Posts Tagged ‘horror movie’

If there’s one thing that unites almost the entirety of the notoriously disparate horror community, it seems to be the belief that George A. Romero, creator of the modern-day zombie movie, really fucked up with 2007’s Diary Of The Dead.

Is this a universally-held opinion? Of course not, there’s literally no such thing. But somewhere in the neighborhood of about 75% of the hard-core horror fans out there , including even some of Romero’s biggest boosters, either think this thing is an unmitigated piece of garbage or, if they’re feeling more generous, a regrettable misstep from a guy who maybe just doesn’t have “it” like he used to.

As is my custom, I’m here to say “pshaw” (or however you spell that) to all that. Diary Of The Dead is no masterpiece, to be certain, but not only is it nowhere near as bad as its sizable legion of detractors would have you believe, it’s actually a lot more relevant and insightful than the vast majority of the other “hand-held horrors” out there made by much younger, much more”with it”, but ultimately less talented filmmakers.

Essentially what Big George is doing here is going right back to the beginning of the entire zombie apocalypse — the first “Night,” if you will — and viewing it through a fresh and contemporary lens. Disenchanted with big-budget Hollywood moviemaking after “Land Of The Dead,” Romero wanted to go back to the basics — low budgets, inexperienced actors, new guys doing the gore FX, etc. He was yearning for his independence after spending a few years in the belly of the Hollywood beast, and figured (quite rightly, too, I might add) who better to re-examine the roots of the modern zombie phenomena than the guy who got the ball rolling in the first place?

So George headed for Canada with about three million bucks, a company of unknown actors, some raw but talented behind-the-scenes folks, and emerged with exactly what he was he was trying to make — a film that, for good and bad, has all the immediacy, earnestness, and yes, warts, of a first-time cinematic effort.

We’ll focus on the warts first, just to get them out of the way. The acting in this thing is uneven at best, atrocious at worst. Nobody involved in front of the camera has really achieved much career-wise, and there’s a good reason for that : there’s just not a single standout performance in the bunch. In fact, moments of genuine competence feel like a breath of fresh air, so entry-level is most of the thespian work on display here. Which isn’t to say that the majority of the performers are actively bad, but most are pretty clearly in the earliest stages of honing their craft.

Now let’s move on to the good. Most of the effects work, a mix of both live-action and CGI, is pretty solid for a movie with this sort of budget. The zombies seem menacing (and yes, George is still sticking with the slow-shufflers variety here, more power to him) and numerous gore effects are well and truly grisly. The cinematography is great, the location work is superb, and the atmosphere is both tense and realistic (as far as these things so).

What about the story, you ask? Well, as with all Romero films, this is a work of social commentary first and foremost and a horror film second. The zombies are largely there to serve as a grotesque mirror held up to our own selves, and more specifically to our societal obsessions. George’s target here is the “culture”of YouTube and other so-called “emerging media,” and what our insatiable appetite for instantly documenting everything says about us. It’s clear from the outset (because his surviving girlfriend says so) that the character who supposedly shot the “found footage” (and just how “found” a lot of this stuff really is just so happens to be one of the big questions this film is asking), a film student named Jason, is long since dead. His former lady-love has spliced the best of his work together, added in some music and what have you to give it a more “professional” feel, and the end result is her cobbled-together-on-a-computer tribute to her late beau.

As with other filmmakers who have gone down this road, this gives George as easy out in that a lot of the less-than-professionalism on display feels “right” since this supposedly isn’t the work of a skilled movie veteran. Fair enough. It also negates the need to explain everything that’s going on, because a group of film students out making a homemade movie who just so happen to stumble upon the opening rounds of an actual zombie invasion aren’t going to be in position to understand, much less explain to their audience, just what the hell is exactly happening and how it all came to be. We’ve seen this sort of intentional confusion as to what’s being portrayed on screen used as a plot contrivance/necessary short-cut around exposition in everything from The Blair Witch Project to Cloverfield to REC and its American remake Quarantine to the Paranormal Activity films to — well, you get the idea. The list is verging on the endless at this point.

What sets Diary Of The Dead apart from the other entrants into the not-really-homemade horror subgenre, though, is Romero’s eagerness to use the hand-held DIY craze as a way of commenting right back on said craze itself. Granted, subtlety has never been one of the man’s strong suits, and sometimes it feels like he’s hammering us over the head with his point that this sort of high-tech voyeurism and the desperate need to be noticed even as we’re supposedly the ones doing the noticing that it entails is ultimately of questionable (at best) value to humanity as a species. But hey, that sort of overzealous earnestness is exactly in line with what you’d expect from a first-time filmmaker determined to take the world by storm, rather than a 71-year-old (at the time) veteran of scary movies. Romero is tackling his material with gusto again, and training an decidedly youthful set of eyes on a story that’s pretty old by this point.

For good and bad, Diary Of The Dead (and for the most part it’s good), this feels like a flick made by a first-or-second-year film student with no money and his only his friends to serve as cast and crew who just knows in his heart that he can make a better zombie movie than the great George A. Romero. Even the ending is little more than a heavy-handed reprisal of the same point Romero himself made at the end of the original Night Of The Living Dead. And, of course, like all first-time efforts (even ones that aren’t real first-time efforts) it bites off way more than it can chew and its reach exceeds its grasp. But damn if it doesn’t pull it off against all odds enough to keep you watching. Oh, and it’s got a deaf Amish guy, so how can anybody really hate it all that much?

Diary Of The Dead is available on DVD and Blu-Ray on the Weinsteins’ “Dimension Extreme” label. It features the sort of essentially perfect widescreen picture and 5.1 sound you’d expect from a new release on a big label, and there’s a nice little “making-of” featurette included as well as a feature-length commentary track with Romero holding court with several of his cohorts from both sides of the camera that’s a damn interesting listen and never veers into the self-indulgent, self-congratulatory territory that so many new release commentaries do.  It’s also playing intermittently on AMC over the next couple of weeks beginning tonight, where it’s being hosted by Big George himself, so that should make for a fun watch. Give it a try and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Hell, if it was the work of a a real, rather than  fictional,  first-time filmmaker, you’d probably find yourself saying this Jason guy has a pretty bright future ahead of him.

So, anyway, fast-forward to 198o and there have been a slew of Last House rip-offs (my favorite being Roger Watkins’ The Last House On Dead End Street, which actually wasn’t a rip-ff at all but an exercise in zero-budget pure, unrefined cinematic nihilism of the highest order), but most of them lacked that certain extra punch so expertly delivered by the original. The Italians (and you probably already guessed that this was a spaghetti horror from the poster reproduced above), of course, never ones to pass up on a quick celluloid cash-in opportunity, figured a less-than-clever, but admittedly quite satisfying, way to resolve this little problem of diminishing returns — they’d just bring David Hess back and let him out-Krug himself in a movie that showed even less respect for squeamish stomachs and anything like the consensus definition of good taste than its obvious progenitor.

