Friday, November 30, 2012

The Night Has Its Price: NEAR DARK Revisited

I was thrilled when I found Near Dark on Blu-ray for ten bucks at the grocery store a few weeks back. Thrilled, because it's an underrated little gem of '80s horror, but also a bit grossed out because it came packaged inside this fugly little bit of Twilight-bait cover art.
I think any hapless Twihard who picked this movie up based on the cover would be pretty disappointed. If anything, Near Dark is kind of the anti-Twilight. It's a vampire movie for people who don't like vampire movies. The word "vampire" never once shows up in it, and there's not a single fanged mouth to be found. It's also a stylish early feature from A-lister Kathryn Bigelow, whose The Hurt Locker nabbed her a few Oscars, and whose upcoming Zero Dark Thirty looks set to do likewise. Near Dark opens as a Texas kid named Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) meets Mae (Jenny Wright), an alluring young girl with cold skin and a taste for blood. When Caleb gets bitten, he finds himself abducted by Mae's bloodsucking kinfolk--gravel-voiced Jesse (Lance Henriksen), bleach-blonde Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), stone-cold psycho Severen (a scene-stealing Bill Paxton), and embittered eternal youth Homer (Joshua Miller). While Caleb's frantic father (Tim Thomerson) searches for him, the family of vamps is busy inducting the kid into their world of nightly mayhem--feeding on long-haul truckers and whole honkytonk bars full of unlucky rednecks.
The script, by Bigelow and Eric Red (who also wrote The Hitcher--the guy definitely had a thing for scary desert highways), plays more like a gritty western than a brooding vampire flick. There are some great throwaway lines alluding to Jesse and Severen's extended lifespan ("Hey, Jesse, remember that fire we started in Chicago?", "I fought for the South. We lost."), and the cast is terrific all across the board. Bigelow was married to James Cameron at the time, and she makes the most out of her then-husband's Aliens cast members (a movie theatre has the 1986 sequel listed on its marquee in the background of one shot). Shot by Terminator 2 cinematographer Adam Greenberg, the film looks gorgeous, particularly in high definition--the combination of dusty highways and slick neon gives the film a look unlike any other. And I don't know if Garth Ennis or Steve Dillon have ever acknowledged it, but their still-classic Preacher comic series owes it a debt, particularly when it comes to their portrayal of blood-drinking Irish rogue Cassidy.
And man, wouldn't Lance Henriksen make a great Saint Of Killers?
Come to think of it, Jenny Wright would have a made a swell Tulip, too.
25 years later, Near Dark has aged just as well as its undead heavies. We'll just have to wait and see if Twilight and its pasty-faced kin can say the same in 2037.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Do Not Disturb: Decoding Kubrick's THE SHINING In ROOM 237

Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, which doesn’t stick very closely to the source novel, has more than its fair share of detractors (King himself among them). But those who like it like it a lot, and some of those who like it have taken it several steps further than the rest of us—reading a variety of coded messages in Kubrick’s detail-packed production design and carefully composed shots. Five such fans, and their various interpretations of the movie’s deeper meanings, are our guides through the new documentary Room 237. These individuals have become lost in the maze of the Overlook Hotel, so to speak, and their obsessive quest to determine the true significance behind every single shot of the film makes for fascinating, if at times laughable, viewing.
The five unseen narrators—mostly writers and indie filmmakers—walk us through their own readings of what they each believe The Shining is really about. One narrator claims that the movie is a subtle indictment of the genocide of Native Americans, pointing to the mention of the Overlook being built on an Indian burial ground, as well as the various Native American artwork and designs throughout the hotel (he ascribes particular significance to a well-placed can of Calumet baking soda, featuring the silhouette of an Indian chief, in the pantry). Another insists that the movie’s famous hedge maze alludes to larger mythological underpinnings, even going so far as to insist that a backlit portrait of a skier in the Overlook's game room is meant to suggest the form of a minotaur (it’s a bit of a stretch, to say the least). Another still is convinced that the film is a commentary on the Holocaust, taking care to point out multiple appearances of the number 42 (the year Hitler implemented his “Final Solution”) and the German-made typewriter used by Jack Torrance. Most absurdly, one narrator, filmmaker Jay Weidner, is absolutely certain that Kubrick used The Shining to admit his compliance in helping NASA fake the moon landing on a sound stage. Details like Danny Torrance’s “Apollo 11” sweater, Weidner insists, are impossible-to-miss signposts of the director’s compliance in the conspiracy. Weidner, who documented the alleged fakery in his 2011 film Kubrick’s Odyssey, concludes that Kubrick was so torn up with guilt over what he’d done that he inserted hidden messages admitting his involvement in the film’s design and, more overtly, within Jack and Wendy’s marital strife (Weidner says that Kubrick scripted these scenes as a way of dealing with his inability to come clean with his own wife over what he’d done). Kubrick, who died in 1999, is conveniently not around to confirm or deny any of the claims made by Room 237's narrators.
Most of these theories are pretty ridiculous, and are clearly the result of watching the movie far too many times. That’s not to say that all of the ideas espoused in Room 237 are completely half-baked, though. Some of the observations are thought-provoking, namely the ones that suggest Kubrick’s narrative is concerned about dealing with our inability to cope with past trauma and societal guilt over unthinkable atrocities. This may or may not actually have been Kubrick’s intent, but it’s an interesting way of looking at his work. Another section deals with alternative methods of viewing The Shining, walking us through a one-time theatrical screening where the film was projected over itself in reverse—playing forwards and backwards at the same time. A number of strange visuals result when watching the movie in this fashion, like Jack Torrance’s face appearing over the two murdered little girls (the combination of visual elements gives Jack a weirdly clownlike visage). Again, there’s no way Kubrick could have anticipated such results, but it’s kind of cool nonetheless. However, for every thought-provoking aside in Room 237, there’s another snicker-inducing observation from the narrating fans, like the aforementioned minotaur, or the massive erection Weidner insists appears onscreen in the form of desk clutter when the Overlook’s manager, Mr. Ullman, meets Jack Torrance in his office for the first time.
Directed by Rodney Ascher, Room 237 could have easily become a dry treatise on film study, and does threaten to do so on a few occasions (such as some of the play-by-play sequences where the audience is invited to watch a super-slowed-down scene from the film, all in the hopes of catching a tiny detail that isn’t really there to begin with). But the film is kept visually interesting through the use of clips from Kubrick’s other work (Eyes Wide Shut and 2001: A Space Odyssey turn up a lot), as well as some other, less-obvious, non-Kubrick choices (like An American Werewolf In London and the 1985 giallo flick Demons). A synthesizer score by William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes keeps the mood appropriately cerebral, with a hint of the macabre. Many of the theories touted by Shining superfans in Room 237 may be as rail-thin as Shelley Duvall, but the documentary gives you a new appreciation for The Shining itself—a fascinating, maddening puzzle-box of a movie that has as many possible interpretations as the Overlook Hotel has rooms.

Friday, November 23, 2012

A Bad Case Of Crabs: Barry Levinson's THE BAY

When you think of the found-footage horror genre, a name like Barry Levinson doesn’t usually spring to mind. After all, what possible interest could the Oscar-winning director behind Rain Man and Good Morning Vietnam have in the format? But the Baltimore-based filmmaker has an ecological agenda to explore in The Bay (produced by Paranormal Activity’s Oren Peli), which raises real concerns about the effects of pollution in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. It does so through the device of a terror flick about murderous, mutated crustaceans, but anything that helps to get the word out will do, I suppose.
The Bay recounts the events of one serious bummer of a Fourth Of July celebration, as seen through the lenses of various video devices utilized by the citizens of Claridge, Maryland. Variously, we follow the action through footage taken by a local news crew, police surveillance cameras, a young girl’s FaceTime conversation, and more. Right around the time of the big crab-eating competition, a mysterious plague seems to sweep through the entire town, afflicting the locals with horrifying boils and causing them to spit up blood. As the emergency room fills up with frantic, seemingly diseased townspeople, we hear tell of a pair of ecology-minded scuba divers whose bodies were recently discovered floating in the Bay. The duo was chewed up as though a bull shark had gotten at them, but as we learn more and more about the town’s corrupt Mayor and the variety of pollutants being dumped into the Bay—chicken crap from the local poultry mill, waste from a nearby nuclear plant—it becomes apparent that something nastier is taking place. We are told that the Bay is now 40 % lifeless (a true statistic, as it turns out), and what life does still exist there is being preyed upon by isopods—normally tiny crustacean lifeforms that have been growing to unusual size thanks to pollution. The entire water supply of Claridge has been tainted with isopod larvae, and both the marine life and the townspeople are being eaten alive from the inside-out by the nasty bugs…who have a particular taste for tongues.
With its Fourth Of July setting, corrupt city officials, and what appears at first to be a flesh-eating virus, The Bay sometimes feels like Jaws meets Cabin Fever. It takes awhile for the real threat to emerge, and at times it seems like the film is piling on too many potential explanations for the chaos. A good deal of the action is documented by a young intern from the local TV station (Kether Donohue), and her running commentary—particularly with regards to the impending arrival by boat of an unsuspecting young couple and their baby—is a bit silly. There’s also never really any explanation why some people remain unaffected by the isopod massacre, considering that nearly the entire town is wiped out by it. That said, the idea of oversized bugs munching their way out of your body is pretty horrific, and the many scenes of bloody, tongueless townspeople are suitably disgusting. CGI bugs are exactly the kind of special effects that don’t usually translate well to the found-footage format, but the ones seen here are used sparingly and effectively. You probably won’t go to bed afraid that isopods are going to get you after watching The Bay, but you’ll probably want to skip the crab legs next time you eat seafood.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

