Thursday, September 27, 2012


Horror anthology films are a cool idea in theory that almost never succeed in practice. They carry with them a strange sense of hope--if one short film doesn't entirely work, the next one just might. Personally, I've got a soft spot for horror anthologies in general, and '80s anthologies like Creepshow and Twilight Zone: The Movie in particular, but I'll admit that the results in even these sentimental favourites are wildly uneven. The new anthology V/H/S is a fun and well-intentioned attempt to meld the spirit of those movies to the current found-footage horror craze (with a retro-sounding title thrown in for good measure), but while there's something to enjoy in each of the five segments (six if you count the wraparound segments, directed by Simon Barrett) none of them is fully successful.
A framing sequence called "Tape 56", itself composed of shaky camcorder footage, sets up the premise. A group of criminals who specialize in uploading their antisocial activities onto the Internet are asked to break into a house and steal a particular video tape, having been told by their employer that they'll " know it when they see it". Turns out the house is filled with unlabeled VHS tapes, as well as a dead (or is he?) old guy seated in front of a staticky TV set. The gang watches tape after tape in search of the right one, uncovering one macabre tableau after another while things in the house begin to get weirder and weirder.
The first film, "Amateur Night", follows three unlucky douchebags who outfit one of their number with camera-equipped glasses, for the purpose of picking up strange girls in a bar and recording the sexy results in a nearby hotel room. Directed by David Bruckner, the film builds to a predictable twist, but is carried off by imaginative effects and an effective performance by leading lady Hannah Fierman. Next up is "Second Honeymoon", from director Ti West (House of the Devil, The Innkeepers), a tale of a vacationing couple being trailed by a mysterious girl. I have a lot more patience for West's slow-burn style than most, but other than a creepily voyeuristic interlude that recalls the opening shot of Manhunter, it's pretty dull stuff and probably the weakest of the bunch. Thankfully, it's followed by the best installment, Glenn McQuaid's "Tuesday The 17th", a slasher-in-the-woods riff that has some good shocks and the nifty gimmick of a killer who can't be videotaped (all that shows up are tracking lines in the rough shape of a man). Joe Swanberg's "The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger" is told in the form of Skype messages between a med student and his girlfriend, who claims to be menaced by ghostly children in the night. A couple of effective scares and an imaginative storytelling device can't make up for the confusing wrap-up, though. And the last film, "10/31/98" (from four directors collectively known as Radio Silence) is probably the most visually ambitious of the group. A gang of dudes on their way to a Halloween party end up at the wrong address and wind up barging in on a ritual sacrifice, unleashing a very real house of horrors as a result.
It could be that V/H/S's biggest failing is that its framing sequence is kind of a dud. We never do learn who wanted the mysterious tape, or what was supposed to be on it (is it one of the ones we in the audience get to see or isn't it?), and what exactly happens to the would-be thieves is unclear. Still, I'd rather sit through an ambitious failure than another in the seemingly endless string of exorcism thrillers that don't seem to be going away any time soon. Ambition trumps repetition every time, which makes the flawed-but-fun V/H/S worth a rental at the very least.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


Halloween III: Season Of The Witch has always stuck out like a sore thumb from its brethren in the Halloween franchise. Original director and series producer John Carpenter and his producing partner Debra Hill had originally envisioned a sort of anthology series of films, each with a different horror story under the Halloween banner. An admittedly cool idea, but when the blockbuster success of the first Halloween film demanded the continuance of Michael Myers' story, the second installment picked up right where the first one left off. Then, with Myers seemingly dead for sure at the end of 1981's Halloween II, Carpenter and Hill went back to the original anthology idea for the third film. Audiences were confused and enraged by the Myers-free, unrelated plotline of 1982's Halloween III, and the film sank like a stone at the box office. But thanks to cable and home video, this unique and nasty flick found a rabid cult audience over the audience that is sure to be thrilled with Scream Factory's new extras-packed DVD/Blu-Ray release of Halloween III.
