Sunday, July 31, 2011

Does An Inside-Out Bear Shit In The Woods?

1979’s eco-thriller Prophecy and I go way back. Probably to about when I would have been 7 or 8, when I first caught it on ABC’s Friday Night Movie. I have no idea what business I had staying up so late to watch a scary movie at that impressionable young age, but it certainly stayed with me. If you haven’t seen it and have a taste for fine Seventies cheese—that particular vintage that reeks of a respectable director (John Frankenheimer, no less) slumming in a genre that he clearly didn’t understand, and a major studio trying to cash in on the decade’s horror craze—then you might want to seek out this environmentally conscious wedge of fromage.

Robert Foxworth plays a magnificently permed and bearded doctor of the socially conscious variety investigating the effects of mercury poisoning from a paper mill in the woods of Maine (this particular Maine has lots of mountains, go figure—apparently the movie was shot in British Columbia). The kindly paper mill manager (Richard Dysart) insists that everything they do is up to code, but the mutated critters roaming the forest beg to differ; there’s a crazed, spastic raccoon, a six-foot trout, and a ravenous bear-thing with a ruined face and a penchant for laying waste to mill employees and hapless campers alike. The local Native Americans, who are locked in a bitter struggle with the mill owner over the carelessness of their toxic byproduct disposal, think that this beast is the latest incarnation of Katahdin, a kind of Sasquatchy forest protector come to drive out the evil white man. Unfortunately for them, Katahdin isn’t too picky about who he chows down on in the end.

Make no mistake, Prophecy (subtitled The Monster Movie, which always struck me as a bit uppity) is a very silly movie. The characters—idealistic doctor, friendly-but-ultimately-sinister company man, heroic Native American (a very not Native American Armand Assante)—are all pretty thin, and the story is all kinds of preposterous. The effects are, largely, extremely goofy and unconvincing, and the monster attacks are shockingly inept in their presentation. Surely the director of The Manchurian Candidate should have some idea of how to create and maintain suspense! The most promising subplot doesn’t go anywhere; the doc’s wife (Talia Shire), having eaten some tainted fish, is terrified about the effects of the mercury poisoning on her unborn child, but we never get to find out if she gives birth to some kind of crazy mutant or something. However, a lot of unintentional laughs arise from the doctor’s complete cluelessness—his wife hasn’t told him she’s pregnant yet, and all of her not-so-subtle hints about her condition sail right over his curly head.

I say all this, and yet I still heartily recommend Prophecy, if you’re at all into this sort of thing. I have a much bigger tolerance for lousy '70s horror than any other decade, so that helps, for me at least. The cinematography by Harry Stradling Jr. is pretty sharp. It’s a good movie to crack a few beers over, and have some laughs with friends. There is at least one very shocking and gross special effect that’s worthwhile—a couple of Katahdin’s horrible offspring are discovered in a fishing net, and the animatronic creatures—the kind of slimy special effect that my friend Aaron Bower calls “wet Muppets”—are suitably, fascinatingly, disgusting. They also add a layer of suspense to Talia Shire’s delicate condition, possibly foreshadowing what she can expect when she gives birth. She even tries to save one of the creatures, but is rewarded by nearly having the ugly critter tear her throat out. The real reason to watch Prophecy, though, comes when a family of campers—a father, his teenaged daughter, and a young boy—are attacked and killed by Katahdin. The boy is wrapped up in a bright yellow down sleeping bag, and he tries to hop away from the crazed beast. One swing of Katahdin’s mighty paw later, the kid is fired across the campsite like a banana fired out of a bazooka, and he fairly explodes against a tree stump in a bloody mushroom cloud of feathers (don’t take my word for it, check it out here). This scene, more than any other, stayed with me as a kid, and as an adult, I was convinced that I remembered it wrong. How could that scene have possibly played out that way? Turns out I remembered it exactly right. I love when that happens. Prophecy also has a delightfully gross one-sheet, which adorned the VHS version and the earlier DVD release. I finally ordered a DVD copy of my own recently, though, and was bummed out to see that the most current version (it’s still not out on Blu-Ray, and I can't imagine it ever will be) has a shitty new cover that does use the original artwork, but has a stupid new tag line and a butt-ugly design. I expect better reissues of my charmingly lousy monster flicks! This isn’t just ANY Monster Movie, after all, it’s THE Monster Movie.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


I’m a little disappointed in myself that I only just recently learned about Screamland by Harold Sipe, Christopher Sebela, Hector Casanova, and Lee Leslie. I love monsters (and have a particular soft spot for the classic Universal guys), I love stories about Hollywood sleaze of yesteryear, and I love comic books. So the fact that a comic book series that delves into the sleazy backstories of classic movie monsters trying to scrape by in today’s CGI-enhanced, youth-obsessed Hollywood eluded me until the debut of the new ongoing series a few months back is, frankly, more than a little embarrassing. Thankfully, Image Comics has released the original 5-part miniseries in a new trade paperback, so I’m finally up to speed.