I Survived The GORETORIUM!

When I visited Las Vegas with a group of friends for a wedding last weekend, there were a few things I knew I had to do before I left—see the desert, lose some money at the slot machines—but as a horror devotee, my top priority was to make a trip to Eli Roth’s new Goretorium attraction. I’d been following its progress since the release of this bloody teaser some months back, and there was no way I was missing out. My girlfriend Hillary is far too easily scared for such things (“I don’t like it when things jump out!” is a common reason why she won’t watch a lot of horror movies with me), but thankfully my pal Jess Smallwood was also in town for the wedding. Hillary refers to Jess as my “Horror Wife”, since she loves horror movies as much as I do, if not moreso. Jess is so committed, in fact, that she’s trying to watch a whopping 365 horror movies this year, which makes my paltry 31-film October attempt look pretty lame by comparison. In any event, Jess was going to visit the Goretorium even if she had to go it alone, but we partnered up to see the place for ourselves.
Located at the corner of Harmon and Las Vegas Blvd., the Goretorium is fronted by a bar and some suitably grotesque wall art, not to mention a chandelier constructed from skeletal remains and blood-filled hypodermic needles. There’s also a projection system that makes it look as though there are bugs crawling all over the floor, and an electric chair that you can have your picture taken in. The armrests actually deliver a mild electric shock—one that apparently doesn’t work as a deterrent, because I kept stupidly putting my hands on them. It took me about three zaps before I clued in to keep my hands up.
After a fairly long wait to get in to the actual attraction, followed by an even longer wait within the entrance, the fun began in earnest. While waiting, guests are treated to a history of the Goretorium’s location—the attraction is located on the site of the fictitious Delmont Hotel and Casino, founded in the 1960s by a deranged family of psychos and cannibals. According to the placards in the lobby and the accompanying news footage that plays on a loop in the waiting area, the police raided the Delmont and found the bodies of hundreds of unlucky guests in the basement. The murderous family members either killed themselves or were apprehended, with the exception of young Victor Delmont, who is said to have disappeared into the desert. Upon finally entering the attraction, we quickly learned what happens to any individual foolish enough to have his or her cellphone out. Our elevator, instead of lifting us up to view the Strip from the Hotel’s upper floors, plunged us into the hellish depths of the Delmont, where we were chased through a series of increasingly gory torture dens. We visited a cannibal’s kitchen, a twisted beauty salon, and an infernal wedding chapel. There was even a walkway that led us through a rotating cylinder that appeared to be made entirely of gristle and bone. All of the various rooms are decorated with gruesome props like severed limbs and the decaying relics of the Casino, and each area is inhabited by actors portraying both the twisted inhabitants of the Delmont and their unlucky victims. I don’t really want to give away too much of what’s in store for you if you visit the attraction—the less you know about what’s coming, the more fun it is. Truthfully, though, I probably couldn’t spoil it even if I wanted to. Our trip through the Goretorium lasted only about 15 minutes, but there was so much detail in the various sets and props that it’s pretty tough to take it all in. I can’t help but hope that someday the tour is documented on DVD or something so guests can fully appreciate all the hard work that clearly went in to making it such a wild experience. I especially don’t want to give away the final moments of the tour, where you are chased into an increasingly narrow tunnel that opens you out onto…never mind, it’s best if you see it for yourself. For a couple of horror nuts like Jess and myself, it was bliss. Our nerves were on edge waiting for a crazy butcher or mad doctor to jump out and leer at us or hiss threats, while we tried to drink in all the details of the place. I know that I jumped and screamed on at least one occasion. We even hit the gift shop afterwards, where Jess picked up a hoodie and I bought a t-shirt. We also were able to buy a cool photo souvenir of our trip through the nightmarish corridors of the Delmont Hotel.
As for Hillary? She rode the outdoor roller coaster at the New York, New York Casino, while I held her purse for her. I was too scared for that ride. I have a taste for terror, but even I have my limits.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