The end result? Director Ruggero Deodato’s The House On The Edge Of The Park, or as it was unintentionally comically billed in its initial poorly-translated trailers, The House On The Park Of The Edge. And I have to say it’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect to get when you take the guy who directed Cannibal Holocaust and turn him loose on the Last House subgenre. In short, it’s a seriously nasty piece of business.

Essentially what Deodato and his cohorts did here was take the socioeconomic themes of poor-hoodlums-taking-out-their-revenge-on-the-upper-class and move them directly into the foreground. Gone are the subtle moral complexities of when is revenge acceptable and how much is too much and in their place stands a straightforward tale of a couple less-than-stellar grease monkeys (David Hess as garage-owner/car-thief Alex and John Morghen (okay, his real name’s Giovanni Lombardo Radice) as his largely brain-dead employee/hopeless follower Ricky) who end up at a party full of rich assholes who get their kicks by lording their wealth and social status as conspicuously as possible over their supposed social inferiors). The games of increasingly-less-subtle humiliation don’t last long, though, before Alex and, by extension, Ricky decide to exert some serious payback in the form of a pound of flesh plus interest.

What follows, after minimal set-up (one of the aforementioned rich assholes has some car trouble, pulls into Alex’s garage, and invites him and Ricky to their little get-together that night for the express purpose of showing them what a couple of losers they are and how much better than them he and his rich pals (both boys and girls, in case you were wondering) are) is nearly 90 minutes of the most utterly depraved rape, torture, humiliation, and degradation you can possibly imagine (unless you’ve got a really sick mind, and even then Deodato is probably a few steps ahead of you). To call Alex and Ricky’s actions thoroughly unpleasant is an exercise in profound understatement, I’ll just leave it at  that.

And yeah, Hess is obviously tearing into the role with aplomb and vigor, but the fact is, he just can’t overcome the material here, despite taking the gloves off and really going for the gusto. He’s still the most dangerous son of a bitch in the movies at this point , no question (think Krug on steroids), but, shocking and repulsive as everything he gets up to is, you can never really escape the feeling that we’ve seen this done so much more effectively before.

All of which is not to say that The House On The Edge Of The Park is in any way a forgettable film. It cuts pretty deep and leaves some indelible scars. Plenty of what happens falls firmly into the category of “okay, I really didn’t need to see that.” You honestly gotta wonder what kind of sick fucks the screenwriters are. But —

There’s just never that much depth to the depravity that’s going on here. It hurts like hell to sit all the way through this flick, but it doesn’t make you think about anything afterwards apart from “what the fuck was that all for?” Everything that happens is brutal, viscous, indefensible, and genuinely horrific — but that word, happens, is the key word here. It all just sort of happens.

If you really must watch The House On The Edge Of The Park, it’s available on DVD from Shriek Show, and the remastered widescreen picture and stereo sound are top-notch. There’s a comprehensive interview with Deodato and that curiously-translated trailer I told you about included, as well as previews for some other Shriek Show titles. It’s worth seeing, I suppose, as an excuse to watch David Hess do what he does best and do it with fangs fully bared, but it’s certainly nothing you need to own, and you’d be served just fine getting it from Netflix or your DVD-rental-service-provider of choice and sending it right back the next very morning. You may even feel like wearing a pair of gloves when you put it back in the return envelope so as not to actually put your hands next to the filth directly.

You didn’t think I was going to forget, did you? Of course not! October is horror movie month around these parts, and while last year we did the “Halloween 12-Pack” thing, and the year before we did a top-10 countdown that wasn’t really a countdown, this year I’ve abandoned all that (admittedly desperately thin) pretense and I’m just reviewing nothing but horror flicks from here on out until Halloween. So far I’ve got 18 movies picked out to take a look at, from undisputed classics to largely-forgotten cult oddities to homemade backyard ultra-cheapies to underappreciated recent gems to to stuff currently playing in theaters, so without any further ado, let’s jump right in, shall we?

I’m reliably informed that David Hess passed away last week, and that’s a shame because he was one of the most effective complete and total psychos to ever stain the silver screen. For all I know Hess may have been a prince of a man in real life, but I’m sort of hoping he wasn’t, because he oozed such coolly-controlled-yet-definitely-unhinged-menace, and did it so fucking naturally, to find out that he was a devoted family man who loved long walks in nature would just somehow feel wrong. At his best, Hess never really felt like he was acting, he was Hessing, and it’s an altogether different art form if you ask me.

And of course, our guy Dave was never better than in his starring (and I use that term loosely here) turn as the vicious Krug in Wes Craven’s 1972 classic The Last House On The Left.

For those of you who don’t know the story (anyone? Bueller? Bueller?), Craven’s debut feature is a loose re-working of the Bergman classic The Virgin Spring, here Americanized as the story of  a beautiful (and, yes, virginal) youth named Mari Collingwood (Sandra Peabody, billed here as Sandra Cassel) who’s as pure as her name and the apple of not only her mom and dad’s eye (okay, okay, eyes) but apparently exudes an air of unsullied wholesomeness that permeates throughout (or infects, depending on how you look at things)  the whole small upstate New York township she resides in. One night when Mari and her less-than-wholesome friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) go into town  to see one of those dastardly rock concerts that parents warn their kids about, they decide it would be a kick to score some pot before the show. Unfortunately, the hapless loser they decide to try and make a purchase off is the son of a vicious escaped convict (that Krug fella we’ve been talking about) who has plans for the girls other than hooking them up with some of the devil weed.

What follows is a less-than-leisurely drive out to the country with Krug, his girlfriend, and his grown (but decidedly psychologically infantile) son that culminates in a series of events so unspeakably brutal and frankly still so hard to watch even to this day (as proof of this look no further than the fact that the 2009 remake was actually considerably toned down in comparison to the original — and they say movies are more permissive than ever today? Don’t think so!) that I’ll spare you the full details (as if you don’t know them anyway), and  just say for the sake of synopsis-completeness that it involves an awful lot of rape, an awful lot of cutting, and an awful lot of  torture. And the fact that all this gut-wrenching brutality is interspersed with comic-relief cut-aways to the inept local sheriff and his even more inept deputy doing their best Keystone Kops impersonation (complete with dopey music) in their ultimately fruitless search for Krug, his kid, and his girlfriend before they can finish their grim idea of a good time only makes the whole thing more genuinely unsettling. Craven was a master manipulator of audience emotions form the get-go, no doubt about that.

Anyway, after their unwholesome deeds are done, Krug and company (and yes, I’m aware that Krug And Company was an alternate title this film played under, particularly on the European circuit) suffer some transportation trouble and, improbably enough, end up at the home of the Collingwood family, who even more improbably discover what’s become of their daughter and just who the hell is responsible for it while the miscreants (and that’s putting it mildly) are right under their own roof!

