound and with no ride, Ray enters a closed toy store, finds a display of Good Guy dolls, and chants some sort of voodoo curse or something.  Norris follows Ray into the store, but before he can arrest or kill Ray, the store is struck by lightning.  You might not know this, but toy stores are very volatile structures, which is why the store exploded.  Norris was spared, but Ray was a charred mess.

Karen (Catherine Hicks, the mom from the last fifty-six seasons of 7th Heaven) is a single mother who works in a department store and doesn't have the money for her son's biggest birthday wish, a Good Guy doll.  These things are super sweet; they respond to your voice and have, like, twelve different things they can say!  They blink and move their mouth and are about three feet tall and are absolutely nothing like a My Buddy doll (those things are so lame!), oh puh-leeeeze Mom, can I have one, ohcanicanicanicani???  They're not creepy at all!  Well, these super-sweet toys cost $100 and that's outside of Karen's budget.  However, a homeless guy on the street has a Good Guy doll in an unopened box that he's willing to sell for a song.  Being a good mother (who will probably disinfect the box before giving it to her son), Karen buys the doll, assuring her son's happy birthday.

Karen's son, Andy (Alex Vincent), loves the doll so much that he barely cares that his mother has to pull a night shift on his birthday.  Andy and Chucky (the doll told Andy its name) end up being baby-sat by Karen's friend, Maggie (Dinah Manoff), who is so rude that she sends Andy and Chucky to bed, even though Andy tells her that Chucky really wants to watch the 9 o'clock news.  This is a horror movie, so such rudeness cannot go unpunished; she gets hit in the head by a hammer and falls out the kitchen window, to her death.  The assailant was not shown on camera.  When the police arrive, Detective Norris handles the case and assumes --- from some pretty good circumstantial evidence --- that Andy killed Maggie.  This freaks out Karen, but not enough to actually believe her son's claims that Chucky walks, talks, and sometimes kills.

SPOILER ALERT: I'm going to go ahead and assume that you are aware that Chucky is the murderer.  He's only been in five movies and it's not like the promotional posters ever gave you a hint that the doll is a killer, so I don't want to ruin the suspense for you.  And the suspense is over at about...oh, the thirty minute mark of the movie.  From that point on, Chucky is on the loose, killing whoever he can reach with his doll hands and trying to use voodoo to leave his body and take over Andy's.  Does it work?  I don't want to ruin the ending for you, but the presence of numerous sequels should give you a hint.

The funny thing about this movie is that it actually makes you wonder who the killer is at first.  The movie's called Child's Play, after all, so it's feasible that the child has some sort of split personality that kills or something.  Director and co-writer Tom Holland could have kept up the suspense for another ten or fifteen minutes if he wanted to, but even thirty minutes was much longer than I expected.  Even though I knew that Chucky was the killer, I enjoyed the mystery in this movie. 

Since you're supposed to think that Chucky is just a doll for a third of the movie, you don't get to hear much of Brad Douriff's voice work as you normally would in a Chucky movie.  That's too bad, since Douriff does good work here and is not as corny as he gets in later movies.  He also managed to be pretty creepy in his human form, too.  Chris Sarandon is decent as a jerk cop and Catherine Hicks does a decent job as the stupid/horrified mother.  As far as child actors go, Alex Vincent didn't need to have a lot of range as Andy, but he was decent, too.  The direction was only okay, but not bad for a slasher pic.