"He Has His Father's Eyes." ROSEMARY'S BABY Criterion Blu-Ray Review

Released in 1968, Rosemary’s Baby set off a cinematic Satanic panic that would continue to reverberate at the box office throughout the following decades. The Exorcist and The Omen both owe it a debt for popularizing demon-spawn, Ghostbusters borrowed its central idea of a devil cult setting up shop in a swank Manhattan apartment building, and Satanic thrillers like The Devil Inside and The Last Exorcism continue to dominate the multiplexes to this day. Not only did Roman Polanski’s breakthrough blockbuster foster a fear of modern-day devil-worshippers lurking around every corner, it also tapped into a common terror of generational warfare. For Rosemary Woodhouse (pixie-like Mia Farrow, in her star-making performance), not only are the kindly old neighbours against her, but even the child in her belly might be an enemy. At a time when the generation gap was never wider, Rosemary’s Baby triggered alarms across the psyches of the entire Baby Boom generation. Not only can you not trust your elders, it told them, but even your own children might be the spawn of the Devil himself.
Rosemary and her husband, struggling actor Guy (John Cassavetes), take an apartment in the lush Bramford building in Manhattan despite rumours of turn-of-the-century devil worshippers having lived there. The kindly but annoying senior citizens who reside at the Bramford seem harmless enough at first, but Rosemary comes to question their motives, particularly when her sudden pregnancy—accompanied by a surreal dream sequence of demonic rape witnessed by the naked, chanting neighbours—coincides with Guy’s big break as an actor (a rival for a key role is mysteriously stricken blind). Strange chanting and flute-playing can be heard through the walls, and the busybody neighbours keep giving Rosemary weird herb-derived smoothies to drink. The increasingly gaunt and paranoid Rosemary comes to suspect that the irritating oldsters are, in fact, witches who want to use her unborn child in some sort of ritual. The truth, it turns out, is much worse.
I first saw Rosemary’s Baby when I was in high school, and I didn’t get what the big deal was. I was waiting for big scares and monster makeups, neither of which were the point, but try telling that to a teenager reared on The Evil Dead and Poltergeist. I revisited it a decade or so later, and I finally understood that Polanski was going for a more adult form of horror, combining parental anxieties with urban paranoia. The film, based on Ira Levin’s novel, posits a world where God might very well be dead, and His opposite number’s bidding is done by smiling senior citizens. Polanski’s direction puts you right inside Rosemary’s head, making you question the motives of her husband and neighbours while you simultaneously question her sanity.
Just issued in a sparkling new transfer from the Criterion Collection, Rosemary’s Baby has never looked better. The cavernous-yet-claustrophobic hallways of the “Black Bramford” (in real life, the Dakota Hotel, on whose steps John Lennon met his untimely end), the garish, tacky outfits worn by the neighbouring Castavets (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer), the pale, skull-like face of the increasingly paranoid Rosemary—everything pops on the stunning new Blu-ray release. An anecdote-filled documentary featuring Farrow, Polanski, and producer Robert Evans (who turned Paramount Pictures’ fortunes around with the risky film’s runaway success) is bursting with fascinating historical details. Farrow received divorce papers mid-scene from then-husband Frank Sinatra, when she refused to walk out on the behind-schedule production to appear in his competing movie The Detective (the films opened on the same weekend, and Rosemary’s Baby crushed its competition). Sidney Blackmer was convinced his character’s joyous cries of “God is dead! Satan lives!” in the film’s climax would lead to his own eternal damnation. Producer William Castle, known for schlock-gimmick flicks like The Tingler and The House On Haunted Hill, was desperate to direct Rosemary’s Baby, seeing it as his shot at respectability (Evans wisely edged him out, giving him a cameo role instead). And Roman Polanski clashed often with John Cassavetes, himself then a director of early art-house fare like Faces and Shadows, over Polanski’s rigidly controlled approach (Cassavetes preferred a more improvisational approach, but Polanski wouldn’t allow it). No matter which baby-daddy you want to give credit to—Polanski, Evans, or Satan himself—the 44-year old Rosemary’s Baby hasn’t aged a day.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"It Belongs In A Museum!" Dusting Off THE RELIC (1997)

