Monday, October 25, 2010

The Exorcist III

It's actually become something of a cliche for horror fans to prefer The Exorcist III (1990) to the original. I'm not here to weigh the merits of one versus the other, although I will say I've seen The Exorcist once or twice while I've seen its second sequel much more than that. If the original is an exercise in physical, emotionally grueling terror, then The Exorcist III is an intellectual challenge of the psyche. Whereas the original played graphic violence and shocking imagery, the third is built more on suggestion and ideas.

George C. Scott plays Detective Bill Kinderman, whom you might remember as a supporting character in the original played by Lee J. Cobb. Kinderman is investigating a series of murders committed in the style of the Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif), a psychotic murderer put to death in the electric chair fifteen years ago. Soon, a patient in a mental hospital's disturbed ward awakens out of a 15-year coma claiming to be the Gemini. Curiously, he bears a striking resemblance to Kinderman's friend Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a Jesuit priest killed performing the first film's exorcism.

It's really strange to consider the original is the one most remembered by mainstream pop culture. When you think about it, the original featured pea-soup projectile vomiting, spinning heads, and the infamous Crucifix bit, graphic elements you'd expect to find in an exploitation horror film (which you could argue The Exorcist is). Watching that little girl and those around her experience what they do is a grueling visceral experience and really puts you through the wringer. The Exorcist III, while not shying away from disturbing material, is more restrained. The violence is implied, the script dialogue heavy and concentrated on heady philosophical and spiritual issues, and there are crowd-pleasing cameos (such as Fabio and Patrick Ewing as an angels) and quirky humor that have been embraced by genre fans. It's a curious audience inverse, and I'm not sure why.

That paragraph above illustrates a key mantra for the film: those expecting the shock tactics of the original will be disappointed. Director William Peter Blatty (adapting his own novel Legion) keeps the horror on an intellectual level. The suggested ideas are what's frightening because they mess with your head.

The Gemini is a fascinating character. He's clearly insane, but he quotes John Donne, praises Shakespeare, and apparently is a medical expert, judging from his knowledge of tranquillizers and blood, uh, letting. I guess he's a perversion of human knowledge, susceptible to the devil and wanting to defy his father (both his biological father, whom he killed, and God). What's strangely effective is we only see him in the isolation cell, restrained in a straight jacket. Blatty films him in mostly shadow, his seemingly disembodied head floating in darkness and madness.

Meanwhile, Kinderman is a man who has lost faith, not just in God but the world. He's an officer who has seen every ghastly violent act possibly in the line of duty, and as he explains to his friend Father Dyer (Ed Flanders), he can't accept a god that would blindly allow all this happen. The people he encounters don't inspire much hope: priests without much guidance, a corrupt psychiatrist more nervous than his patients, and a hospital administrator more concerned about procedure than stopping a serial killer. People and setting of comfort do not offer sanctuary.

Blatty reinforces this by defacing religious, specifically Christ, iconography. The first victim is a young boy who is not only crucified on a pair of oars, he is decapitated, and his head is replaced with a statue of Jesus' head. Priests fall victim to the killer, and a nurse's body is stuffed with Rosaries. Churches are violated, and hospital rooms with crosses on the walls become crime scenes. This accumulation of violation creates an atmosphere of unease and disorder.

The ultimate violation occurs in the nature of the killer SPOILER! The demon cast out in the exorcism allowed the spirit of the Gemini to enter the body of Karras to continue his reign of terror. The image of such a holy and righteous man being used to spread death is no doubt the most despairing message possible for the faithful. END SPOILER

Scott, on one hand, channels General Patton in a few scenes. He really can pull off anger, but he also is vulnerable and wounded. Note the scene in which he snaps at the hospital administrator and then immediately fights back tears. Matching him in fury is Dourif, raving gleefully the joy he takes in killing while being able to ominously ponder and quietly explain how he commits the murders. When he stares straight at the camera and speaks, it's unsettling.

Every review of The Exorcist III must mention the ending and the shoehorned climax involving an exorcism, which the studio insisted on lest the title be misleading (or they could have let Blatty call it Legion like he wanted). What was a quiet, subtle film becomes a full-blown special effects extravaganza with fire, snakes, lightning, and the earth opening up. Considering how unnecessary it is, it's reasonably well done, and Nicol Williamson as Father Morning is a solid bedrock of faith and authority.