The main reason Child's Play is never mentioned on any serious list for best horror movies is because the story is pretty silly.  Okay, let's say I buy Brad Douriff transferring his soul into a doll and being able to control the doll's actions.  Do you really expect me to believe that any parent willingly brought this into their home?
There is no way in hell that my mother would have brought a ginger doll with vomit-inducing style in need of a haircut into our home, especially if it talked or made noises.  She was tough, but fair.  And the whole transfer-your-soul-into-a-doll thing doesn't look like the best choice when, moments later, you're struck by lightning and the store explodes.  Now we're supposed to believe that not only was the doll given a soul, but it was left undamaged by a lightning strike/store-wide explosion and it was returned to its original packaging?  That makes less sense than a serial killer having a getaway driver.  Does any of this hurt the value of the movie?  Not really, since it's about a killer doll (what boy has dolls?  Shouldn't he be an action figure?), ridiculousness is really not an issue.  It's not a great movie, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


The 1922 vampire film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is among the first feature-length horror movies to be made and the very first vampire movie.  That subtitle is telling about this film's intent.  It's not just a song of terror, or a hint of terror, it is a symphony of terror. Well, I guess subtlety is not going to be an option.  That makes sense, since this is a silent film that was made in Germany; silent films required actors to wear heavy makeup and make broad theater-style gestures to convey the story, and I don't think I've seen a German film that was anything less than bizarre.  So, grab your french horn and let's see what this symphony has to offer.

Thomas Hutter, a young German man, is sent to Transylvania by his employer to meet a new client, Count Orlock (Max Schreck).  Thomas leaves his wife, Ellen, with his friends and heads off for scenic Transylvania.  I like that he drops off his wife with friends like I would drop off a pet; "make sure to feed her at least once a day."  On the way, Thomas stops by an inn for a bite to eat (see what I did there?  Clever boy!) and finds that the inn goes silent with the mention of Orlock's name.  The locals convince Thomas to not continue to the castle at night because there is a werewolf on the prowl.  Seriously?  The first vampire movie mentions werewolves as factual creatures?  Against all horror movie odds, Thomas listens and spends the night.  In his room, he finds a small book titled The Book of Vampires, which offers some nice little tidbits about Nosferatu, the "bird of death."  Well, Thomas eventually makes it to Orlock's castle and meets the Count, who appears to be both fashion-challenged and ugly.  Thomas is trying to sell some property (coincidentally, right across the street from his own home) to Orlock, but the conversation gets derailed when Thomas nicks his finger with a knife; Orlock more or less pounces on the finger, trying to lick it clean.  Understandably, Thomas is grossed out by that awkward moment.  As time goes on, Thomas becomes convinced that Orlock is, in fact, a "bird of death."  Why?  Oh, little clues begin to add up; Thomas wakes to find small puncture wounds in his neck, Orlock sleeps in a casket, etc.  The Count finds a picture of Ellen among Thomas' belongings and becomes enamored; he tries to lock Thomas up in his castle while he travels via boat for Germany.  From that point on, it is a race to see whether Orlock will have his bird-like way with her, or if Thomas will be able to save the day.

That story might seem familiar to you, and with good reason.  The writers wanted to do a vampire story, but did not want to have to pay for the film rights to Bram Stoker's Dracula.  Their clever solution was to change all the characters' names (Orlock = Dracula, for instance), switch "vampire" to "nosferatu" (although I don't know why they used a book called The Book of Vampires), and edit out the Van Helsing character.  The result was a film that clearly didn't owe anything to anyone, especially the Stoker family.  Except for the Stoker family, actually.  The German production company behind Nosferatu declared bankruptcy in order to avoid being sued by Stoker's widow; with business practices like that, it isn't surprising that Nosferatu was the company's only film.  One thing that the writer added that was not derivative was the idea of sunlight being harmful to vampires; this trait is now nearly universal in vampire lore.

It's tough to critique silent films by modern day standards.  This film was made almost ninety years ago and a few things have changed since then, to put it mildly.  Even by today's standards, the film style used by director FW Murnau was very good.  I haven't seen many silent films, but I thought the use of sepia tones for daylight scenes and bluish tones for the evening scenes was clever.  I had just assumed that black and white pictures were always...well, black and white.  The scenes without Count Orlock have become pretty dated; the heavy make-up and theater-style big hand movements look kind of silly now.  The shots of Orlock, though, still pack some visual punch.
The ugliest member of Sgt. Pepper's band was not, in fact Ringo.
The combination of Murnau's frame composition (often with very dark, tall backgrounds) and Max Schreck's awkward movements really made Orlock's character seem otherworldly.  I also felt that Orlock's proportions were odd, too, with absurdly long arms and legs.