The Relic feels like a movie that should have come out twenty years earlier than it did. It has the distinct flavour of Seventies big-studio horror, for a number of reasons. It was based on a best-selling novel (by Douglas J. Preston and Lincoln Child). It has a cast full of mid-level famous leads, venerable character actors in supporting roles, and lots of "Hey, it's that guy!" guys (the janitor from The Breakfast Club! The "fists with your toes" guy from Die Hard!). It looks like it cost way more than it should have, a sure sign that Paramount threw more & more money at the movie rather than trying to fix its script problems. And it's directed by a filmmaker who doesn't have the firmest grasp of the genre.
The plot might have made more sense if I had read the New York Times-best selling source novel. Or not, who knows? A prologue shows us an archaeologist in a Brazilian jungle witnessing a tribal ritual of some kind, then drinking a concoction offered to him by the tribespeople. He has a bad reaction to it, then stows away on a ship bound for America to try and prevent some mysterious shipment of his from reaching civilization. Cut to Chicago several weeks later, when the ship has been found floating at sea, filled with decapitated crewmen. The baffled lead homicide detective, played by Tom Sizemore, is one of those delightfully eccentric cops who only exist in the movies--he's recently divorced (naturally), and has lost his beloved dog in the settlement. He's also obsessively superstitious, avoiding black cats and taking care not to step over dead bodies but around them. Meanwhile, at the nearby Natural History Museum, a plucky young evolutionary biologist played by Penelope Ann Miller is confounded by the arrival of a crate addressed to Dr. John Whitney--the guy we saw in the prologue--that contains a stone relic of a tribal protector/scary monster called the Kothoga, and a bunch of leaves covered in a weird orange fungus. It isn't long before security guards start turning up without their heads, and a bug that gets into the fungus samples is mutated into an oversized monstrosity (one that Miller's ever-curious scientist immediately squashes). None of this stops the museum from having a big gala opening of its new latest exhibition, though, and before you can say "We've got to close the beaches!", the rampaging Kothoga beast--kind of a cross between a Komodo dragon and a sabretooth tiger, I guess?--is making short work of well-dressed gala guests.
The biggest problem with The Relic is that the origin of the Kothoga monster is extremely confusing. If I understand it correctly, the tribe periodically uses the fungus to transform its warriors into a Kothoga when they are threatened, and the stuff Whitney drinks in the prologue turns him into the very monster that goes buck wild in the museum. I'm not sure why he wanted to stop the shipment of his stuff to Chicago--it's explained that it was mistakenly sent by air instead of sea--and I'm not clear how he/it got to the museum from the boat (there's a sewer chase at one point, so I guess that might be how he got around), or why he headed there at all. All of this might have been explained in a perfectly satisfactory fashion, but the first half of the movie is so plodding, my attention was constantly wandering away. Not even distinguished thespians like Linda Hunt and James Whitmore can make the dull first hour interesting. Director Peter Hyams is better known for his sci-fi efforts like Outland, Time Cop, and the underrated 2010, but other than his producing gig on my beloved Monster Squad, he doesn't have a lot of experience generating fright. Acting as his own cinematographer, Hyams makes The Relic look like a nice bit of classy, big-budget horror, but the scares just aren't there. The Kothoga, designed by Stan Winston and realized through a combination of animatronics and perfectly serviceable CGI, is an admittedly impressive creation, and that rarest of beasts--a new movie monster. When it rips into an unsuspecting SWAT team, the movie finally comes alive for the first time. But with such a convoluted origin story and uninteresting first half to contend with, it's too little, too late, and the movie's near-forgotten status today reflects these shortcomings. Sandwiched as it was between the twin terror phenomenons of Scream's postmodern slasher hijinks in 1996 and the birth of the found-footage horror genre with The Blair Witch Project in 1999, The Relic certainly does seem like the product of a bygone era.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