The slasher plotline of the original two films makes way for an oddball blend of science and sorcery in Season Of The Witch, directed by Tommy Lee Wallace. Paving the way for supernatural tales that mingled with technology in later films like Ringu, Halloween III follows Doctor Daniel Challis (Carpenter vet and genre great Tom Atkins), investigating a grisly murder in his hospital. All the clues seem to lead to the weird little burg of Santa Mira (one of several shout-outs to the original Invasion Of The Body Snatchers), and the Silver Shamrock Mask Company, which is pumping out a series of Halloween masks for the kiddies just in time for the holiday. Actually, calling the masks a "series" is pretty generous, since there's only three varieties available, making it hard to imagine the popularity of a Halloween where everyone is dressed up like either a witch, a pumpkin, or a skeleton, but that's neither here nor there. Investigating the Silver Shamrock factory with the murdered man's daughter (Stacy Nelkin), Challis learns that the elderly proprietor of the mask company, played with a delightful scowl by Dan O'Herlihy, is in fact, an evil warlock who plans to sacrifice millions of children with his mixture of black magic and high technology--the combination of a spell involving a stolen piece of Stonehenge and microchip technology in the masks will make the kids' heads erupt with bugs and snakes when they watch a special broadcast at 9 PM on Halloween night. Honestly, the annoying Silver Shamrock jingle that accompanies the masks' TV ads is just as likely to kill you first. Picking up the unkillable, robotic murderous role where Michael Myers left off is the Silver Shamrock Company's army of "Suits", who manage to one-up Myers by actually being robots, ones with a penchant for crushing skulls and pulling off heads. Challis has to somehow stop the magic broadcast before children everywhere are barfing out pythons, including his own Silver Shamrock-obsessed moppets.
It's pretty easy to see why this movie wasn't too well received at the time of its release. Apart from the confusing lack of Michael Myers, Laurie Strode, or Dr. Loomis, this is one weird, vicious movie. An annoying little kid falls victim to a test of the bewitched masks, and it's as brutal and crazy a death as any child in any horror movie has ever been subjected to. There are a number of gooey deaths besides that too--one of the more memorable ones comes when a lady who tinkers with an enchanted microchip suffers a "misfire", with horrifying results. There are some pretty serious pacing problems as well. Even with a relatively brief running time of just over 90 minutes, the sluggish pace makes the movie feel much longer. Still, you have to admire the originality of Halloween III's concoction. Tom Atkins is a strange choice--the part feels like it should have been played by a much younger actor--but he injects the role with loads of grizzled, drunken personality. Original Halloween cinematograper Dean Cundey is on board once again to provide slick visuals, and the synth score by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth is of a fine vintage. The effects are great too, and look even better on the sharp new Blu-Ray transfer.
Scream Factory (a division of Shout! Factory, the fine folks who brought us the Corman Classics series over the last few years) has pulled out all the stops with this new special edition, and it's tough to imagine any fan of Halloween III being disappointed with the treasure trove of extras included. A new retrospective documentary, entitled Stand Alone, details the film's troubled history and eventual reclamation from oblivion by a rabid fan base, and included contributions from Tommy Lee Wallace, Tom Atkins, Stacy Nelkin, Dean Cundey, Alan Howarth, and more (John Carpenter is strangely absent). This warts-and-all doc is worth the price of admission alone. Series producer Irwin Yablans bluntly states that he felt abandoning the Myers storyline was a huge mistake. Wallace claims that his sole writing credit was a misnomer, adding that most of the original script was generated by British writer Nigel Kneale (creator of the Quatermass films, of which Carpenter was a huge fan). The disc also includes a tour of the film's locations, vintage TV spots (including one for the film's network TV debut!), and two commentary tracks--one with Wallace, the other with Atkins. Scream Factory has packaged Halloween III with a brand new cover illustration, but in a nifty concession to VHS-era fans, the DVD and Blu-Ray come with reversible packaging showcasing the iconic original artwork as well, so you can decide for yourself how best to display the movie on your shelf. Picture and sound quality are top notch all around as well. This release is a welcome addition to any '80s horror fan's collection, and bodes well for the rest of Shout Factory's upcoming titles (including The Funhouse, They Live, Terror Train, and, of course, Halloween II, with other movies to be announced). Good luck getting that damn Silver Shamrock jingle out of your head, though.