Orlock is the reason people still remember this film and why is is always on the "best of" lists for hoity-toighty critics.  This film created the nosferatu style of vampirism that is still seen in films to this day (30 Days of Night, Daybreakers, etc.).  It is often regarded (seemingly without irony) that Nosferatu is the film adaptation that stays truest to Stoker's novel, too.  From a film historian standpoint, this movie really stands the test of time.  You can even argue that no one has ever surpassed Schreck's visual appeal as a vampire.

I am not a film historian, though.  I like to think of myself as a film aficionado, or even a student, but I don't feel the need to justify myself through historical context.  While I'm glad that I took the time to watch this movie, I didn't really enjoy it much.  My intellectual side noted a lot of technical things that I appreciated, but I had a hard time getting into the film.  I can tell that this movie was made (probably) flawlessly in 1922, but the gap in time and the difference in German and American storytelling sensibilities made this more of an educational experience than a recreational one.  Nevertheless, there are some great visuals in the movie and it deserves its place in film history for such enduring material.  And Count Orlock looked pretty awesome, which still counts for something.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Halloween (1978)

Driving through the great state of Illinois, outside of Chicago and its suburbs, can be pretty dull.  As part of the Great Plains, any trip that goes from end to end of the state is going to be dreadfully boring, unless you have some sort of corn fetish.  Little did I realize that I have come this close to danger on my trips; just off Interstate 55, near the city of Pontiac (whose website proudly points out public restrooms and a "Most Wanted" list) lies the fictional town of Haddenfield, best known as the home town of slasher movie Hall of Famer Michael Myers.

Halloween begins, against all odds, on Halloween night (shock!) in Haddonfield, 1963.  A young girl and her boyfriend decide to go up to her bedroom and get their sexy freak on, as long as someone named Michael is away.  The camera is clearly serving as the point of view of a character watching the couple; in the time it takes this unseen character (admittedly, probably Michael) to move from his place, peering in from an outside window, where he hears this exchange, to the kitchen, where he grabs a knife, the guy has already finished, dressed, and leaves the house with a noncommittal remark about maybe calling the girl again sometime; this scientifically proves, once again, that the speed of light's got nothing on the speed of a teenage boy.  After Don Juan (possibly not the real one) sneaks out the door, the unseen character picks up a clown mask, puts it on, and walks up the stairs to the girl's bedroom.  The girl, brushing her hair while nearly nude, identifies the character as Michael and swiftly dies from several knife wounds.  Moments later, the girl's parents come home and we finally get a camera shot of the savage Michael; he is a six year-old boy, dressed in a very ugly clown outfit, and he has just murdered his own sister, thus fulfilling the desire of many younger brothers, across the world.
On the bright side, it appears to be stain-repellant

Fast forward fifteen years, and it is 1978.  After eight years of trying to treat young Michael Myers, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) concluded that Michael is a soulless killing machine and has spent the last seven years trying to ensure that Michael stays in confinement for the rest of his life.  Because, you know...that's what doctors do.
That sounds reasonable
On Halloween's eve, 1978, Michael escapes from the Smith's Grove institution, steals a car, and drives off into the night.  Convinced that he knows Michael better than anyone --- despite the fact that Myers has not spoken a word in fifteen years --- Dr. Loomis heads to Haddonfield, expecting the worst.  Meanwhile, Michael has already arrived in Haddonfield and has even broken into his old home, now the local haunted house.  He also made a shopping stop during the night, breaking into a general store and stealing a mask, some knives and a rope.  Exactly what his motives are is never clear, but it is obvious that he is in town to pull some major They Live action.  He is a picky psychopath, though.  Instead of killing just anyone, Michael chooses to stalk a well-behaved teenager, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, in her first film role).  Sucks to be her. just an unflattering screenshot

