Archive for October, 2012

Quick question : why do you go see horror films? If you’re anything like me, you don’t expect these things to actually, ya know, scare you anymore, so what’s the point?

I ask this question now because it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot for the last 24 hours since seeing director Scott Derrickson’s Sinister. Why? Because this thing actually is scary. And not just in the “jump-outta-your-seat” sense, although there are a few good “cheap scares” of that variety, to be sure. No, it’s the underlying concept here that’s so frightening.

Granted, that wouldn’t really matter if the standard bases weren’t covered so well, but rest assured they are — the casting is pitch perfect, with a decidedly unhealthy-looking Ethan Hawke starring as true-crime writer Ellison Oswalt (admit it — you hope he dies on the basis of that name alone), who gets the less-than-bright idea of moving his fucking  family into the house of the latest atrocity he’s investigating (a family was hung from a tree in the backyard and their toddler-age daughter has been missing ever since), turning in one of those increasingly-unhinged performances that really rings true; Juliet Rylance hitting the admittedly predictable but well-done notes as his long-suffering wife, Tracy; and (thankfully) failed Presidential candidate Fred Dalton Thompson putting in a nicely believable turn as the local redneck sheriff.

In addition, director Derrickson has the whole “ramping-up-the-tension” thing down really well, and all the small-but-necessary touches such as moody lighting, minimalist settings, and a damn creepy musical score are present and accounted for. So, hey, on paper, it all looks good, right?

But then, the same can be said for dozens, even hundreds, of horror films over the last few years that have still, at the end of the day, fallen short when it comes to really delivering the goods. The same can’t be said of Sinister, and as mentioned earlier, I think it’s largely down to the fact that the main concept underpinning the proceedings here is both horrific in and of itself and, strangely enough given that it’s based in (fictionalized) ancient superstition, believable. You can see this kind of shit going down in the house next door, and you might not necessarily even know that it’s happening.

That, right there, is why Derrickson and his cohorts should take a bow for their efforts here. They’ve managed to deliver a story that, sure, is fantastic, in and of itself, but is also one that we can all relate to, featuring characters we can easily relate to, as well. The end result isn’t just the scariest thing to come out of a major Hollywood studio in 2012 (hell, in the past several years, truth be told), but also one of the most inventive, most creative, and most well-executed. I can’t recommend it highly enough. So why, indeed, do we really go see most horror films? There are probably countless reasons, but  Sinister is a stark reminder than any of these flicks that don’t actually scare us are really just wasting our time.

 

Sadistic. Misogynistic. Lurid. Visceral. Exploitative. Shameless. Hateful. Sleazy. These are some of the more polite terms that have been used when describing director William Lustig’s 1980 slasher classic Maniac. More unhinged reactions at the time of its release essentially stated that it marked the end of good taste and civility, if not western civilization itself — and while all that might be a little bit much, the truth is that most of the critics, the ones who called it “lurid,” “sleazy,” “hateful,” “misogynistic” and the like were absolutely right — what they failed to realize, if course, is that those very — uhhhmmm — “qualities” are what make this flick so fucking good.

Granted, our definition of “good” here at TFG doesn’t exactly match what the dictionary has to say, but the fact is that Maniac is one of those movies that you just plain never forget once you’ve seen it. Most of that is down to the tour-de-force performance of the late, great Joe Spinell as Frank Zito, the titular “maniac” himself, a man haunted by memories of childhood abuse at the hands of his mother who is taking out a twisted form of permanent vengeance on the entire female population of New York City. Spinell doesn’t even seem like he’s acting in this movie, and the low-grade production values employed by Lustig give this shot-on-16mm slice of pure, unadulterated celluloid hatred an even more immediate, quasi-documentary look that conspires to communicate Spinell’s unhinged portrayal even more directly. Sure, most of that raw, immediate quality is foisted upon this film due to budgetary constraints, but like all the best exploitation efforts, this flick’s ultra-low budget is actually its best friend, and a more polished, professional production would have positively ruined things.