10 Horror Remakes That Are Actually Worth Your Time & Money

This past Halloween, my friends Jess, Kate, and Lor had a costume party (I went as Chief Brody from Jaws, in case you're wondering). At one point in the evening, Jess decided to throw a horror movie on in the background, settling on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. However, when I noticed that she was talking about the 2003 remake, I badgered her into not putting it on, and in the fallout, no one could settle on an appropriate movie. This says two things. 1) I am not much of a party guest. And, 2) my reputation as a remake hater precedes me. Granted, I do generally roll my eyes at the thought of an idea-starved Hollywood throwing more and more of my childhood favourites into the Platinum Dunes meat grinder. But, that being said, there are a number of horror remakes that I do enjoy, and some that I downright adore, even more than the originals that inspired them. I even find myself looking forward to 2013's remakes of Carrie and The Evil Dead--the former because of the talent involved, the latter because of the back-to-basics approach and wild gore seen in the film's red-band trailer. So, in the interest of proving that I'm not just a snobby old-school purist, here are ten horror remakes that I would happily recommend, in no particular order.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004): Zack Snyder's ultra-grim, fast-moving variant on George Romero's 1978 masterpiece ditches the original's biting consumerist satire, and is most definitely the poorer for it. But this update switches out social commentary for new spins on the zombie apocalypse setting, like the friendly game of "Spot-The-Celebrity-Zombie-Lookalike" and the much-maligned, but frankly scarier, running ghouls. Snyder's spin on the material lacks the dramatic weight of the original, but it's still a gory, hair-raising crowd pleaser.
FRIGHT NIGHT (2011): I still prefer the 1985 original with William Ragsdale, Roddy McDowall, and Chris Sarandon, but that doesn't mean I didn't get a kick out of Anton Yelchin, David Tennant, and Colin Ferrell in this Las Vegas-set revamp (ouch!). The sharp script by Buffy vet Marti Noxon wisely maintains the original's tongue-in-cheek tone, and the 3D in the theatrical release was surprisingly effective. The '11 version loses points for its reliance on CGI over practical effects, but gains them for Ferrell's sly turn as a himbo bloodsucker named, of all things, Jerry.
THE THING (1982): What modern-day horror fan doesn't love John Carpenter's gooey, apocalyptic update of the Cold War classic? Besides featuring Rob Bottin's most accomplished effects work, the '82 model also features a bearded Kurt Russell at his most badass, and has one of the cinema's great bleak endings. You could argue that this is merely a new, more faithful adaptation of the short story "Who Goes There?" By John Campbell, which inspired the 1951 version as well, but as long as we all agree to skip the unfortunate 2011 version, we'll all get along just fine.
DRACULA (1979): As I said about The Thing above, John Badham's romanticized take on the classic chiller is also a new adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel more than it's a remake (well, technically, it's an adaptation of the stage play version, as was the 1931 Lugosi film). It's also the first version of the Dracula story I ever saw on screen, when CTV debuted it during prime time in the early Eighties, and it remains my favourite take on the material. Frank Langella, magnetic in the role of the legendary Count, headlines an impressive cast that features Laurence Olivier, Donald Pleasance, and Kate Nelligan, and John Williams' elegant score is one of his unsung masterpieces.
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978): The 1956 original Don Siegel film is still a white-knuckle classic of Cold War paranoia, but Phillip Kaufman's reimagining of the Jack Finney novel remains one of the scariest tales of alien terror ever made. Kaufman's film stars Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Leonard Nimoy, a very young Jeff Goldblum, and perpetual extraterrestrial hysteric Veronica Cartwright. Substituting Communist hysteria with New Age psychobabble, the '78 version unfolds with an air of inescapable dread, ending with one of the most downbeat final images of the genre. And no, I'm not just talking about Sutherland's perm-and-moustache combo, either.
LET ME IN (2010): The only movie more doomed to fan derision than a remake of a beloved horror movie is a remake of a beloved foreign-language horror movie. The Swedish original, 2008's Let The Right One In, is a deeply affecting tale of doomed adolescent love, but I think I prefer Matt Reeves' Americanized redo just a bit more. Chloe Grace-Moretz is commanding as the forever-young vampire, and the always-great Richard Jenkins is heartbreaking as her past-his-prime human protector. The New Mexico setting adds an interesting layer of guilty history to the story (this is, after all, where the atomic bomb was built), and the crash filmed from the inside of the car is a show-stopping sequence.
THE HILLS HAVE EYES (2006): I've never been much of a fan of Wes Craven's 1977 original, which sees an extended family battling their cracked-mirror reflections in the form of a hillbilly clan mutated by atomic testing in the desert. But Alexandre Aja's supersick update is leaner, meaner, and much scarier. By the time this movie hit theatres, deformed white-trash villains were becoming more than a little cliche, but Aja uses the remote setting to make them terrifying all over again. And the final showdown, set in a 1950s-style, mannequin-inhabited mock neighbourhood built to be nuked, is inspired.
THE BLOB (1988): The scariest thing about the 1958 original might be the theme song by Burt Bacharach, so writer Frank Darabont and director Chuck Russell had their work cut out for them. The '88 Blob goes the '82 Thing route, filling its running time with scene after scene of highly imaginative gore. The new-model alien glop doesn't just consume its victims, it corrodes them, and will stop at nothing to continue feeding--pulling victims through drains, manholes, walls, even crushing them inside phone booths. There's also a cool new government-paranoia-inspired twist on the Blob's origins, and a nifty final scene that sets up a sequel which, sadly, never happened.
PIRANHA (2010): Calling Alexandre Aja's (him again!) gleefully gory 3D offering a remake of Joe Dante's 1978 drive-in favourite might be a bit charitable. Other than the toothsome antagonists, the two films have very little in common. Whereas Dante's Roger Corman-produced original unleashed the title carnivores (the product of genetic weapons research conducted for river warfare in Vietnam) on a summer camp full of unsuspecting children, Aja's film lets the evil little fishies (here, prehistoric creatures released from an underwater fissure) loose on a phalanx of bikini-clad Spring Breakers. As a result, the refreshingly R-rated movie has boobs and blood in equal measure, plus an Eighties-friendly cast that includes Elizabeth Shue, Christopher Lloyd, and Richard Dreyfuss in a cameo nod to his iconic Jaws role.
THE FLY (1986): I actually haven't watched David Cronenberg's remake of the 1958 sci-fi classic in years, and I'm a little afraid to--I've seen a lot of disgusting movies in my day, but none are as quite as stomach-churning as this one is. Part tragic romance between winning leads Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, part STD-allegory (Cronenberg's film landed during the early years of the AIDS crisis), all flesh-crawling body horror, The Fly set a new standard for animatronics, gore effects and the science of accidentally turning lab monkeys inside out. The 1989 sequel starring Eric Stoltz and Daphne Zuniga may have even been more gory, but it lacks the heartbreaking human drama at the centre of Cronenberg's original.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