So that's The Exorcist III, an intellectual exercise and quiet, unsung masterpiece of the genre. It's certainly different from the original and effective in its own right. Who cares which is better?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Shock Around the Clock

Today, I completed my very first movie marathon. It's amazing to consider this was my first time. I'm such a movie buff, some people probably assume I attend festivals and marathons all the time, but I'm the cheapskate antisocial type, so I don't go out as much as recommended.

The second annual Shock Around the Clock Festival at the Grandview Theatre was a good initial attempt. For 24 hours, the theater showed a variety of horror films. Some I had never seen before but wanted to, and others I had seen but figured seeing them on the big screen would enhance the experience. Over all, it was fun.

The festival opened with two versions of Frankenstein: the classic James Whale version with Boris Karloff and the 1910 short made by Thomas Edison. From a historical standpoint, the Edison was interesting, but he essentially combined the entire story into twelve minutes and features the lamest method I've ever seen defeat the monster. It sees itself in a mirror and disappears, followed by his reflection. The Whale version was great to see. I'm amazed how well Karloff's iconic performance holds up. The problem was the theater was having reel problems, so there were passages of blank screen.

The next movie was 13 Ghosts, the original by William Castle. Not a classic by any means, two things kept people amused: the Illusion-O Ghost Viewer and their collectively dirty mind. The ghost viewer enables you to see the ghosts when you look through the red viewer when prompted. Kind of neat but ultimately a gimmick. Then, there's the dealings between the little boy and the lawyer. Everything the lawyer said to the boy could be interpreted as deviant, and everything he did made him look like a child molester: having him keep a secret, taking him away alone, and carrying him out of bed. The fifties were a more innocent time. The audience erupted in laughter at every innuendo members found.

Next, Psycho. You know a movie's great when the crowd of hardened horror buffs refrains from their usual catcalls and sarcastic commentary to pay attention. Incidentally, Alfred Hitchcock was voted into the marathon's hall of fame that night by the audience.

Then, there was a short film series: Night of the Living Bread, Loaf, and Sandwich, a trio of spoofs by Kevin S. O'Brien who did Q-and-A with some cast members. You can guess the joke from those titles. I'll admit, they were funnier than I thought they would be, and O'Brien, who flew in from Australia for the festival, had a good talk session.

There was also a costume contest before the next movie. Entries included Elvira, Dorian Gray, Jack and Wendy Torrance, a bread victim, Princess Popcorn, and several zombies. Winners were determined by applause while losers were booed off. The grand prize was won by someone who dressed as one of the marathon's organizer's, Joe Neff. Everyone got some good prizes: DVDs, model kits, posters, and more. Grand prize also got $100.

Dressed to Kill was up next. By the time this started, the festival was about an hour behind schedule, and we were seven hours in. Seven hours in, and this is the first film to have graphic bloodletting and nudity. You'd have expected those to be a constant. The opening shower scene drew cheers from the largely male audience, and when the reel faltered again, there were boos. This was a movie I had wanted to see for some time, and it didn't disappoint. Michael Caine was warped but very good as a psychiatrist, and director Brian De Palma really played with audience expectations of a Psycho knockoff.

Then it was the first adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau, re-titled The Island of Lost Souls. Charles Laughton was good as the mad doctor, and he definitely looked imposing standing on a ledge cracking a whip, but the beast men looked like cheap Morlocks, and the filmmakers included some lame melodrama.

At this point, I was dozing off and decided to call it a night. I've never pulled an all-nighter, and I don't drink coffee. I missed Martyrs, House, They Came from Within, and Robogeisha. When I got back at 8:30 a.m., I waited for the current film, Robogeisha, to finish. Every time someone walked out, I could hear the mellow sounds of bloodshed and violence.