Which isn’t to say that it looks cheap — Tom Savini’s effects, especially the infamous “shotgun-blast-to-the-head” scene, are particularly effective. A lot of — dare I say it — love obviously went into making this flick look as authentic as possible.  And if we were looking for one word to describe Maniac in a nutshell, that would probably be it : even aspects of the film that are less than realistic — I can’t see the glamorous Caroline Munro falling for Frank under any circumstances, and of course the infamous ending cuts loose from the moorings of reality entirely — still feel absolutely fucking authentic.

I can’t imagine that there are too many readers of this blog who haven’t seen Maniac before, or who don’t own it on DVD and/or Blu-Ray (and I sincerely hope that if you do, you’ve got the Blue Underground two-disc 25th anniversary edition, loaded as it is with positively awesome extras), but if you haven’t watched in awhile, this is a great time of year to revisit it : and if by some strange and slim chance you haven’t seen it, now would be the time to do so before the Elijah Wood remake hits our screens in December.

In a world full of super-powered slashers like Michael, Jason, and Freddy, Maniac stands out in that Lustig and company really seem to mean it. They’re just plain not fucking around; Maniac is all about bringing the horror home, and not just erasing, but obliterating  the “comfortable distance,” if you will, that usually exists between the audience and the fictional killer whose twisted exploits we’re privy to. This is the real thing, folks, and leaves you feeling psychically unclean merely for having seen it.

Who could ask for anything more?

Just as it wouldn’t really feel like Halloween without reviewing at least one of the films in John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s venerable Halloween slasher series, the season wouldn’t feel complete without reviewing a zombie flick of some sort or other as well, and this year I’ve chosen to revisit one of my personal favorites — 1990’s remake of George Romero’s seminal “walking dead” film, Night Of The Living Dead, written  (and overseen to one degree or another) by Romero himself and directed by former special effects wizard and all-around horror legend in his own right Tom Savini.

Am I going to attempt to argue here that this version is in any way, shape, or form better than the original? Of course not, that would be an absurd proposition, but it’s certainly stands head and shoulders above the bumper-crop of horror remakes that followed in its wake (and continues unabated to this day), stands as a damn fine film in its own right, and is a special treat for those of us who are devotees of the first movie in that it remains absolutely true to its roots while simultaneously being unafraid to toy with our expectations almost from the get-go.

I assume the basic plot needs no real recap here — besieged folks hole up in a farmhouse while the dead return to life and start to attack and feast upon the living — so let me just jump right into the meat of things and talk about why I think the changes Romero and Savini made here work , since that’s the subject that gets most horror fans worked up anyway. First off, Patricia Tallman’s iteration of Barbara is certainly no deranged or shellshocked “shrinking violet”-type here — anything but, and that marks a welcome departure since even by 1990 that sort of portrayal of your lead female character was going to seem hopelessly out of date. Instead, she’s more akin to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character from the Alien series and isn’t just unafraid to mix it up and “get her hands dirty,” so to speak, but welcomes the chance to do so. It’s a stark contrast to what we knew about the story — our thought we know — and Tallman pulls it off remarkably well.

Less obvious, but equally as notweworthy in its own right, are the subtle changes the Candyman himsef, Tony Todd, makes in his portrayal of Ben. With Tallman’s Barbara picking up a good deal of the slack as far as the action is concerned, he’s not called upon to be the “hero,” in a the traditional sense, in the same way that Duane Jones was in the original film, yet he is every bit the “glue guy” who holds the group together and functions as both its collective clear head and its conscience, leading by example in a group of strong-willed, industrious people who could all lay claim to the mantle of “unofficial leader” in their own right if they so chose. He’s steady, grounded, and carries on Jones’ legacy with distinction, even while being less a “man of action”-type than his esteemed predecessor in the role.

And while the Harry Cooper of 1990 is still largely an asshole, thanks to a nice turn from Tom Towles in the part he’s a more multi-faceted and all-too-human asshole than he was in the original script.