31 Days Of Horror 2012...PART THIRTEEN! The Final Chapter!

CARRIE (1976): The shadow of Carrie loomed large over several of the movies in my lineup this year. Obviously, Prom Night, with its prom-themed massacre and its teaming up of a bitch queen and a clueless bully thug owes a debt to it, as does Trick Or Treat, which features a similar scene of high school tormentors getting their supernatural comeuppance (only at a Halloween dance instead of the prom). In a way, it even seems that We Need To Talk About Kevin sort of begins where Carrie ends (taking into account Kevin's time-shuffled structure, that is), with a small town full of angry, grieving parents dealing with the aftermath of a high school massacre; it's easy to draw a line from the empty lot emblazoned with the legend "CARRIE WHITE BURNS IN HELL" to the red paint-splattered house Tilda Swinton's pariah protagonist lives in. I hadn't seen Brian DePalma's breakthrough adaptation of Stephen King's blockbuster first novel in over a decade, and I was pleased to find that it only gets better with age. Sissy Spacek is heartbreaking as the telekinetic teen, and her performance is nothing short of remarkable--she sells her character's transformation from wallflower to prom queen to, tragically, angel of vengeance, with no visible effort. DePalma's visuals are pure eye candy as well. Each beautifully-composed shot is packed with detail and teeming with vibrant colour. The tone of Carrie always struck me as a bit odd, but the way it transitions from high school soap opera into supernatural horror heightens the story's ultimate tragedy--you can't help but get lulled into the fairy tale myth of Carrie's transformation into a prom queen, just in time to get sucker-punched by the cruelty of her classmates. Carrie is also a strange sort of female empowerment movie, and not just in reference to the title character's burgeoning psychic abilities, either. The women are unquestionably in charge here, whether it's Chris (Nancy Allen, never better or bitchier) using fellatio to convince Billy (John Travolta) to slaughter a pig for her, or Sue (Amy Irving) convincing Tommy (William Katt) to take Carrie to the prom. Watching it again, I also realized that Frank Darabont's new, much bleaker ending for his adaptation of King's The Mist wisely brings his film into line with Carrie's ultimately horrible truth--the worst, scariest thing in the world would be if the religious wackos in both stories were right, and they sort of are. Sacrificing your kid will make the monsters go away, and if you go to the prom with Tommy Ross, they are all gonna laugh at you.
MANIAC (1980): Character actor Joe Spinnell (The Godfather, Rocky) scripted the role of Frank Zito in Maniac for himself to play, which I guess makes this grindhouse favourite the Good Will Hunting of slasher-trash cinema. Gene Siskel famously walked out of the movie theatre a half-hour into William Lustig's depraved bloodbath, and he probably wasn't the only one. This intimate portrait of a lonely psychopath who murders women and takes their scalps to adorn his mannequin collection is one grimy, unpleasant little movie. Maniac unfolds mostly in slight variations on three scenes: 1. Spinnell's Zito stalks a woman (or a couple) around for awhile, breathing labouriously in some of the cinema's most enthusiastic foley work. 2. Zito then murders the woman (or couple) in spectacularly gory fashion. 3. Zito returns to his crummy apartment to attach the fresh scalp to one of his mannequins, then talk to himself, the mannequins, and the spectre of his dead mother until he throws a fit and breaks down crying. The pattern breaks when Zito meets a sultry photographer (former Bond girl Caroline Munro), and improbably enough, starts dating her. But old habits die hard, and Zito's return to his murderous ways lead to a freaky climax/dream sequence complete with the killer's decomposed mother busting out of her grave, not to mention the murdered women returning from the dead for revenge. The effects by Tom Savini are pretty impressive despite the shoestring budget--particularly a super-graphic exploding head (the one belonging to the character Savini also plays, no less!). You almost get the sense that Spinnell and Zito didn't really think they were making a horror movie, but instead were capturing an intimate yet gritty character study on film, not unlike Taxi Driver (which Spinnell also had a small part in). Borderline inept at times (the film is unbelievably murky, with awkward editing and occasionally incomprehensible audio), but weirdly effective at others, Maniac is most assuredly a memorable experience--just not one everyone will be up for.