Back inside, I was amazed so many people were left. They were bundled up in blankets and pillows, and here I was all refreshed and alert. It was fitting the music playing before the next show was the Dawn of the Dead muzak. Everyone there was a zombie by this point. I felt awkward. You know all those movies from the seventies where the guy joins a Devil cult, runs away, and incurs their wrath when they find him? That's kind of how I felt. I felt disappointed I had cut out, as if I had let my fellow fans down. Thankful, no one seemed to notice or care. I got to talking with some people, including Joe Neff, in the lobby about the state of horror movies today, and we lamented the proliferation of remakes and the waste of talented directors .

I resumed my participation with Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and it was elevated a bit by seeing it with an audience. I realized I'd probably like it more if twenty minutes were shaved off to make it tighter and snappier. Some parts just drag on and on. And I love Bill Moseley, but a little less Chop Top would have made him more effective.

The festival concluded with John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness. Throughout the show, various actors and filmmakers were cheered when their names appeared on screen. This movie got four such cheers: Carpenter, Donald Pleasance, Victor Wong, and Alice Cooper (Chainsaw 2 got two cheers: Dennis Hopper and Tom Savini). The organizers said this was a new print of the film, and it looked beautiful.

So overall, the marathon was fun. I wish there had been less time between movies, and the technical glitches were annoying, but when the movies were rolling, it was fun. They just seemed to fly by. Hopefully, this won't be my last festival, and hopefullym I make it through all of next time.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Resurrected

I hate to say the book is better than the movie, but "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" by H.P. Lovecraft is better than the movie adaptation it inspired, The Resurrected by Dan O'Bannon.

The novella chronicles the descent of the main character into black magic and madness as he delves deeper into his family legacy. Lovecraft writes in the style of a psychiatric report by the young man's doctor. At first, I thought all the detail and exposition to be excessive, but as the paranormal crept in, the story felt plausible and thus more effective. When you take out all the back story and details, you're left with a series of events that feel unconvincing and unsupported.

The Resurrected opens in film noir fashion. Mental Patient Charles Ward (Chris Sarandon) has escaped from the insane asylum, leaving a gruesome mess in his room. Meanwhile, injured private investigator John March (John Terry) narrates into a tape recorder how he was hired by Ward's wife Claire (Jane Sibbett) to investigate why her husband spent time in an isolated cabin. The film flashes back to show how Ward developed a fascination with the black arts, a mysterious ancestor, and raising the dead while March's investigation brings him closer to the truth.

It could be argued noir is the best style to bring Lovecraft to life. Lovecraft mythology concerns people being driven insane by the horrors they find lurking beneath everyday reality and how puny the human race is. Noir involves deep shadows, Expressionist imagery, world weary protagonists, a cynical outlook, psychologically neurotic villains, and plots in which the hero uncovers a labyrinth of betrayal and corruption in the criminal underworld and respectable society. That almost describes Lovecraft perfectly; the only difference is the addition of gruesome monsters. John Carpenter accomplished this merger in In the Mouth of Madness, in which Sam Neil located a missing horror writer whose work allowed beings from another realm to enter reality.

But in The Resurrected, the plot just feels hokey. John Terry as John March is no Sam Neil; he doesn't have the same craftiness, cynicism, humor, or smugness. While Neil is reminiscent of Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart, Terry is a plot function. That's fine in the story when the psychiatrist is analyzing his patient and not really involved with the main action, but in film noir, your main character should not be bland. Similarly, Sarandon is not very convincing as the driven scientist or his evil ancestor. He captures the physical decline of Ward well, looking gaunt and haggard, but his performance doesn't feel inspired (although his final confrontation with Terry is effective).

I think the problem is the adaptation tried to be faithful to Lovecraft's plot while working in the investigator aspect to give it narrative drive. It might have been more effective to stick with Ward and watch events unfold chronologically, so we empathize with him and his loved ones. The private investigator business feels like an excuse to explain everything. These two tracks feel half-hearted when put together instead of supporting each other.

Ugly monsters turn up in the end. The exploration of a subterranean dungeon where undead creatures are being kept in darkness for experimentation was probably the creepiest section of the story. In the film, it feels tacked on to provide some action and unconvincing makeup effects.