There are changes I don’t particularly care for — I would have loved for this film to be in black-and white, for instance, and I’m ambivalent about the re-worked ending (I don’t absolutely despise it as some purists do, but I have a certain amount of sympathy for their viewpoint), but on the whole I think Savini does a really nice job of contemporizing a story that didn’t necessarily need it, but was bound to get it anyway given the first film’s — ahem! — “copyright-free” status that insured that somebody, somewhere was going to remake the thing (as others have, unfortunately, since). In short, given that Night Of The Living Dead was essentially guaranteed to be remade, we should all be grateful that the remake that ended up happening first was this solidly-done, respectful, and professional — and that it didn’t just content itself with those things  but was willing and able to successfully update many of the key concepts, characters, and themes carried over from the original, as well. I can’t think of many horror remakes of more recent vintage that have managed to both remain true to their origins while subverting audience preconceptions at the same time; it’s definitely a tricky balancing act to pull off, but Savini and company were more than up to the task.

Well, no (although it certainly seems that way sometimes!), but the fine website “Comic Book And Movie Reviews” chose, for whatever reason, to interview me — rather than numerous other far worthier subjects — anyway. Here’s the link for your edification and/or amusement : http://www.comicbookandmoviereviews.com/2012/10/trash-film-guru-mixing-it-up-blog-style.html#axzz2ARhR7YVL

Jay, who runs the site, is a good guy and a darn fine internet scribe in his own right, so do yourself a favor if you follow the link and “choose to peruse,” as they say, the entire contents of his burgeoning cyber-enterprise, you’ll certainly be glad you did! Other than that, all I can say is that never having been “interviewed,” per se, before, I hope I don’t come off as too big a dweeb, douchebag, or some even-less-tolerable combination of the two. It was fun to answer Jay’s questions, even if some of them made no sense to me at the time (and still sorta don’t, but hey, it’s his show, not mine!), and it gave the opportunity to sit down and think about things on a really concrete and reductive level in a way that I haven’t done for some time. When somebody asks you a question like “what are your five favorite movies?,” or “what are your five favorite comics?,” you really do have to stop and think about it for a good few minutes — at least, if you’ve seen as many films and/or read as many comics as I have (and I’m sure this distinction applies to most of you, my dear readers, as well) you need to. So the experience was interesting, new, and it made me sit back and think for a bit, so I must say, thanks again Jay, and to any and all of you reading this, once more, please give his very high-quality site a look-see — you’ll thank me for it later, I promise!

Today’s the day I balance the karmic scales with director Rick Rosenthal. If you’ll recall, yesterday I was pretty harshly critical of his Halloween : Resurrection, and why not? It deserves all the scorn I can possibly heap on it and then some. But today we’ll take a look at his first stab (sorry, I couldn’t resist) at chronicling the exploits of  “slasher God ” Michael Myers, 1981’s Halloween II.

Basically, this flick succeeds not just because it picks up exactly where the first one left off, and not because series creators John Carpenter and Debra Hill wrote the script and wisely chose to set almost the entire thing in a hospital (always a great location for a horror flick), but because Rosenthal chooses to do things more or less exactly as Carpenter  would do them (hmmm — WWJCD? Does that sound like a bumper sticker horror fans would go for?) from his perch in the director’s chair. Whether we’re talking strictly visually, or extending things out to consider other aspects like overall tone and pacing, this feels like a seamless extension of the first film, and following a proven winner by aping it more or less exactly is frankly a darn smart move. Memorable (enough) characters like Lance Guest’s Jimmy and Leo Rossi’s Bud help matters as well, as does Donald Pleasence’s increasingly unhinged take on Dr. Loomis and Jamie Lee Curtis’ somewhat-toughened-up iteration of Laurie Strode, but all in all this feels more like an extension of the first film rather than a proper sequel per se, and while that might cause it to lose some points with those who, for whatever reason, demand some “originality” (whatever that even means anymore) in their entertainment, for those of us who just want to have a damn good time watching the slasher genre firing on all cylinders, well — we can’t ask for much more than this.

All that being said, the fine folks at Shout! Factory’s new(ish) Scream! Factory sub-label have given us a heck of a lot more with their new Blu-Ray and two-disc DVD release of this film. The remastered anamorphic widescreen transfer of the film and 5.1 sound mix are flat-out stellar, and the menu of extras included is well and truly mind-boggling. Check it out : there are two versions of the film included, the standard theatrical release and the TV version which includes quite a bit of material not in the theatrical cut (and leaves a lot out, needless to say); each version has a full-length commentary track (Rosenthal and Rossi do the theatrical cut while actor/stunt coordinator Dick Warlock handles the honors on the TV version); there’s a 30-plus-minute “making-of” documentary feature; there’s a feature revisiting the filming location as they are today; there’s a nice selection of deleted scenes playable with or without Rosenthal’s commentary ; we get a never-before-seen alternate ending (again with or without optional Rosenthal commentary); and there’s a hefty selection of promotional material including numerous TV spots, theatrical trailers, radio spots, and an extensive poster and stills gallery.