And that’s when we get to the real morality play at the heart of the film — just how far will ordinary people go to avenge an injustice against a person they love, specifically their only child? And at what point do they become no better than the monsters they are seeking to destroy (and believe me, the Collingwoods are every bit as sadistically diabolical in pursuing vengeance as Krug and his cohorts were in pursuing their twisted kicks)? Can two wrongs ever make a right? And are we in any position to say what they ultimately end up doing is even wrong, considering the extreme suffering they’re no doubt going through?

While all these academic questions make for interesting debate (indeed, this movie is still a hot topic of conversation to this day), it’s really Hess who sells this film and makes us believe that Krug is both capable of anything and fully, and richly, deserving of whatever fate happens to befall him as a result of his inhuman actions. If he gave a performance that was in any way what could loosely be called sympathetic, or even that a person could relate to on any level whatsoever, the whole thing wouldn’t work. But given that he’s such a thoroughly convincing bastard with absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever, it makes all those uncomfortable moral questions I just posed seem all the more real and all the more relevant. Hess moves the themes this movie is exploring out of the realm of the abstract into the concrete, the immediate, the here, the now, just on the strength of his performance alone. After all, it’s pretty easy to condemn somebody for seeing vengeance on somebody who’s done them wrong, but when that somebody is David fucking Hess, the whole issue becomes quite a bit thornier. It’s Hess who turned a $90,000 ultra-low-budgeter into a worldwide box office phenomenon that earned $10 million on its first run in the domestic market alone, and it’s to his credit every bit as much as Craven’s that this little just-above-student-level-film became one of the, in Craven’s own words, “heritage pieces of modern horror.”

Of course, a big part of the Last House story is what happened after it was made, and all the ratings and censorship struggles Craven and co. endured, both at home and abroad, but it’s worth mentioning that the film has been available complete and uncut on DVD for several years now, with the best release being MGM’s 2009 “special edition” that features the same remastered print as the previous uncensored version, as well as a remastered mono soundtrack, but goes the extra mile by including a brand-new 40-minute documentary called “Celluloid Crime Of The Century” that features on-camera interviews with Craven, Hess, and many others, and an insightful commentary track from Craven and producer Sean Cunningham. It’s a very worthwhile purchase, and if you’re not willing to go that far, it’s a downright essential rental.

Some movies just plain don’t live up to the hype, but The Last House On The Left isn’t one of them. It’s every bit as thoroughly unpleasant and impossible to forget as you’ve heard. It catapulted Craven into superstar-genre-director status and immediately cemented Hess’s standing as the Michael Jordan of exploitation-flick psychos — admittedly a celluloid ghetto from which he never really escaped, but we’ll get to that in our next review. For now it’s enough to say that based on  this one performance alone, the name David Hess would be remembered by horror fans (as well as prudish censors) worldwide forever.

Yeah, I know — I thought I was done with all these “found footage” horror flicks, too, but something about the trailers for first-time director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego’s Apollo 18 piqued my curiosity back when they began making the rounds last spring (this movie has been bounced around by the Weinstein Company an awful lot on the release schedule — first it was slated for last April, then it was moved waaaaaayyyy back to January of 2012, and then about a month ago it was announced it was being moved forward for a Labor Day weekend dump-off — suffice to say it’s not a film they’ve ever apparently felt all that confident in and just didn’t seem to know quite what the hell to do with, but it’s been in the can for some time now just waiting for an unobtrusive time to be quietly let out to die a quick death), and now here it is.

I suppose, really, there was nowhere else the whole “hand-held horror” subgenre could go except to the moon at this point, given that everything else has already been done a few times over, but even so it’s sort of an ingenious enough little set-up, and that, combined with my bizarre fascination with every single lunar conspiracy from the mundane (did we really go or not?) to the truly exotic (Alternative 3 — and by the way, Apollo 18 owes more than just a bit to original the British Alternative 3 TV hoax (or was it?) program), had me in line (a short one, I admit) to see this on opening day.

The premise here is pretty simple — there was actually a secret 18th Apollo mission to the moon that was never revealed to the public, it was, as usual, manned by three astronauts (played by Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen, and Ryan Robbins, who all do the square-jawed, all-American-guy thing pretty well, it must be said) that was so hush-hush that not even their families were told where they were going, and the NASA brass didn’t bother to inform them of why they were going until they got there. One guy seems to know a bit more than the others, but even he turns out to be in the dark about most of the mission specifics, and it isn’t until they discover an apparently-abandoned Soviet landing probe on the outskirts of a giant crater that they start to have a hello of a strong suspicion that there’s a very dark reason their superiors have kept the truth from them — and that they’re probably not expected to come back from this mission alive.

And that’s one of the film’s real weak points — it’s pretty obvious from the word go that all three of these poor sons of bitches are dead meat. The other big flaw is that the ending sequence is sort of flat and doesn’t really generate as much tension as earlier segments in the film. But apart from that —

For a modestly-budgeted ($5 million) film with no recognizable stars, no “name” talent behind the camera (apart from veteran editor Patrick Lussier, who took a turn in the director’s chair for the well-done My Bloody Valentine 3D and does a great job here) and little to no studio support behind it, Apollo 18 actually has a lot going for it up until the final 10 or 15 minutes. For one thing, the tension is thick enough to cut with a knife in many critical scenes (I saw this flick with my brother, who isn’t a horror fan by any stretch of the imagination, and he literally jumped out of his seat on a few occasions); the script is logically consistent and provides plausible explanations for why the mission was secret, why these guys recorded everything, why it’s edited together in quasi-cinematic fashion, and how the footage came to be made public (through the auspices of a fictitious moon conspiracy site called lunartruth.com); the lunar sets look strikingly convincing (for those who have suggested on various forums and the like that it looks “fake” I suggest they take a look at the actual lunar footage and tell me which looks more like it was shot on a studio soundstage); and the acting is well beyond what we’ve got any right to expect in a film of this type, easily several notches above the performances in Cloverfield , The Blair Witch Project, or either (until October, that is)  of the Paranormal Activity films. So for a release that the Weinsteins are trying to sneak out through the back door, there’s actually plenty here that they don’t have to hang their heads about at all.

But yeah. The rather lackluster conclusion that fails to even deliver on the lower-than-low expectations you have given that you already know there’s literally only one way the whole thing is going to be wrapped up. And that’s a  real bummer because, as I said, up until then this is a movie that has a lot more going for it than we probably have any right to expect. Oh well. If they’d bothered to splurge for a new ending sequence that delivered on some of the movie’s promise in those long months it was sitting on the shelf, they’d probably have an unassuming little winner on their hands here — as it is, what they’ve got is something of a wasted opportunity, all things considered. On future low-key winter Saturday late afternoons/early evenings when you notice this thing is on basic cable somewhere, Apollo 18 won’t be the worst way to spend 90 minutes of your life. For now, though, it’s probably not worth dropping $5-10 bucks on to see at the theater.