DRAG ME TO HELL (2009): I remember being bummed out that Drag Me To Hell didn't perform better at the box office when it was released in 2009, but upon revisiting it this year I can kind of see why it didn't set the box office ablaze. As a big fan of Raimi's Evil Dead films, particularly the gonzo, Three Stooges-inspired second instalment, I immediately responded to the haphazard outbursts of humour in Raimi's return to horror. However, to a new generation of thrillseeking moviegoers, the tone of this movie must have been fairly strange (Drag Me To Hell is rated PG-13, to give you an idea of who it was aimed at). This tale of an ambitious bank employee (Alison Lohman) cursed by an old gypsy woman is jam-packed with Raimi's pet obsessions--broad physical comedy, gleefully evil demonic spirits, and slimy bodily fluids spewing out of people and into the faces of other people. It's pretty light stuff, for the most part. A lot of the shenanigans that bedevil the protagonist are of the social-awkwardness variety--the demonic torments that Lohman's Christine suffers threaten the promotion she's seeking at work, or the opinion of her potential in-laws. In a weird bit of coincidence (or homage on Raimi's part?), the final scene echoes the finale of one of the earlier films on my list, Curse Of The Demon, as both films feature a character on a railroad track beset upon by a demonic apparition. I'd only really recommend this one for diehard fans of classic, pre-Spider-Man Sam Raimi, or younger horror fans looking for a lightweight scare fix.
THEY LIVE (1988): I had planned to finish off my 31 horror films with a screening of the Criterion Collection's new Rosemary's Baby blu ray on Halloween Night, but my copy didn't arrive on time. Thankfully, I got my hands on an advance copy of Scream Factory's new hi-def release of John Carpenter's 1988 classic, They Live, so that helped ease the sting. They Live isn't really a horror movie--I'd file it more under science fiction or action (with a touch of comedy), but it always seemed to end up in the scary section of the video store when I was a teen, so I feel like I can get away with including it. The story of a construction worker (none other than the legendary Rowdy Roddy Piper himself!) who finds a pair of special glasses that allow him to see the skull-faced, silver-eyed aliens pulling humanity's strings continues to be relevant today. In Carpenter's America, the 99 % are enslaved by an extradimensional 1% who maintain order with subliminal messages in the media, coding billboards and magazines with slogans like CONFORM, STAY ASLEEP, and MARRY AND REPRODUCE (even dollar bills are emblazoned with the legend THIS IS YOUR GOD). Of course, since the movie's star is a bona fide WWF superstar, the only way to free mankind from unknowing enslavement is to resort to brutal violence and cartoonish smack-talk (hence Piper's immortal pronouncement "I have come here to kick ass and chew bubblegum...and I'm all outta bubblegum" right before he empties a shotgun into a bank full of the invaders). Carpenter regulars like Keith David and Peter Jason (I guess JC enjoyed working with guys who have two first names and no last names) fill out the cast, along with Meg Foster (Leviathan) and her creepy blue eyes. Scream Factory's new disc features a crazy new cover by Tom "The Dude" Hodge (designer of the theatrical poster for Hobo With A Shotgun), but also thankfully preserves the original, iconic poster art on a reversible sleeve.
There's also a commentary by Carpenter and Piper, which I believe was recorded for the Region 2 DVD but makes its official North American debut here. Come for the message about the disappearing middle class and the rich feeding on the poor. Stay for the one-liners, the cool aliens, and that incredibly overlong alleyway fight scene between Roddy Piper and Keith David.