The Resurrected has all the ingredients for a winner, but they don't come together. O'Bannon incorporates Lovecraft's ideas and is mostly faithful to the story, but the overall effect just doesn't carry the punch it should. I guess I'm disappointed because O'Bannon's work in The Return of the Living Dead, Alien, and Dead & Buried shows he had a solid grasp of Lovecraft's sense of cosmic horror. The movie just feels meh.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Underrated Scare Scenes

Everyone remembers the first time the shark appears in Jaws, the shower scene in Psycho, and "They're coming to get you, Barbara." There are a vast amount of iconic fright moments people are still talking about decades later.

But there are some moments that don't get the same attention. While these scenes are just as well crafted and frightening, they don't match the cultural importance of others for one reason or another. That doesn't prevent of us from giving them their due respect.

Here is a list of my favorite underrated scary movie moments.

1) Death of Dallas Alien
The chestburster scene is the defining moment not only of this movie but the entire series. It's such an out-of-nowhere moment and really illustrates the ferocity of this creature. But my favorite scene is when Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) is hunting the alien in the air ducts. The pacing, buildup, lighting, sound effects, music, and acting really come together. With only the glow of his lamp and flamethrower, Dallas huffs and puffs his way through the cramped darkness while the crew monitors his and the creature's movement with those beeping devices. Then, the tempo picks up as they realize its moving toward him. They scream for him to get out. He turns around, and there it is, for all of half a second. The signal cuts out, and Dallas is gone.
2) Police station shootout The Terminator
Drop all the pop culture baggage, and forget that's the future governator on screen. The Terminator is a frightening movie. Say what you want about Arnold, but he gives an excellent performance as emotionless killing machine. There are so many physical mannerisms he does to suggest he's not human, and the best scene to demonstrate this is when the terminator storms the police station. Everyone thinks of it as just an action scene, but it's really shocking to see dozens of officers (good men protecting Sara Connor, even though they don't trust Kyle Reese) get mowed down. If these trained officers with machine guns and shotguns can't stop this thing, what can?
3) Lightsaber duel The Empire Strikes BackA fantasy-adventure space opera, you say? When Luke Skywalker confronts Darth Vader for the first time, you can see how valiantly and desperately he fights, but Vader just toys with him. The whole setting is a weird futuristic Gothic chamber with the carbon freezing machine, pits, catwalks, mist, dark corridors, and hissing machinery. Then, Vader uses the Force to hurl objects at Luke and just pummel the holy hell out him. He could kill him in an instant if he wanted to but instead drops that famous bombshell after slicing Luke's hand off over a chasm. The atmosphere is unrelenting. You can feel the weight of the Dark Side of the Force oozing out of the screen.