Whew! Talk about getting your money’s worth, they’ve absolutely pulled out all the stops on this one. So what are you waiting for? If you’re a fan of this series at all, then this should immediately skyrocket to the top of your “must-buy” list — if you haven’t done the wise thing and purchased it already, that is.

I don’t think the Halloween season would feel complete if I didn’t include a couple reviews of films from John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s seminal slasher series featuring the one and only Michael Myers as part of my annual “Halloween Horrors” roundup, and while I’m pretty close to having written about all of them over the last few years, I’ve still got a few to go, and we might as well start with the one that causes me the most pain as both a viewer and fan, just to get it out of the way if nothing else.

I’m referring, of course, to director Rick Rosenthal’s 2002 release Halloween : Resurrection, my personal least- favorite installment in the entire series (yes, I even like The Curse Of Michael Myers better), the flick that had the less-than-stellar idea of relaunching cinema’s most venerable slasher franchise as an I Know What You Did Last Summer – style teen horror, even though that largely lamentable subgenre was already pretty well running out of gas by that point.

Featuring Busta Rhymes and Tyra Banks (who, let’s face it, we were all hoping would lose her shirt at some pint in this flick — no such luck) as the head honchos and hosts of a “reality website” called DangerTainment (dumbest name ever) who get the hare-brained idea of putting together a group of randy teenagers to spend the night in the abandoned Myers house and broadcast whatever happens live on the internet, a plot conceit which also allows Rosenthal to attempt to spice up the proceedings with a few visual  nods to the then-nascent “handheld horror” craze, the whole thing is a sad amalgamation of incongruous elements that frequently don’t even work out so well on their own, much less slap-dashed together in “throw enough shit at the wall and hope something will stick”- fashion like this. Add in an unceremonious and undignified final exit for Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode character and the end result is a movie that isn’t just plain bad, but is frankly flat-out insulting to both longtime fans and more casual viewers alike.

It’s no huge surprise that this was the final nail in the coffin for Halloween until Rob Zombie came along and performed his from-scratch relaunch — even though it did in fact turn a tidy enough little profit at the box office, it was so obvious that anyone and everyone who had been involved with the series for a fair amount of time (Rosenthal had previously directed the perfectly serviceable Halloween II) was out of ideas with what to do with it that mothballing it for a good few years was the only option the Weinsteins, who by this point had obtained the rights to it under the auspices of their Dimension Films label, had left. The whole thing feels like nothing so much as an injured, limping, shot prizefighter running out the clock on what would prove, mercifully, to be his final turn in the ring. Michael Myers certainly deserved a better finale than this.

For those of you following my series on relaunching the Batman movie franchise for Through The Shattered Lens website, here’s a link to the newest segment, part eighteen, which I’m entering here manually since, annoyingly enough, the WordPress “reblog” feature is all goofed up right now!

http://unobtainium13.com/2012/10/22/which-way-forward-for-the-batman-movie-franchise-take-eighteen-costume-survey-results/

If it’s Halloween, it must be Saw.

Or so the saying went for the better part part of, believe it or not, a decade. But the Saw series is, for the time being at least, over with, and the new Halloween horror franchise is, of course, Oren Peli’s surprisingly resilient Paranormal Activity. And why not? These things are relatively cheap to make, since no established stars are required (heck, any face you’d recognize from elsewhere would diminish the faux-reality effect these flicks are aiming for), special effects are limited to a few “big moments,” and the number of sets required are minimal, to say the least. The latest installment, Paranormal Activity 4, is expected to gross $31 million in its opening frame, and while that represents a fairly significant decline from the $52 million opening of part three last year, it’s still enough to secure first place at the box office and pretty much guarantee a green light for part five next year, given that this thing only cost a few million bucks to get “in the can,” as the saying goes.