Well, first off, I suppose we’d better get one thing straight here — Guillermo Del Toro’s name is all over this thing, but he didn’t actually direct it. No, that job fell to newcomer Troy Nixey, who seems capable enough, but whose name is buried under all the Del Toro-hype here. Not that our guy Guillermo was an absentee-air-quote executive producer here or anything — he co-produced it and co-wrote the screenplay (along with Matthew Robbins), but this isn’t some “unique Del Toro vision of horror” or whatever it’s being billed as. That’s because not only was it directed by someone else, the whole thing’s actually a remake to start with, of a rather well-regarded 1973 made-for-TV movie. Do Del Toro had his fair share of involvement, to be sure, but he’s not really the “brains behind the operation,” so to speak — he’s the guy whose name is being prominently displayed in order to get horror fans’ butts into the seats.

And apparently even that sales strategy isn’t working so well, as Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark opened to both middling reviews and middling box office (not to worry on that score — with a budget of “only” $12.5 million it’s almost sure to turn at least a modest profit once, as industry insiders say, “home viewing platforms” are figured into the mix). None of which is to say that’s it’s in any way a bad flick in and of itself — it’s not. It’s just not great, either.

Oh, Nixey does a nice job with the near-Lovecraftian atmospherics and what have you. Old, abandoned, haunted mansion in New England (actually the movie was filmed in Australia, but you’d never know it, so convincing is the illusion) and all that. Impish little demons who live deep beneath the house whisper through the grates at night and only our intrepid pre-teen heroine, Sally (Bailee Madison, who turns in a very nice job but who’s cursed with the most cloyingly pseudo-“precious” name any parents could foist upon a child), who’s been shipped off from LA by a mother doesn’t want her around to live with an architect/massive-project home remodeler dad , Alex(Guy Pearce) who hardly knows her and is trying to find a way to fit her into his new life with his project assistant/girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes, who still hasn’t learned to stop talking out of the side of her mouth) is a solid enough little set-up as far as these things go.

The problem is, it never goes a whole lot further than that. You can fairly well tell right from the start what the fate of most of the characters here is going to be (obligatory handyman and housekeeper included), and even though there are some hair-raising moments here and there along the way as the imps/fairies/whatever-the-fucks make their presence increasingly felt, there’s not one single plot twist to genuinely throw you off your mark or even really keep you on your toes. Most of the “danger” element just comes from the fact that it’s a child who’s put into these harrowing situations rather than an adult, because creatures of this size just aren’t gonna work that well coming after an adult after all, and of course this leads to the whole moral debate of how right it is to even depict a kid in these circumstances in the first place. I think we’ve settle, albeit unofficially, on a societal standard that says it’s okay to put a kid in danger in a movie here and there, but making a child the subject of all the horror and danger in a film, particularly an R-rated film that isn’t supposed to be “connecting” with an audience of kids, might just be pushing things a bit too far.

That seems fair enough to me, and while I’m not morally outraged by anything young Sally is subjected to here, I can understand easily enough why many folks would find the whole exercise to be in pretty poor taste. That being said, as I mentioned previously, the horror elements in this film only really work at all because it’s a kid in danger, since, ankle-high imps threatening an adult would be just plain absurd. So where does that leave us in terms of the whole “is it right to show kids being terrorized in a movie” argument? Probably no further along than where we were before this film.

Which isn’t a bad summation of things vis a vis horror fans in general. After the critical adulation heaped upon Pan’s Labyrinth and, to a lesser extent, the Hellboy films, the name Guillermo Del Toro has become synonymous with imaginative, visually spectacular horror films that push the genre envelope in terms of both form and content and it’s obvious that the studio (in this case, Miramax) hopes splashing his name across this film unapologetically will lead knowledgeable horror fans to conclude that this must be a film that delivers the same kind of wallop, figuratively speaking, and the fact of the matter is that it just plain doesn’t. It’s certainly competent enough in more or less every respect, and again, young Ms. Madison acquits herself most wholeheartedly in the title role and I wish her the very best in the future. But the whole thing feels like a rote technical exercise that delivers all the goods, at least on paper, but lacks the soul of a true revelatory, visionary horror (or, for that matter, any sort of) film. there’s nothing here to complain about (apart from the moral argument touched upon earlier), but there’s nothing to particularly single out for praise, either (superb lead performance notwithstanding).

So there you have it in a nutshell — Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark is hardly a waste of your time or even anything close to it, but it’s nothing new, nothing profound, and nothing exceptional, despite Miramax’s best efforts to lure you into the theater under the pretense that it is. On a rainy miserable day (or evening), it makes for a nice enough distraction, but there’s nothing happening on screen here that will leave anything like a lasting, indelible impression, and it’s almost all head and no heart. It might even scare you once or twice, but 30 minutes after it’s over you won’t remember why.

I am, however, sufficiently curious at this point to track down and see the original. So I guess that’s something.

I suppose it was inevitable, really. With the vampire craze in full swing thanks to TV shows like True Blood  and The Vampire Diaries, and with the damn-near-ubiquitous-at-this-point Twilight franchise ruling at the box office and still sitting somewhere near the top of the fiction bestseller lists, it was probably only a matter of time before the creatively-stagnant-powers-that-be in Hollywood turned their attention to a remake of one of the quirkiest, most downright fun vampire movies ever made, namely writer-director (and eventual Child’s Play creator) Todd Holland’s 1985 mini-masterpiece Fright Night.

Here’s the thing, though — any “reimagining” of Holland’s film was doomed to be subpar in comparison to its progenitor almost from the word go because a big part of the original Fright Night‘s charm is that it’s such a product of its time. It’s unpretentiously, unapologetically 80s all the way, not because it was trying to be or anything, but just because, hell, that’s when it was made and they didn’t have much budget to reach for anything greater than they were capable of. It’s from that brief-but-glorious time when Hollywood decided to try to blend equal parts teen horror and teen comedy and see what it could come up with — if there was money to be made halfway between Friday The 13th  and Porky’s, if you will.

The answer, ultimately, was “some, but not enough to keep it going,” but in both the sort and the long runs the fusion-formula gamble paid off , and continues to pay off, for us genre fans with classics like Holland’s film and Fred Decker’s superb Night Of The Creeps.

That, however, was then, and this, needless to say,  is now. And what has the now brought us?

Well, something of a “close-but-no-cigar,” I’m afraid.

Director Craig Gillespie (best known for the indie-hit Lars And The Real Girl) really does seem to have his heart in the right place here, and some of the “modernizing” touches, such as setting the story in a typically barren suburban Las Vegas cul-de-sac, work quite well (Vegas has a transient population and it’s not entirely out of place to see a house with blacked-out windows because so many people work night and need to sleep when it’s light out) — and some of the casting choices are damn-near brilliant, to be honest. Colin Farrell as vampire-next-door Jerry is out-of-this-world menacingly cool and oozes dangerous charisma throughout. When he’s hanging out just on the other side of the doorway of our ertswhile teen hero Charley (Anton Yelchin)’s house because he hasn’t been invited in, the tension’s palpable as he quite clearly is trying to ingratiate himself to the point where Charley tells him “hey, man, come on in” but is also trying to suss out whether our intrepid adolescent has figured out who and what he really is. It’s a highlight-reel moment in a (no shit here people) Oscar-worthy performance from Farrell.

