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.

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