There are two aspects of this film that really stand out.  The first is the music.  Director John Carpenter also composed the film's score, which includes the main theme (which acts as a cue that Michael is around and about to be creepy/evil), as well as the slightly less creepy through line that seems to follow Laurie around when she's not in danger.  Most horror movies have mediocre and often instantly dated scores, but Carpenter created one of the best musical mood pieces in cinematic history.  The music is classier and more unsettling than the Friday the 13th CH-Ch-ch AH-Ah-ah, and strong enough to follow Michael Myers into every one of his sequels.  The camera work is the other noteworthy technical part of Halloween.  In the opening scene POV shots (which, while done well, has been done before), it was an inspired idea to have the character don a mask and then have the camera see only through the eye holes of the mask.  The rest of the movie is only nearly POV, with the camera actually just peeking over Michael's shoulder.  This is far more effective than POV shots because it is more stable; this way, you aren't supposed to always know where Michael is and can still be surprised when he pops up. in a closet.  For the record, he's looking for a crushed velvet jumpsuit.

The acting and directing in Halloween are much better than you might expect, especially if you have seen the sequels.  Jamie Lee Curtis wasn't spectacular in the film, aside from her Scream Queen shrieks, but she was as good here as anything else I've seen her in.  Donald Pleasence is very good as the not-overreacting-at-all Doctor Loomis; he gives such a good speech about the evil of Michael Myers that you don't really need any proof to back up those claims.  The supporting cast isn't great, with PJ Soles as the only stand out, partly because she is awesome at saying "totally" and partly because she shows her boobies.
The direction is the real star in this picture.  John Carpenter took the story that he co-wrote with Debra Hill and shot it in a way that provides suspense and implies violence.  The violence in this film looks great, but a lot of it is not shown; you don't notice that, though, when you're watching the movie.  When it needs to be spectacular, it is (like the mounting of a guy on the kitchen wall), but the subtler moments are still the more memorable ones.  In the kitchen scene, it's pretty sweet when Myers kills the guy, but the creepy moment comes as he steps back and tilts his head, pondering his victim's death twitches.  Those are the moments that make Michael Myers, as an unimaginably evil character, work.  That's important, because the character has some pretty ridiculous survival skills; he manages to get stabbed in the neck, eye, and chest, shot in the chest, and he falls out of a two-story window, but he still keeps chugging.
Read the directions, Laurie: stab repeatedly, until victim is definitely fertilizer

While totally awesome, this movie does have some minor flaws.  For starters, the POV camera in the opening scene is clearly being held at an adult height, despite Michael being only six at the time.  That's not a big deal, but I refuse to believe that a six year-old that can hack his sister to death for no reason would allow anyone to dress him in that ugly costume.  I mean, unless his sister dressed him; in that case, she had it coming.  Still, that was a pretty cool scene, even if it was done just to add a tiny bit of shock when the killer is revealed to be a child.  Another strange part comes when Michael stalks the boy Laurie is going to babysit that night; how would Michael know who the kid is?  If it's just Michael being Michael (read: creepy), then why don't we see him stalk anyone not connected to Laurie?  Another odd moment comes when viewers catch a glimpse of Michael without his mask on; he's nowhere near as frightening when he looks like an ordinary guy.
Also odd: when he took a bathroom break and was out of position for this kill
Probably the biggest gripe I have with the movie is the prototypical slasher "ending," where Laurie seemingly kills Michael, but decides it's better to walk away than to check to see if he's dead.  She does that twice.  The first time I can understand because she has never tried to kill someone before, but horror movies have steep learning curves --- you already smoked pot in this movie (a slasher pic deadly sin), Laurie, so you had better get your game face on if you want my sympathy.