And on the supporting actor front — recasting Roddy MacDowall’s legendary Peter Vincent character as a Criss Angel Mindfreak-type Vegas performer rather than a washed-up TV horror host is another stroke of pure genius, as was casting Doctor Who  alum David Tennant in the role. Essentially he’s just playing the Tenth Doctor with a substance abuse problem (and, it’s strongly hinted, the sexual dysfunction issues that often go along with that), but it works and it’s a hell of a lot fun.

It’s in the rest of the casting, though, that the big cracks in this flick begin to show. First off, Anton Yelchin is just a straight-up bore as Charley, and nowhere near as interesting, or even mildly sympathetic, as a lead needs to be. He just never gives you much of any reason to give a shit whether or not he, and by extension through him everyone he loves, gets killed. So that’s a bit of a bummer. He’s not even so much actively bad as he is just crushingly bland. And the same can be aid for his supposedly too-hot-for-him, entirely-out-of-his-league girlfriend, Amy, played by Imogen Poots (today’s winner of the “celebrity-names-that-are-too-fucking-clever-by-half award, runner-up being Miranda July), who (sorry to be superficial, but) isn’t all that outrageously hot and more importantly isn’t all that good an actress. And finally, we’ve got Toni Collette slumming is as Charley’s mom (quite an international cast here, by the way — Collette’s Australian, Yelchin’s Russian, Tennant and Poots are British, and Farrell’s Irish), who’s serviceable enough, but this role is too blase for an actress of consequence like her to be messing with.

And lastly on the poor casting and performances front, and this one really hurts — Christopher Mintz-Plasee, McLovin himself, absolutely sucks as the 2001 version of Evil Ed. Granted, the script absolutely wrecks the character from the outset, turning a likable geek from the original into an asshole geek in this one, but even still, Mintz-Plasse is so unconvincing as a prick-ish nerd, and even more unconvincing one’s he’s “turned” by Jerry, that even a better-written character wouldn’t have stood a chance.

The other big flaw with this film is the script itself. the pacing just seems off from the start and when the film’s earlier attempts at blending some comedy into the mix, as the original did so effortlessly, are abandoned, we end up with a flick that takes itself way too seriously when at the outset it seemed like it wanted to plant its tongue firmly in its cheek. The massive, cop-out, deus ex machina-type plot device that resolves everything at the conclusion is impossibly lame, too, and probably made David Tennant feel right at home because it’s just the sort of mega-big, but mega-cheap-and-obvious ending that Russell T. Davies used to wrap up every season of Doctor Who with.

All that being said, there’s slightly more good than bad here on the whole, especially if you see it in 3-D (and yes, this was actually shot in 3-D rather than having it added in post-production, so there are some really cool, old-school 3-D style moments), and hey, you even get a cameo by the original Jerry himself, Chris Sarandon, so all is not lost by any means. But it sure comes close. Gillespie and crew seem to either lose sight of, or change their minds about, exactly what type of film they’re making here at right about the halfway mark, and make the rather perplexing choice to bury the fun under the grim way past the point where they ever had much chance of actually scaring us very much,  and the result is a movie that tries to be more than it has any business being, and consequently, and ironically, ends up being so much less. in short, it’s tough to go for pure thrills, chills, and gore when you start off letting us know we needn’t take anything here too seriously. Either stick with trying to blend horror and comedy from start to finish, as the original did so successfully, or just go with one or the other. And hey, if you ‘re absolutely determined to convince us that suddenly,out of nowhere, this now-dark-and-humorless world has consequences, don’t insult our intelligence by telegraphing an obviously consequence-free ending  (remember that deus ex machina I mentioned a second ago?) while there’s still a good half hour left to go.

Don’t get me wrong — as remakes go, this could have been a lot worse (most are), but to see a movie that really does seem to get where it’s coming and have an equally solid idea of where it’s going suddenly become so thoroughly and completely lost thanks to some ill-advised, and out-of-the-blue, tonal shifts just when it seemed to be in a position to really hit its stride is a real head-scratcher. Gillespie just about had a film here that you could happily compare to its predecessor, as with Let Me In/Let the Right One In (just for the sake of a recent comparison in the vampire genre), but the whole thing really loses it focus, and its heart, when it decides to ditch the fun and start taking itself seriously for no discernible reason whatsoever.  Some of the actors, most notably Farrell, who’s just plain dynamite here, really deserve better than to have their self-assured, supremely confident work lost inside a movie that  can’t quite decide what it wants to be.

Let’s be perfectly honest here right off the bat — in recent years, it’s become almost de riguer for so-called “serious” horror fans to slag off Wes Craven’s Scream franchise, and to be honest this critical re-appraisal — because more or less everybody liked ’em at the time, regardless of whether or not they admit to it now — isn’t entirely unwarranted.

After all, the shtick did kind of wear itself out a bit by the third installment, and even though every segment in the original trilogy kept you guessing and was a decent enough way to burn 90 minutes, the whole idea of a horror film that was so self-aware that it not only flaunted its standard conventions but essentially based its entire plot around them went from feeling kinda cool to seeming downright smug (if still more fun than we liked to admit) in pretty short order.

By the time it ended (or so we thought), even though it hadn’t run out of gas creatively speaking, it seemed like it might be smart to bury it before it played itself out. We know the rules, you (the figurative “you” here being Craven and his various and sundry cohorts) know the rules, we know you know the rules, and you know we know you know the rules. that kind of setup goes from being (or, to be totally fair, seeming) revolutionary to feeling kind of tired pretty quickly, and the brains behind Scream, to their credit, knew when to stop.

Still, you gotta admire the ingeniously simple hustle they perpetrated — don’t come up with anything new, just reveal your hand from the outset and therefore make your self-admittedly derivative plot set-up seem relatively fresh and exciting. No originality needed — just awareness of what you’re doing and a willingness to construct a film (or as events unfolded, a series of films) around the knowledge that the audience knows the rules going in every bit as well as you do yourself.

Just over ten years later, Scream 4‘s tag line promises us “New Decade. New rules.” I guess that’s partially true, but the set-up remains essentially the same — the so-called “new rules” are laid bare not just in deeds but in words, to make sure we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet, and then the film itself proceeds to play by those “new rules” pretty much to the letter while still keeping us guessing throughout.

This may all sound a whole lot less than inspired — and frankly it is — but damn if it’s not a lot of fun to piece thing out along the way, as usual. And to be perfectly blunt, this may well be the most successful of all the Scream films in terms of genuinely keeping you off-guard while sticking strictly to its self-aware formula yet. There’s nothing especially groundbreaking going on here — old Ghostface is back and this time he’s not just calling his victims, he’s texting them and messaging them on facebook as well, so what? — but its not so much about the genre trappings as it is about their execution, and Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson  are obviously having a blast leading us along their oh-so-clearly-delineated map.