Monday, September 17, 2012


This one requires some explanation. A few weeks ago, I had a dream that the comic shop I manage, Strange Adventures in Halifax, received a shipment of discounted Marvel Essential collections--you know, the big black-and-white, 500-page reprints they do--and amongst these cheap paperbacks was a volume reprinting...Marvel's series based on the 1980 film version of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. I remember being taken aback in the dream, wondering how this series had eluded me, both a diehard Marvel kid and a Stephen King fanatic since my teens. I awoke desperately wishing that this series, which in my dreaming brain was written by Doug Moench and illustrated by Gene Colan, had actually existed. I was also left wondering how they filled out an entire ongoing series with this material; a film adaptation at this point in Marvel's history usually took up about five or six issues, so I guess the series would have continued with tales from the Overlook Hotel's haunted history, maybe? Either way, it wasn't real, so all I could do was wonder what a Marvel Comic based on The Shining would have looked like, circa 1980. Hence this. I think this dream came about because a) I've been thinking about Stephen King a lot lately, having just read 11/22/63 and re-read It, not to mention the fact that I've also been reading Marvel's Essential Man-Thing (how's that for a suggestive title?) collection. Maybe my subconscious brain was trying to imagine how late '70s/early '80s Marvel, which was into some pretty weird shit at that point, would have handled a partnership with the King of horror, who was still only a few books into his career at that stage. I think I'll have to do a few more of these mock covers to explore the idea. On a side note--I absolutely hated the fact that I was reduced to finding that damn carpet pattern online and dropping it in via Photoshop, but believe me when I say that I tried like hell to draw it freehand, and it nearly drove me crazier than Jack Torrance. And one more thing--this was done just for the hell of it. Stephen King owns the novel The Shining and all the characters in it, Warner Brothers owns the movie The Shining, and Marvel Comics owns, well, Marvel Comics. Please don't sue me!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Just Do IT

I recently read and reviewed Stephen King's 11/22/63, in which the novel's time-traveling narrator spends an early passage of the book in the town of Derry. King fans know this fictional New England town well--it served as the location for his 1986 novel It, and 11/22/63 even features a cameo by teenaged versions of two of the earlier book's protagonists, Beverly Marsh and Richie Tozier (their appearance is set a few years after their initial defeat of Pennywise). I hadn't read It, or watched the four-hour 1990 ABC miniseries adaptation, in probably two decades, but this brief taste of Derry and its strangely haunted inhabitants was enough to inspire me to check out both interpretations. And, much like the grown-up heroes of King's magnum opus, my memories had grown hazy, but they came flooding back with frightening speed and intensity.
It, the novel, was every bit as creepy and heartbreaking as I remembered it to be. Just as the Losers had to defeat the shapeshifting, child-murdering clown known as Pennywise as kids only to reunite as adults and return to Derry to really, truly put an end to It, I first read King's massive tome in junior high but returned to It as a reasonable hand-drawn facsimile of a grown-up. I found that I had a new appreciation for the way King's parallel narrative--one in 1958, the other in 1985--highlights the differences in the kid versions and the adult versions of the book's seven protagonists. I love how some of the characters escape the confines of their youth (fat kid Ben Hanscom loses his weight after a run-in with a nasty high school gym coach, motormouthed class clown Richie Tozier is able to parlay his obnoxious nature into a successful gig as a syndicated radio disc jockey), while others aren't able to fully shake their past (Beverly Marsh marries a simulacrum of her abusive father, while Eddie Kaspbrak weds a dead ringer for his worry-wart, hypochondriac mother). But of course, the thousand faces of Pennywise are the real show-stopper here; It knows what scares these kids, and feeds on that fear by transforming into, among other things, a mummy, a rotting leper, a witch, a vampire, a giant bird, Frankenstein's monster, and the Creature From The Black Lagoon. None of this would mean much besides mere name-dropping without King's wonderfully gruesome descriptions of these horrors, rendered vividly in the author's blackly humorous and inimitable voice. At the time, King said It was his last horror hurrah, and he definitely pulls out all the stops, even veering into crazily Lovecraftian territory for the beast's cosmic origins.