Despite those minor flaws, this is still a great movie that holds up to repeated viewings.  Actually, those flaws become amusing and charming to those who are familiar with the movie.  I may be a bigger fan of Jason Voorhies, but this is the movie that truly gave birth to the slasher subgenre and still towers over it to this day.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Zombie Strippers

With a title like Zombie Strippers, you would assume that not much thought was given to the plot.  And you would be right.  No, the allure of a movie with this title is the combination of zombies and strippers, or to put it more plainly, horror movie gold --- gore and nudity, right there in the title!

The important thing about Zombie Strippers is to go past that initial reaction and think about what that title implies.  Yes, there are strippers, and strippers get nekked.  Awesome.  Zombies are gruesome undead creatures that walk the earth, no matter how mutilated their corpses are (unless there's a brain wound, of course).  Zombies are awesome, too.  Zombie strippers would, logically, be naked women with mutilated reanimated corpses.  That is significantly not awesome and not sexy.  And it's the premise for an entire movie.  Joy.

The plot is pretty stupid, even by B-movie standards.  For whatever reason (mad scientist), a small outbreak of zombies is being handled by some government troops; one of them gets bitten and doesn't want to get killed by his teammates, so he scampers into the nearest open building, which happens to be an exclusive strip club run by Ian (Robert Englund).  The place is not particularly hopping, but it is midday, so I don't want to judge.  Ian's star stripper is Kat (Jenna Jameson), who is attacked and has her throat ripped out by the now-undead soldier.  She gets better quickly.  Oddly enough, her first instinct is to get back on stage and strip some more.  She doesn't clean her blood off, but instead dances...dirtier, I guess.  Personally, I didn't see a huge difference in the before and after scenes, but I had the same problem in You Got Served.  I'll just agree with the audience and say that the zombie dance was much more exciting.  It was so exciting, in fact, that these guys only want to pay zombie strippers, even ignoring total nudity in a G-string establishment.  Okay, that's weird.  Here's where it gets weirder: one by one, for reasons ranging from revenge to peer pressure to being a Goth chick, each of the strippers in the club willingly become zombies.

That's right, the strippers all became zombies to become better at their chosen craft.  While I have met a few strippers and they have tended to be two scoops of crazy, that is some dumb stuff.  Luckily, the movie never makes even the slightest attempt to take itself seriously (perhaps you noticed the title?).  Unfortunately, writer/director Jay Lee opted for a campier than Crystal Lake movie instead of delving into dark humor.  The writing is pretty bad; the script is full of really, really, really easy/obvious jokes and really, really, really cliched characters (an intellectual stripper, one doing it for money, the innocent one, the jealous one, etc., etc.).  The acting is pretty awful, too.  That's not surprising, but it's so bad that Jenna Jameson (an aging porn star) and Robert Englund (an aging horror legend) are, without a doubt, the best actors in the film.

I can't say that the film is without redeeming qualities.  It does have nudity.  And...well...oh!  They made a clever, if not very attractive, zombie upgrade; since zombies are far stronger than normal people (for some reason), an infamous stripper trick involving ping pong balls gets upgraded to billiard balls.  I would never have thought of that.  That's really the best thing I can say about the movie.

Since casting had to cover people who would perform nudity and act, the cast ends up being not particularly good at either, with special effects money wasted on these half-talented "actors."  The special effects in what should be a gory film are uber-cartoony low-rent CGI; this is also a movie that points out that head shots kill zombies, but manages to contain very few head shots.  My biggest problem with the film is the attitude of the strip club patrons.  I get it, naked ladies are fun to watch.  But undead naked ladies shouldn't be.  Isn't finding zombies sexy the stuff of necrophilia?  So, a movie that took great individual ideas (like milkshakes and a nice salmon steak) and combined them to make something unpleasant (like a salmon milkshake), which resulted in necrophilia (like having sex with your salmon milkshake).  Thanks, Zombie Strippers, you tricked me into watching what I can only assume is a documentary on the phenomenon.  I give you one star for not undead nudity and half a star for tricking me.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Let the Right One In

There are basically two types of vampire movies.  There are the ones that focus on the seductive nature of blood sucking, like Dracula and the Twilight series, and there are the ones that treat vampires as monstrous abominations, like Nosferatu and 30 Days of Night.  Every so often, though, a vampire movie is released that doesn't play by the rules.