We begin with the metafilm elements of the “Stab” film series that Craven played with some in the original trilogy (and that he in truth first experimented with in the criminally underrated New Nightmare, his last — and best — take on the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise) and after some mind-fucking there we go right into the meat and bones of the ‘actual” story — Sidney Prescott (Never Campbell, who I swear to God doesn’t age) is back in her hometown of Woodsboro on the tenth anniversary of the original killings as part of her nationwide tour promoting a best-selling “survivor’s story”-type tell-all that she’s written. Meanwhile, Gale Weathers (now Gale Weathers-Riley, as she’s married to Dewy Riley, who’s now the sheriff — the two roles still being portrayed, as you’d expect, by Courtney Cox and her real-life ex-husband, David Arquette) has risen to prominence by writing salacious “true crime”-style potboilers about the crimes which became the basis of the “Stab” (meta)film series. Sidney’s staying with her cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) and Jill’s  mother Kate (Mary McDonnell) while she’s in town, and soon the calls start coming (and texts, and facebook messages — but mostly calls) and the bodies start piling up. No doubt about it, Ghostface is back at work, and as more and more people close to Sidney start to die (and the deaths are substantially more gruesome in this one), it becomes apparent that he’s circling the drain, so to speak, and saving her murder for the very end — or is he?

Honestly, that’s about all the plot recap you need to know going in, since anything more is just gonna give some crucial shit away, and probably inadvertently at that, so I’ll shut up about all that now. The less you know at the outset the better, even though as all the so-called “new” rules are revealed, you’ll realize you know them already. We’ve got a “new generation” of teen horror stars having their coming-out party here (Rory Culkin, Erik Knudsen, Kristen Bell, Hayden Panettiere, etc.) and brief-but-fun turns from established vets like Anna Paquin and Heather Graham (starring in a quick “Stab” segment directed by Robert Rodriguez), but there’s really nothing new under the sun here — even if it seems like it for a minute.

And therein lies the essential genius, I think,  of the entire Scream ouevre — to take what’s old and make it seem new again — at least until you leave the theater — just by pointing it all out so brazenly. In the hands of a lesser director, this would come off as being a hopeless cop-out perpetrated by a hack who’s run out of anything to say. But with Wes Craven running the show (and I’m pleased to say he’s back in top from here after the travesty that was My Soul To Take), it plays out like exactly what it is — essentially a violent and sorta-gory Whodunnit that leaves you kicking yourself for not having figured the whole thing out earlier because, shit, the clues were all there — they even said so. I even stopped worrying about ever seeing Courtney Cox get killed (I’m hoping she’ll suffer a spectacularly graphic demise at some point here — sorry folks, always hated her, always will) about halfway through the flick and just relaxed and enjoyed the ride — hell, I enjoyed it thoroughly, at that.And for a cynical, grizzled horror fan like me (albeit one that sees plenty of rancid horror flicks and frankly expects them to be nothing but derivative, uninspired junk going on), that’s not an easy mindset to achieve, I assure you. I therefore duly salute Mr. Craven for delivering a product so goddamned fun that even the “seen it all before”-types in the audience will enjoy it.

Because  he knows we’ve seen it all before. And we know he knows. And he knows we know he knows. And — ahhh shit, we’ve been through all that already.

And so everything old isn’t new again, but it seems new again for as long as our butts are parked in the seats, and frankly, that’s more than enough in this day and age.  Maybe the time has finally come to admit, as has begun to happen with The Blair Witch Project, that’s the mainstream-crossover success of the Scream series — these films that have escaped the ghetto and achieved some modicum of actual respectability — didn’t  appeal to such a wide audience because they were stupid, or because they were sellouts, or even because the vast majority of the American moviegoing public are brainless idiots with no taste whatsoever (well, okay, they are, but that’s another matter for another time), but because they flat-out deserved it. I know, I know, it’s a radical concept for horror aficionados to get their heads around — but it’s one worth considering.

Barring any unforeseen miracle, Scream 4 will surely go down — with people honest enough with themselves to admit it — as the good-time horror film of the year. I’ll hate it — and hate myself for ever having liked it — later. For now, screw it, let’s party.

Original "Halloween" Movie Poster

Well, hey, why not?

Okay, I admit, reviewing John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher classic Halloween might be the most obvious thing in the world to do at this time of year, but maybe it was so obvious you didn’t see it coming. Whatever the case may be, my point here is not to either surprise or bore you with this selection for the 2010 Halloween 12-pack, but to convince you to watch this movie again if it’s been awhile. It shouldn’t prove too difficult a task, seeing as how it’s showing on half the cable channels in the universe these days, but if you want the full, unedited, un-bleeped-out version, it’s also available on demand on most cable systems this month, and of course it’s been released on DVD several times over (this reviewer humbly suggests that you go for the Anchor Bay “Divimax” 25th Anniversary 2-disc edition — the widescreen anamorphic transfer is superb, it features either a 2.0 stereo track or a terrific 5.1 surround mix for the audio, the commentary from Carpenter, Jamie Lee Curtis, and co-producer/co-writer Debra Hill is downright enthralling, and the second disc contains the highly informative 87-minute original documentary Halloween : A Cut Above the Rest that’s probably the most thoroughgoing look at the genesis and production of this iconic horror staple ever made, and  an awesome selection of trailers, TV spots, radio spots, and promotional and advertising artwork, to boot).

In short, there’ simply no excuse for you not to watch this masterpiece in the month of October, so if you haven’t done so yet — why not?

I’m assuming no plot recap is even remotely necessary here, the story is elegant in its simplicity and has been copied by ever slasher franchise and one-off in the thirty-plus years since its arrival on the scene. This is the earliest, and purest, distillation of the slasher-flick formula you’re ever going to find, precisely because there was no formula prior to Halloween, and this ended up being the template that everybody else has followed because, well, it’s downright flawless.

It all started here, folks — the “final girl” (Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, in this case); the “Captain Ahab” figure (Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Samuel Loomis); the silent killer (Michael Myers, of course, portrayed in this first outing by Tony Moran); the teenage cast of victims; the indestructible madman who can’t be killed; the sexually active girls getting killed (usually pretty soon after taking their shirts, at least, off) while the innocent one who maintains (we assume) her virginity survives — everything you know and love (or got sick of) vis-a-vis the slasher genre started right here.

Oh, sure, Bob Clark’s superb Black Christmas beat it into theaters by a few years, but that didn’t really set the mold that would follow and remains more a slasher precursor than an actual prototype, in my view. It may have blazed the trail for  Halloween, but this is the movie that mapped out the territory in no uncertain terms.

And what’s even more impressive than how thoroughly this film masters the big picture, so to speak, is how it hits the ball out of the park on all the smaller counts, as well — whether we’re talking about the pitch-perfect-from-start-to-finish musical score authored by Carpenter himself (the theme tune is the best in movie history with the possible exception of Ennio Morricone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), or the chillingly basic titles sequence , or Dean Cundey’s amazingly evocative cinematography, Halloween gets all the details right.