Screamland takes place in a world where the famous movie monsters are real and they all portrayed versions of themselves on screen in their heyday, appearing in multiple horror sequels until they were put out of work by the science fiction craze of the 1950s. In the original mini, the gang is (mostly) reunited when they are offered parts in the big-screen adaptation of a manga series called Monsterhunter 3000. The monsters are a pretty sorry lot; Frankenstein’s Monster is an alcoholic with a combover, the Wolfman spends his days signing autographs on the fantasy convention circuit and sleeping with as many groupies as possible, Dracula fights a never-ending battle against the tabloids to conceal his sexual identity, and the Mummy is involved in a protracted legal struggle to recover treasures raided from his tomb by greedy archaeologists (that is, when he’s not too busy ducking Homeland Security, who see him as a suspicious, possibly hostile foreign national). The ongoing Screamland series, now two issues in, follows the Wolfman and several other new characters (an Invisible Man, a Blob, and a faded sci-fi TV star, among others) as they try to halt the release of an epic porno film they all participated in back in the cocaine-fueled 1970s.

The scripts by Harold Sipe and Christopher Sebela (who co-writes the ongoing series) pack a one-two punch of biting Hollywood satire and dead-on comic timing, while the art--Hector Casanova illustrated the original mini, while Lee Leslie takes over for the ongoing, faithfully maintaining the book's established visual style--combines the rough, simple linework of Jeff Lemire with the murky textures of Ben Templesmith or Ashley Wood. The trade paperback of the original series serves as a solidly funny introduction to the cast of characters and their litany of personal and career woes (although the conclusion to the Monsterhunter 3000 storyline does seem a bit rushed). The ongoing series is off to a promising start, with lots of jabs at the current state of horror movies, sci-fi conventions, and a murder mystery to boot. Screamland shows that you can’t keep a good monster down, but you can find plenty of humour in the wreckage of his career.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Shock Value

One of my all-time favourite books is Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind’s fascinatingly trashy history of 1970s Hollywood. Biskind details how a bold young group of innovative new directors—Spielberg, Scorsese, Friedkin, Coppola, and Cimino, to name a few—took the movie business over from the suits with a string of critical and commercial hits…only to blow their newfound cachet on expensive vanity projects that, in some cases, derailed their careers. Imagine my enthusiasm, then, when I learned about a new book that told a similar tale, one that follows the trajectory of a trailblazing group of horror directors who helped make the genre respectable (more or less) in the very same decade. The book is Shock Value by Jason Zinoman, and it’s a must-read for fans of the new age in horror that brought us films like Halloween, Alien, Carrie, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

The early chapters of Shock Value deal with the impact of films like Night Of The Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby, visceral, challenging movies that ushered in a new kind of socially relevant horror. The book ends with the release of Friday The 13th and the beginning of the dynasty of the Slasher Sequel, which robbed the genre of its newfound credibility (at least, until Silence Of The Lambs swept the Academy Awards a decade later). However, for the bulk of the book, Zinoman zeroes in on what happened in the years in between. He details how Wes Craven pushed boundaries past their limits for the Grindhouse set in Last House On The Left, and how the blockbuster critical and financial success of The Exorcist made horror hot. He examines the various connections that tied these groundbreaking movies together (William Peter Blatty wrote The Exorcist in response to what he perceived as the spiritual emptiness of Rosemary’s Baby; Ridley Scott screened The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to prepare for the filming of some of Alien’s bloodier bits). Most surprisingly, he reveals how eccentric screenwriter Dan O’Bannon was a powerful, unheralded influence lurking behind the scenes of some of the decade’s most innovative films; many of O’Bannon’s conversations with John Carpenter while they were at USC together, and during their later collaboration on Dark Star, were key in the conception of the unknowable horror of Michael Myers in Halloween, while O’Bannon’s contributions to Alien were downgraded by the film’s director and producers, despite the fact that he co-wrote the screenplay and had the inspiration to suggest H.R. Giger as the film's creature designer.

Zinoman interviews many of the participants of this era, like John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, George A. Romero, William Friedkin, and Brian DePalma, along with various spouses and collaborators. The result is a thrillingly all-access look at the genre’s most creatively exciting period, peppered with telling biographical details and overflowing with revealing, sometimes shocking anecdotes (Romero got his start shooting short films for Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood! A teenaged DePalma helped his mother obtain a divorce by secretly recording his father’s adultery!). Zinoman treats the subject matter with a respect it is rarely afforded by the mainstream press, showing the zeal of a true fan when arguing the merits of the genre. My only real complaint is that, at less than 300 pages, it’s too short, although one can hope that, in true horror fashion, we’ll be treated to a sequel before too long.