Let the Right One In is the story of Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) and Eli (Lina Leandersson).  Oskar is a timid twelve year-old boy whose mother works late and father lives in another town.  He doesn't have any friends and is mercilessly bullied at school.  The only satisfaction he seems to get is by role playing revenge scenarios where he stabs his bullies; he only does this outside, at night, with trees taking the place of his bullies.  Maybe he'll grow up to be a lumberjack; there's a silver lining to every depressing childhood, you know.  Oskar's world changes when he meets Eli, a girl who moved into the apartment next door.  Eli is different.  She doesn't go to school, she smells funny, and she seems blissfully unaware of weather and culture.  Despite her oddness, Eli clearly has a strong personality and Oskar is drawn to her.  The two begin an awkward friendship; Oskar starts to stick up for himself and Eli tries to be less obviously peculiar.  In many ways, this is a love story between these two lonely twelve year-olds.

Did I mention that Eli is a vampire?  Yeah...good luck with love, Oskar.  Watch out for hickies.

That's all I think I want to cover of the plot.  This is a movie made of small moments that are best experienced firsthand.  Let the Right One In feels different than most vampire movies because it is in fact different; it is the Swedish film adaptation of the novel with the same name.  The foreign actors and setting alone make this unique, but the most unusual aspect of the film is that it has child actors in almost every single scene.  Most of the time, that's a bad indicator for acting quality.  I don't know if it's the unusual style of the film, the subtitles, or perhaps even a talented young cast, but I didn't mind watching kids in a vampire story for two hours.  Leandersson, in particular, was very effective as the film's token monster.  Perhaps the credit should go to director Tomas Alfredson for directing the children so well and still retaining a sense of dread in the film.

What really sets this movie apart from traditional vampire movies is the way it approaches horror.  Instead of focusing on spectacle, like gory movies, or on cheap thrills, like slasher movies, Let the Right One In is very subtle.  When I was done with the movie, I went through three distinct stages as I reflected on the film.  Initially, I was unimpressed; I have read the book and I thought that cutting down the supporting cast, while understandable, took away from the depth of the story.  Next, I recalled the silliness of Oskar's concerns when he learned Eli's secret; he was nervous, but not horrified.  After a while, though, something about the film nagged at the back of my mind.  Children are absolutely frightening at times; this film has the same sort of you-know-it-could-happen-like-this quality that Lord of the Flies has.  Yes, Eli is a monster, but is she any worse than Oskar's bullies?  At least she has a reason to attack or kill people.  Using a vampire story to point out how horrible children can be, while a touch heavy-handed, is effective.  It's strange, because you end up rooting for Eli and Oskar to find a way to make their impractical friendship work.

While light by vampire movie standards, this is a fairly bloody movie.  There are some standard gore moments where Eli rips out the throat of her victims and, at one point, a guy even pours acid on his face.  Most of the violence is shown off-screen, though; this is most obvious in the climactic scene, even though it is still a pretty cool moment.  The most frightening scene in the whole film is also the bloodiest.  Eli has to be granted permission to enter a room or home and, in a moment of childish stubbornness, Oskar refuses because he wants to see what happens.  What follows is a fantastic visual in a pretty low-key movie.

As a whole, though, I felt that something was missing from the film.  The direction was good, although the cinematography was merely competent.  The acting was surprisingly good, but only Eli stood out as a character.  The pacing of the movie fit a dramatic romance, but it felt out of step when things got monstrous.  As a horror film, this was lacking the catharsis that most horror films provide, satisfied with sowing the seeds for a sense of disquiet.  No aspect of the film was utterly satisfying; for every positive, I was able to immediately find a negative to balance it.  As a film with a very low budget, I think Let the Right One In is an excellent example of trying to scare you with what is not shown.  The pacing and inconsistent tone were just too much for me to overlook.