And then there's the time that John Boy, Venus Flytrap, Jack Tripper, Lana Lang, and Judge Harold T. Stone got together to fight a big rubber spider with googly eyes. All right, that might not be the fairest assessment of the TV adaptation of It, but the two-part miniseries is pretty rough going. A cast of TV mainstays that includes Richard Thomas (The Waltons), Tim Reid (WKRP In Cincinatti), John Ritter (Three's Company), Harry Anderson (Night Court), and Annette O'Toole (Lana Lang in Superman III, but somehow also Ma Kent on Smallville!) provides the star power as the grown-up monster killers (The Thing's Richard Masur and Dennis Christopher, who I only know from this miniseries, round out the cast). Also on board is Black Christmas's Olivia Hussey and, of course, Tim Curry (in a "Special Appearance") as Pennywise, in a role that apparently made a whole generation of kids terrified of clowns forever after.
To be fair, there wasn't much chance that It was ever going to work on a television budget. The makeup budget for Pennywise's various transformations alone would have been cost-prohibitive, not to mention the price tag for half of the story being a period piece. Then there's also the little matter of all those gruesome child murders--ABC's Standards & Practices Department wouldn't have been too amused. Unfortunately, the solutions arrived at by screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen and director Tommy Lee Wallace don't really cut the mustard. Instead of his run-in with the Leper--a symbol for his paralyzing fear of disease and decay--young Eddie Kaspbrak is menaced, snakelike shower faucets? Rather than being killed by the Frankenstein Monster in the sewers beneath Derry, bullies Victor Criss and Belch Huggins are dispatched instead by a glowy light that pulls them into sewer pipes. And instead of a monster bird nesting in the Derry Ironworks, Mike Hanlon sees...nothing. Not until he joins up with the Losers, anyway (here bafflingly referred to as the "Lucky Seven"). At times, the miniseries is hilariously literal in its interpretation of King's text--Belch Huggins really does deliver approximately 80% of his dialogue in belch form. That must have been a fun audition process.
Tim Curry really gets into the spirit of Pennywise, cackling, capering, and hissing with evil glee. John Ritter, Tim Reid, and Dennis Christopher all do quite well as the adult versions of Ben, Mike, and Eddie. The young cast, which includes Seth Green and Jonathan Brandis as Richie and Bill, respectively, is solid, and some of the monster makeups--like the Teenage Werewolf and an acid-scarred incarnation of Pennywise--are actually pretty good. But then there are those aforementioned compromises of budget and the censors, which serve to de-fang King's monster menagerie. The climax is spectacularly goofy. The nightmarish spider that serves as It's ultimate form in the novel, a black-furred monstrosity with red eyes and ooze-dripping mandibles, is represented here by a rubbery, lobsterlike, animatronic beastie with hypnotic plates in its underbelly. King himself said it best in a Fangoria interview, where he called the creature a "Tonka Toy". There's been talk recently of Warner Brothers adapting It once again, this time as two feature films directed by Cary Fukunaga (2011's Jane Eyre). In this new adaptation, the flashbacks would be set in the early 1980s, which makes sense but begs the question--will the children of Derry now be terrorized by Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers instead of the Mummy and the Creature? Time will tell if the new version works, assuming it ever reaches the screen...but it's safe to say that as far as the exploits of Pennywise the Dancing Clown are concerned, nobody does It better than Stephen King himself.