Monday, July 18, 2011


Okay, so this used to be a blog where I created fake posters, novelization covers, and VHS art for nonexistent horror films, all under the guise of a made-up dude named Dell Grodak who was obsessed with scary stuff. It was great fun for a while, and I reserve the right to occasionally still use this blog for that purpose if the mood strikes me, but I lost interest in it after awhile and I haven’t updated it in forever. So for now, I’m just going to use this blog to review all things horror that happen to catch my eye. I thought about creating a new blog, but who the hell knows how long I’m going to keep at it this time (I leave abandoned blogs in my wake like a trail of breadcrumbs), so I figured I’d just start this one up again. Let’s see how long I continue with it.

Before I move on to the first article of the ALL-NEW, ALL-DIFFERENT HOUSE OF HAUNTS, though, I’d like to send some props to James White of Signalnoise Design, who graciously provided me with my snazzy logo and then, even more graciously, allowed me to mangle it by taking off Dell Grodak’s name. See more of this ferociously talented dude’s work at his website. Now, on to new business…

Eddie Murphy has a memorable bit in his 1983 comedy concert film Delirious where he pokes fun at white families in haunted house flicks like Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror. He is astounded by the fact that, when these families experience strange phenomena like blood gushing out of their toilet bowl, or their youngest daughter being sucked inside the TV set, they never flee the obviously haunted house—they merely respond with a befuddled “Well, that’s peculiar”. That observation clearly stuck with Saw alumni James Wan and Leigh Whannell, whose latest terror flick, Insidious, could be seen as a response to that nearly-thirty-year-old comedy piece. Josh and Renai Lambert (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) and their three young kids move into a new house, and things go from weird to worse almost immediately. Otherworldly voices are heard on a baby monitor. Spooky sounds emanate from the attic. And after precocious youngster Dalton (Ty Simpkins) falls into a mysterious coma following a head injury, all hell breaks loose as ghostly beings begin popping up all over the house. Josh doesn’t believe any of it, but Renai is, quite rightly, freaked out, so they pack up and move to a hopefully less-haunted home, just like any sane family would. Unfortunately, the ghastly goings-on follow them, and the Lamberts turn to a team of ghost hunters to try and drive away the malevolent spirits, particularly the devilish figure seen lurking around Dalton’s bedside—the one with Freddy Krueger fingers, Darth Maul makeup, and goat legs. The key to solving the mystery may lie with token skeptic Josh, who, it turns out, has more experience with these matters than even he knows.

The most remarkable thing about Insidious is its reported budget of $1.5 million, a figure that seems almost impossible unless nearly everyone involved worked on it for free. It easily looks as though it could have cost twenty times that figure, if not more. The film works best in its early domestic scenes, where the talented duo of Byrne and Wilson give endearing, naturalistic performances that would feel perfectly at home in Poltergeist or The Exorcist, two movies that were obviously big influences here. Lin Shaye (best known as leathery neighbour Magda in There’s Something About Mary) shines as Elise, the head ghostbuster; a character that could have easily turned into a Zelda Rubinstein ripoff becomes, in Shaye’s hands, a very credible, likeable, woman who might well be the nice lady next door if not for her oddball profession. I’m still not quite sure why she wears a World War II gas mask during the séance scene, but it does make for a neat visual. However, when the scares start coming fast and furious, Insidious starts heading into sadly familiar territory.

Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell (who also appears as one of the paranormal investigators) are clearly compelled by glassy-eyed, smiley-faced mannequin people in the same way that Rob Zombie loves to populate his films with images of clowns, skeletons, and hillbillies. Insidious is fairly crawling with these kinds of specters, who all appear to have escaped from a book of old-timey photography. Sometimes these are used to startling effect, but mostly it’s the same old, same old—creepy dancing kids in newsie attire, pale-faced little girls in white dresses, and skeletal old women in gowns with veils creep around every corner, flickering like faulty projector images (and all announced with deafening piano chords—it’s like a cat keeps jumping on the keys after awhile). I wondered at times if all of these fairly stock ghost types were ever going to amount to anything, and rest assured, they do—the mystery surrounding these spirits is explained in reasonably satisfactory fashion, eventually. But would it have killed the filmmakers to come up with some ghouls who didn’t come straight from an early Nineties Marilyn Manson video? Insidious makes for a nice break from the current onslaught of horror remakes, but in its attempt to bring a modern flair to the haunted house genre, it sometimes mistakes cliche for homage.