As for how part four fares in comparison to previous entries in the series from a non-commercial standpoint, I’d say it’s certainly not as strong as two and three were, but still delivers the goods pretty well, and most importantly it actually moves the story forward by, well — moving the story forward, rather than embellishing upon our understanding of just what the hell is exactly going on by delving ever deeper into the past. And, as with last time around, Micah Sloat is nowhere in sight, so that’s a big plus, too.

After giving us some cursory flashback information to refresh our memories, the story gets rolling in the present day (well, okay, 2011), in the appropriately soul-dead suburban environs of Henderson, Nevada, where a bland upper-middle-class family is trying to figure out just what to make of their new neighbors across the street, a single mom (who we know to be Katie, played as always by Katie Featherston, from the previous films) and her creepy kid, Robbie ( Brady Allen —who we assume to be kidnapped baby Hunter, now grown up just a little bit). The “action,” as it were here, is transmitted via the conceit of several computer webcams, thus keeping the whole “hand-held horror” thing going, and the characters — standard teenage daughter Alex (Kathryn Newton), her standard horndog boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively), standard younger brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp), and standard marriage-hanging-by-a-thread parents Holly (Alexondra Lee) and Daniel (Brian Boland) — are all, well, frighteningly standard (as if you couldn’t guess that much), but what the hell : they’re more here to serve a function than to actually be unique or at all memorable in their own right, and as far as that goes, they all acquit themselves just fine.

Look, let’s not kid ourselves — the directorial team of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, veteran hold-overs from the last film, aren’t out to reinvent the wheel here, they’re just out to deliver the goods as we’ve come to expect them, and maybe provide at least one nice little plot twist to keep us on our toes and let  us that all know that we’re not as smart as we might think are, which is certainly the case here when it’s revealed that one of the key assumptions we’ve been making from the outset of the film is completely wrong. A few cheap jump-outta-yer-seat scares are, of course, a necessary ingredient in the mix, as well, and we get those, too, so there’s really nothing to complain about here.

Oh, sure, Paranormal Activity has become a formulaic, largely predictable thing at this point, but it’s a franchise now — what do you expect? Truth be told even the first one was never really as innovative as it presented itself as being. But if the formula keeps working, and the story keeps moving in at least a quasi-interesting direction, then count me as being one who’s happy to stick along for the ride. There’s nothing particularly exciting or groundbreaking about a Big Mac at this point, either, but every once in awhile, when you’re in just the right mood,  they hit the spot like nothing else.

Posted: October 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

My series on relaunching the “Batman” movie franchise for Through The Shattered Lens website continues with Part 17 !

Through the Shattered Lens

 

One of these days, I probably really should get around to playing the Batman : Arkham City video game. Of course that means buying a video game system of some sort and that will inevitably lead to getting more games and more games means less time for things like movies and comics. It could even mean less time with my wife, at which point I know I’d be well and truly beyond all help. So I think I’ll refrain.

But still — a fair amount of what we’ve been discussing in this little (okay, not so little) Bat-thread of mine seems to revolve around ideas presented in this Arkham City game, and it’s rather flabbergasting that I’m freely swiping so many concepts for my imaginary new Bat-movie-trilogy from something I really have no first-hand experience with — but hey, that’s the way it goes sometimes, I guess. All of…

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Posted: October 18, 2012 in Uncategorized

The sixteenth (!) segment in my series on re-launching the “Batman” movie franchise for Through The Shattered Lens website —

Through the Shattered Lens

This actually isn’t a diversion from where we were in the plot of our hypothetical Batman I  film. Well, okay, not too much of a diversion.

If you’ll recall, when we last left things the other day, Vincent Lucchesi, Gotham City crime “boss of all bosses,” was headed out to oversee an important shipment coming into town that his guys had neglected to find replacement “security” for once the cop-on-the-take they’d hired to fill that role, the always-crooked Lieutenant Flass, had been sent upriver by Harvey Dent and Jim Gordon. All of which means it’s time to cut to some semi-momentous shit that we’ve all been waiting for (assuming there’s a “we” out there still reading this interminably long series), namely our first scene of the Batman in costume, followed in short order by the debut of this new bat-trilogy’s version of the Batmobile.

So shouldn’t I be doing a…

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