This is the movie horror fans in the years prior to 1978 had been waiting their whole lives for, they just didn’t know it yet, and frankly we’re still waiting for anyone to come along and do it better. I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you  — my bet is that it won’t be happening anytime soon. The original is still the best, as the old saying goes, and it always will be.

"The Hamiltons" Movie Poster

An old college buddy I’ve recently re-connected with through the auspices of facebook (he now lives in Spain, a fact of which I’m officially envious) recently turned me onto this 2006 indie horror feature from the pseudonymous writer-director team of “The Butcher Brothers” (in reality Michell Altieri and Phil Flores, who would go on to helm the dismal April Fool’s Day remake) in a rather roundabout fashion — he’d seen a chunk of it on TV and didn’t know the name of it, gave me a rundown of the premise, and asked me if it rang a bell with me. I had to admit that it didn’t and thanks, I’m guessing, to the modern miracle of Google he was  able to figure out what it was and let me know. So he sort of answered his own question, I was just a (useless, as it turns out) intermediary.

In any case, I was sufficiently intrigued by the brief run-down he was able to give me about it to add it to the ol’ Netflix queue and give it a go. I don’t know whether my friend has been able to catch The Hamiltons in its entirety yet, but he seemed drawn enough into its quietly menacing vibe that I hope for his sake he’ll be able to see the whole thing one of these days if he hasn’t yet.

Not that it’s some unrecognized masterpiece or anything. In truth, it’s got some pretty serious flaws that almost wrecked the whole thing for me (and for some viewers they may indeed prove to be insurmountable), but it’s got a mood and atmosphere all its own and, though it drags (and drags, and drags, and drags) in spots, the payoff at the end is solid enough to make sitting through the film in its well entirety worth it.

It’s something of a tricky movie to review because the less you know about it, the better, so while there are, in fact, a couple of big-time “spoilers” in the short synopsis I’ll provide, I’ve left the biggest one out entirely so as not to spoil the aforementioned strongly surprising, and entirely logical, ending.

The titular Hamiltons are a family of four who have lost their mom and dad under circumstances that are never explained, and we learn that since their passing they have moved from town to town with no small degree of frequency.  The de facto head of the family is older brother David (Samuel Child), who’s struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality while trying to keep a leash on the rest of the brood, particularly twin siblings Wendell(Joseph McKelheer), who we learn early on just got out of jail, and Darlene (Mackenzie Firgis), a goth-chick femme fatale. When these two get together, they have a way of causing a lot of trouble, to put it mildly.

Rounding out the family unit is 15-year-old Francis (Cory Knauf), an alienated teenager who’s like a horror-movie version of the boyfriend in American Beauty in that he doesn’t really have any roots in his community, doesn’t really have any friends, doesn’t get along with the rest of his family, and carries a hand-held high-def video camera with him everywhere (there’s plenty of POV-style handheld shots in this flick, and the entire movie was shot on HD video, but it’s not strictly a “hand-held/YouTube horror” in that the main action is shot in a typical third-party  perspective, with Francis’ video camera shots just providing the occasional break from the norm). Francis is our narrative point of entry into the family and serves as, for all intents and purposes, the film’s central character, but he’s a tough nut to crack in that Knauf’s performance (the only one in the film that could probably honestly be called “good” by generally accepted standards) is withdrawn and isolated not only from the fictitious world around him, but from the audience itself. You don’t empathize with him so much as wonder what the fuck is up with the guy, which works when you’re trying to convey a sense of alienation and isolation, but a more professional actor would have found some way to allow the audience “in,” so to speak — even just ever-so-slightly.

It doesn’t take long to learn that the reason Francis is so troubled by the rest of his family is that they have a habit of picking up stray late-teens/early-20s youths and keeping them prisoner in the cellar for reasons not made clear until about halfway through the film, when it’s revealed that the Hamiltons are a clan of vampires who are bleeding their victims out over time so as to maximize their — uhhhmmm — nutritional value. Or something.

The twins, though, as I mentioned a moment ago, have a habit of getting out of hand, and aren’t above luring in a “snack” for the two of them to gorge on privately (by the time this particular aspect of their relationship is revealed it’s no big surprise because we’ve already learned that they’re not above engaging in some incestuous foreplay, if not out-and-out incestuous intercourse — a revelation which oughtta be a biggie but feels pretty natural given the way the two of them behave from the outset of the movie).

As the story progresses, Francis’ dilemma moves from the realm of the abstract to the concrete as he attempts to forge a friendship (or something) with one of their caged-up female victims and struggles with whether or not to rat out the rest of his family to their clueless social worker. It makes for a pretty interesting situation rife with tension, but therein lies the problem.

Dramatic tension, you see, is not exactly the Butcher Brothers’ strong suit. The whole movie is presented in a low-key, almost monotonous tone, and everything, even the occasional flash of humor, is presented in such a straightforward and deadpan manner that it almost feels like all they’re doing with  their HD camcorder is pointing and shooting. The uniformly amateurish quality of the acting (apart from Knauf’s believable, but in no way involving, turn as Francis) doesn’t help matters much, either.

All that being said, amateurism has never been a strike against a flick here at TFG, and the whole student-movie feel does create a strangely lulling vibe that draws you in if it doesn’t turn you off within the first few minutes. Simply put, The Hamiltons ends up with a pace and mood all its own that demands you meet it on its terms because the filmmakers don’t know how to do anything else.

The script is talky and short on the blood and gore (don’t let that grisly poster art fool you), but what carnage there is does, in fact, work, not only because it’s effectively done for such a low-budget effort, but because it breaks the almost droning type of rhythm the movie has established and really comes as a shock to the system. Imagine long stretches of style-free dialogue scenes all shot in the same sterile suburban house punctuated by a bloodbath three or four times before returning to bland nonchalance and you’ll get the idea.

Incongruity both of subject matter and settings (the house and the cellar look like they’re in entirely different parts of the country, even though the narrative establishes that one is, as you’d expect, right on top of the other) is one of the strengths of The Hamiltons, and whether or not this juxtaposition is achieved by intent, by accident, or just by low-budget necessity (I’m betting on the latter) really doesn’t matter, the fact is that is just plain works.

As I said, though, this movie is a tough, slow slog if you don’t find yourself drawn in by its singularly droll style and can’t get past the student-film feel of the semi-pro acting (the only face you might recognize is Brittany Daniel in a cameo as one of the victims) combined with the always-cheap look (in my view, at least) of HD video. Even then, though, you might find it worth your while to stick it out for that slam-dunk of an ending I mentioned a few paragraphs back. Altieri and Flores really pull out the stops with that one, and manage to wrap things up in a way that makes both perfect sense, yet also surprises the hell out of you at the same time. The one burning unanswered question that nags in the viewer’s mind throughout the film — one which I won’t even spell out for fear of dimming the surprise conclusion — is answered in the only way that makes any kind of sense once you think about it, but trust me when I say you still won’t see it coming.