4) Ghost haunts a woman Black Sabbath
Not many people know this as anything other than a Boris Karloff movie that inspired the name of the first heavy metal band, but it's an effective anthology in its own right from Italian director Mario Bava. Heavy on gloom and doom, the film concludes with a tale of a nurse who steals jewelry off her elderly charge's corpse and is haunted by her ghost. There's are dark, bright colors in the lighting that give the sequence an otherworldly feeling, but what really sets it apart is how we never see the corpse move. It appears unexplained in various places, but it never seems to be alive, and for some reason, that makes it more effective. Nothing shatters the illusion, and our imagination does the rest.
5) Unmask the monster The Funhouse
So four teenagers decide it would be fun to stay over night in the carnivals funhouse when they witness one of the carnies murder a woman. This carnie is a massive mute lug wearing a Frankenstein mask, and he gets his father, the barker, to help him cover up the death. The barker, angry at his son for the trouble he caused, yells at him and tells him to hit himself. In a fury, the carnie yanks off his mask to reveal a deformed mutant, a grownup version of the deformed baby in a jar the kids saw in the freak show. Beneath the harmless facade, show business has a seedy, dangerous underbelly.
6) Knock, knock children The OrphanageOur protagonist Laura discovers the way to summon the ghost children who took her adopted son is to play their favorite game: face the wall, knock several times, then turn around (sort of a variation Red Rover). Each time she turns around, they get closer and closer. No music, no jump cuts, and if I remember correctly, it's all one take because the camera moves with Laura. Once again, we don't see or hear the ghosts moving; they just appear. There are no special effects here; it's very subtle and keeps the mystery intact.
7) Courtroom drama It's Alive III: Island of the Alive
Ridiculous? Yes. Convincing? At least for this scene. The movie itself is campy, but the third film in the It's Alive series opens in convincing fashion. Stephen Jarvis, as played by Michael Moriarty, is suing for his son's life, one of the mutant babies born around the country that kills when threatened and the government has been putting to death. The government lawyer has the child brought into the room in a cage and demands Jarvis get close to it. If he can prove the child's father is afraid, he'll win the case. When the child breaks free, Jarvis pleads for his son's life and in a moving, passionate speech, wins his case. The scene works because of Michael Moriarty. He captures perfectly how petrified Jarvis is of his son and his decency to want him to live. That sells the whole scene, more so than the stop-motion baby monster.
8) There's a Kruger in my closet Wes Craven's New Nightmare
To this day, this scene still gets me to jump. Following an earthquake, Heather opens her closet and peers inside, suspecting the demon inhabiting the Freddy Kruger's visage (long story) is around. He leaps through a rack of clothing and attacks. We know Freddy's in there, we know he's going to leap out, and we know when he'll do it, but it's still effective. There's a sense of inevitability and dread built up. Every time I see it, I'm thinking "Don't go in the closet!"
9) Creeping shadow Nosferatu (1979)Not many people seem to be aware of this remake of F.W. Murnau's masterpiece, and that's a shame. Starring Klaus Kinski as the count, it's an interesting take on the Dracula legend by Werner Herzog. In this scene, Lucy is brushing her in front of a mirror, and in the reflection, we see the door open and shut behind her. She's paralyzed with fear as a striking shadow falls across the wall, looming larger and larger. Then, the vampire appears. It gets under your skin.
10) Giant Ants Them
To a degree, Them kicked off the giant atomic bug craze of the 1950s, and because of that, it's often lumped in with the rest as a cheesy, goofy enterprise with unconvincing effects and hokey acting. Having watched it for the first time several weeks ago, I'm amazed how well it held up. Sure, some aspects are dated, but the overall effort is effective. The ants are kept hidden for the most part, and their threat is suggested. The creepiest part doesn't actually involves the ants. Scientists and military personnel are discussing how to take out a hive, and they reason they can't bomb at night because most of the ants are out. Just the idea of a horde of giant ants, marching unopposed through the night gobbling everything in sight is tense and unsettling. The power of suggestion at its finest.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Martin

Here's another movie about an alienated young man and the living dead, but whereas Franceso Dellamorte applied ironic detachment and morbid humor to his battle with zombies in Cemetery Man, Martin Mathias (John Amplas) believes himself to be an 84-year-old vampire even though he looks to be 17. The result is the gritty and shocking Martin (1977).

Director George Romero famously turned the zombie genre on its head with Night of the Living Dead, replacing Voodoo slaves with rotting flesh eaters, and he does something similar here. The vampire here is not a seductive, alluring, supernatural creature of the night nor is he the threatening, foreign outsider. If anything, he's a scared, lonely, confused American teenager with sexual anxiety, an oppressive family upbringing, and a taste for human blood.

The film is an examination of a peculiar individual. Martin may be a vampire. Yes, he drinks blood, but sunlight doesn't kill him, crosses and garlic don't repel him, and he doesn't have any supernatural abilities or fangs. The opening sequence shows him on a train to Pittsburgh waylaying a female passenger with an injection of some kind of tranquilizer. Then, he slices open her wrist with a razor blade, drinks the blood, and arranges the room to make it look like she killed herself. Shortly after, he arrives in the town of Braddock and moves in with his much older cousin, Tata Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), an old world religious fanatic who vows to save "Nosferatu's" soul and destroy him.

It doesn't matter if Martin is really a vampire. What matters is he believes he is and so does Cuda. Everything that happens supports both interpretations. As Martin stalks his victims, Romero intercuts black-and-white footage of a suave Martin in period clothing being beckoned by seductive women in low-cut clothing who give themselves willingly. Those may be memories or fantasies, but either way, they're a stark contrast to the reality of what Martin actually does, which is rape and murder. These are not buxom sirens; they're terrified, everyday women who struggle and fight.

This image of the vampire is not a romantic, foreign interloper but a clumsy boy-next-door who is more confused than evil. Martin desires female companionship, but he considers himself too shy and alone to seek out, so he plays (or is) a vampire. This differs from the popular presentation of the vampire of the time; this movie came out roughly around the same time audiences were experiencing Frank Langella, Louis Jourdan, and George Hamilton as dapper, aristocratic Count Draculas. This inverse is reflected in the environment as well. Braddock, Pa. is not Victorian London; it's grimy, depressed, and falling apart. This is a town of drug dealers, homelessness, and unemployed, directionless people. Martin is just literally draining people.

Of course, Martin's derangement might stem from his oppressive family upbringing. As the would-be Van Helsing to Martin's Count, Cuda is a petty tyrant who uses religion to force his way. More than anything, he's behind with the times and prone to superstitions and outdated ideas, even going so far as to bring an exorcist to the house. Martin mocks him often for believing in magic. Whereas Martin is isolated by his shyness and crimes, Cuda is self-isolated; he doesn't even own a phone until his granddaughter Christina (Christine Forrest) has one installed. She represents the voice of reason in the movie, calling Cuda a hypocrite and declaring Martin needs help.

Just from those descriptions above, you can tell Martin is a violent, bloody film since our title character's rough methods aren't as clean as two pinpricks to the neck. Effects are by Tom Savini, who would later go on to do Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th. He's not as accomplished here as he would later be. The blood in particular looks like melted crayon, but the effects serve their purpose overall.

By reversing many of popular themes and images of traditional presentations, Martin certainly is a unique spin on vampire cinema. That is, if you believe Martin is a vampire.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Cemetery Man

Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) has an interesting job. The watchman for the cemetery in the town of Buffalora, Dellamorte and his mute assistant Gnaghi (Francois Hadji-Lazaro) dispose of the dead when they come back to life with a hunger for flesh, shooting them in the head or splitting their skull with a shovel. He would report the phenomenon, but then the cemetery would be shut down, and Dellamorte would be out of a job. It's cheaper to buy more bullets. Dellamorte keeps himself isolated from the world around, even spreading a false rumor of impotence. Everything is in routine until She (Anna Falchi) arrives. A widow who visiting her husband's grave, she draws Dellamorte's attention, and soon, he's in love.

To say more would spoil some of the best jokes. Many of them come out of left field, and director Michele Soavi films the the violent and outrageous material in such a droll manner, it becomes hysterical. The best way to summarize Cemetery Man (1994) is to call it the existential zombie movie. We get meditations on life, love, death, sex, indifference, madness, violence, obsession, and necrophilia. It certainly isn't conventional or forgettable.

The structure is more or less episodic. The only connection from one series of events to another is Dellamorte's increasing despondence and derangement. Everett is very good as the weary, cynical, philosophizing, charming loner, and his narration adds layers to his character and provides some good laughs. My favorite has to be explaining how killing the living dead is a public service but shooting someone while they're still alive gets you into all sorts of trouble.

The zombies, while threatening, are mostly a comical afterthought to Dellamorte. He's more bored by them than anything, resuming a telephone conversation after stopping to shoot one at the door. They have good designs, with roots protruding through heads and scrapped fingernails. Even Death himself, the Grim Reaper, pops in for an appearance in what has to be one of his coolest cinematic versions.

So what we have here is a zombie art house movie. Gory violence, gratuitous nudity, bizarre scenarios (I'll just say Gnaghi has one love interest), stylish filmmaking, and grand statements about love and death. It's certainly not for everyone, but those who would love know who they are.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Q the Winged Serpent

"A plumed serpent? Whadda ya mean, that fucking bird?" So stammers small-time hood Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty) when told by a cultist his sacrifice will allow the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl to be reborn in Larry Cohen's 1982 stop-motion extravaganza Q the Winged Serpent. Who else but Larry Cohen, the low-budget wunderkind behind such cult favorites as It's Alive and The Stuff, could take a cheesy, Z-grade creature feature and turn it into something with that kind of sardonic humor?