The Hamiltons was part of the After Dark Horror Fest of 2006, which sports the tag line “8 Films To Die For,” and frankly I’m glad I didn’t know that going in because all the other After Dark flicks I’ve seen, both from that year and all years subsequent,  have pretty much sucked and I probably would have passed on it. Like the other movies in the series it’s been picked up for DVD distribution by Lionsgate, and the disc contains a pretty nice selection of extras that includes a smattering of deleted scenes (most of which were excised because they would have given away the ending early), some typically inane bloopers, a really solidd commentary track from The Butcher Brothers and Cory Knauf that really gets into the guts of the movie’s production, and a bunch of trailers for other After Dark films. The picture is presented in a nice-looking anamorphic widescreen transfer and the audio can be checked out in either a very solid 5.1 surround mix or standard two-channel stereo.  So it’s a pretty solid presentation for a low-budget indie that’s only going to appeal to a pretty small audience.

If you’re willing to make allowances for The Hamiltons being — well, what it is  — namely an ultra-cheap, obviously crude first effort from a couple of filmmakers who are learning on the job filled with a cast of actors doing much the same — and you can appreciate the work of people whose heart is obviously in the right place but whose ambition exceeds their technical ability, then you’re in for a pretty enjoyable ride. And even if you can’t forgive its shortcomings, you’ll still probably find the ending ultimately both startling and extremely satisfying, since it’s good enough in and of itself  to salvage the rest of the flick even if you’ve found it to be excruciatingly dull.

For my part I found it more weirdly listless and sterile than actually boring, and its (probably unintentional, but so what?) mellow atmosphere really drew me in after awhile —then I got walloped good and solid a couple times by the visceral-but-quick gore scenes and really pleasantly thrown for a loop by the last few minutes. The Hamiltons has a weird but ultimately satisfying rhythmic structure that goes mmmmmmmmm—–bump! —–mmmmmmmmmm—-bump!—–mmmmmmmmm—-bump!—-mmmmmmm—-holy shit!

It’s not a terrific viewing experience by any means, but it is a unique one. If you’re the sort of person who likes buying a candy bar or sandwich or something for $2.50, giving the cashier a 20, waiting for a damn long time while they drop the bill in the safe and count the change out slowly, then finding one of the fives they gave you back is actually two fresh, crisp bills stuck together, so they ended up giving you back more than you actually paid,  I think you’ll dig it.

"The Howling" Movie Poster

Halloween month wouldn’t be complete without watching a few bona fide horror classics, and with that in mind I decided to give Joe Dante’s 1981 werewolf cult favorite The Howling a re-viewing for the first time in — oh, about forever a few nights back. This is another one that scared the pants off me as cable-viewing kid, and I know it still maintains a pretty soild reputation to this day, but as we’ve recently seen around these parts when I checked out Visiting Hours for the first time as a jaded adult, sometimes the movies that left an indelible impression on us in our youth really aren’t all we remember them to be. Would The Howling hold up?

The short answer is yes — I needn’t have worried, this is one film that’s earned its “classic” reputation and can hold its head high to this very day.

For those (few) of you who are unfamiliar with the basic premise, a gutsy TV reporter named Karen White (Dee Wallace, who met her husband, Christopher Stone , while working on this flick, where he plays — go figure — her husband) sets herself up as human bait for a serial killer and very narrowly survives an encounter with him in a seedy porno joint. Fatigued and fucked-up-in-the-head from her ordeal, she and hubby take off  for a private northern California retreat known as “The Colony” that’s run by one Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee of The Avengers fame), a therapist who urges his patients to get in touch with their more “primal” side as a way of working out their problems and freeing themselves from the shackles and stresses society imposes on us all.

In short order, though, Karen and hubby Bill find that all is not as it seems at this isolated, self-contained community, as the “primal urges” the folks there indulge in really are much more primal than they could have ever imagined, and Karen may be closer to tracking down her elusive serial killer than she realizes.

Look. it’s not giving anything away — the title does that already — to let the uninitiated know that this is a werewolf movie. Furthermore, it’s a very good werewolf movie. Hollywood hadn’t given werewolves much of a shot in the modern era, but between this and John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, the early 80s saw our furry friends experience something of a brief resurgence. The Howling is primarily remembered for its startling special effects, particularly the graphic transformation sequence of Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) into the bad-ass “leading wolf,” if you will, of the feature, and while that legendary scene looks a little less impressive than it did at the time, the fact is that it’s not by much. The effects team, lead by the legendary Rick Baker, did a bang-up job not only on this iconic moment in horror history, but throughout the production. I’ll certainly take their work, warts and all, over the CGI fests we get today, like last year’s thoroughly uninspiring The Wolfman.

There’s no doubt that The Howling is every bit a product of its time, but its sharp and incisive critique of est- and Primal Scream-style pop psychology fads and cults still rings extremely true even if those movements have dies down a bit. Biting (no pun intended) social commentary always stands the test of time, even if the object of said commentary has largely fallen by the wayside.

Dante draws some great performances out of his cast, as well, which isn’t too tough considering what a first-rate cast it is. In addition to Mr. and Mrs. Stone and a truly chilling turn from Macnee we’ve got great performances from Elisabeth Brooks as seductive priestess-chick Marsha Quist (Eddie’s sister), Slim Pickens as befuddled local sheriff Sam Newfield, and the legendary John Carradine as local yokel Erle Kenton. Be on the lookout for cameos from John Sayles (who co-wrote the screenplay), Forrest J. Ackerman, and Roger Corman, among others, as well. Keeping a sharp eye out for quick guest appearances from cult Hollywood icons is part of the fun to be had here.

The outdoor filming locations at the Mendocino Woodlands Camp (in, as you might have guess, Mendocino) are lush and atmospheric and Dante captures them magnificently, but a good chunk of this movie was shot in a good old fashioned Hollywood studio, as well, and while the “outdoor” studio scenes are pretty noticeable to the modern eye, it’s really nothing too terribly jarring and you’ll appreciate the great care that Dante went to in order to make his indoor forest shots look like the real thing.

All in all, I’m damn pleased that I decided to give The Howling another look. I checked out the “Special Edition” DVD from MGM, which features both an anamorphic widescreen presentation as well as a full-frame option (both look damn good and have been cleaned up very nicely), a remastered 5.1 audio track (the original mono track is also included) that sounds great without being too terribly overpowering, and has a theatrical trailer and a pretty damn absorbing commentary track with Dante at the forefront and contributions from Dee Wallace Stone,  Christopher Stone,  and Robert Picardo   included among a nice selection of extras, as well as a great and highly detailed “making-of” documentary feature called “Unleashing the Beast” that’s well worth a look, as well.

It had been a long time since Hollywood did werewolves as well as The Howling did them, and frankly they haven’t been done nearly as well since. It’s a tried-and-true genre clasicc for a reason, folks, and if you haven’t senn it in awhile I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how well it has stood the test of time. It’s certainly well worth a look this Halloween season — or any other time of year, for that matter.