The plot: after a botched jewelry heist in New York City, Quinn, who just got out of jail, winds up in the top of the Chrysler Building where he finds a massive egg and the skeletal remains of a woman who disappeared while sunbathing on her roof. Turns out, this is the nest of a giant, flying serpent that has come to the city after a series of human sacrifices conducted by an Aztec cult, and it's killed many people. When threatened by his partners in crime and in a moment of desperation, Quinn lures them up to the nest, and the beast makes short work of them. For the first time in his life, Quinn sees his chance to be something big and decides to use his knowledge of the nest's location to blackmail the city.

Okay, it's silly, but there's really no better example of Cohen's appeal as a cult filmmaker: an admittedly schlocky plot with a dark streak of humor mixed in with social, philosophical subtext and serious dramatic acting. In It's Alive, Cohen used a homicidal mutant baby rampage to showcase a character study of the terrifying tyke's affected parents, an examination of abortion, and how man's poisoning of the environment has lead to the creation of a monstrous new race. In Q, Cohen has a giant flying monster to illustrate the lengths a nobody in life will go to become somebody while discussing the differences between gods and monsters (the latter can be killed). The effects are stop-motion (reminiscent of producer Samuel Arkoff's body of work), old-fashioned but well done. They have a charm CGI can't match.

Moriarty is terrific. It's really a performance it doesn't do justice to describe, but I'll try. He's a nervous, sweaty, little coward, always trying to talk his way out of everything, and he has a chip on shoulder about everything: cops, lawyers, crooks, his girlfriend Joan (Candy Clark). He tries to get a job playing piano in a bar, but he's so bad, the bartender doesn't tell him to stop; he just turns on the jukebox. Then, he stumbles upon the nest and sees an opportunity to clear up his legal problems and make a little money. The scene where he lays out his terms to the police and city is really something to behold. In short, Moriarty is hilarious as this two-bit loser.

The relationship with his girlfriend is well written. She knows his past and recognizes he's trouble, but she feels sorry for him, and deep down, she loves the guy and wants to help him. But when he thinks he finally has a shot at the big time and exerts the power he thinks he has, she's crushed.

I can't forget to mention David Carradine and Richard Roundtree as detectives investigating both the monster and the killings. Carradine is as much the protagonist as Moriarty, but he's much drier and serious, which makes him an effective foil. However, he's pretty funny in a deadpan manner. While investigating the Aztec rituals, he notes modern society merely breaks a cracker and drinks wine. "That's what I call being civilized." Meanwhile, Roundtree is in Shaft-mode as Carradine's partner who would rather rough up Quinn than pay him, and it's fun how that persona interacts with the silly monster movie aspect.

Cohen is obviously working with a low budget. The editing feels haphazard at times, and many scenes lack establishing shots. Still, he's pretty inventive, getting a lot of good aerial shots of the city and working real New York locations into the plot. There are logical lapses. Based on what the police know about Quinn, they should have been able to figure out where the nest was when he came forward. The nature of cult killings is weird (I suppose that's a given). It's said the victim must be sacrificed willing, so how does this priest keep finding so many people for the job that would allow him to skin them alive? That's never addressed. And how often must there be sacrifices? Quetzcoatl is already resurrected. Cohen also hides the priest's identity for no apparent reason. There's no mystery; he's just a weirdo that pops up at the end out of costume. And I don't care how fast it is, people would be able to see where a giant flying lizard goes.

Overall, Q is a silly monster movie but knowingly so. Cohen's inventiveness holds it together, and some good performances anchor it. This really is Cohen's finest film.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Devil's Backbone

"What is a ghost?" asks the opening narration in Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone (2001).

To the young boys of the orphanage, a ghost is the "one who sighs." Not one who shrieks, howls, or roars. The ghost they encounter is a sad, pathetic apparition of one of their own who was killed. The ghost is a lament, sorrow given form, and that tone carries throughout the film.

The Devil's Backbone begins with Carlos (Fernando Tielve) being dumped in a orphanage for the sons of Communist fighters during the Spanish Civil War. There, he encounters the kindly, intellectual Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi), stern, one-legged principal Carmen (Marisa Paredes), bully Jaime (Inigo Garces), and handyman Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), who grew up an orphan there himself. Things look grim. An unexploded bomb lays half buried in the school yard, the war between the Reds and Nationals draws closer, the orphanage officials struggle to care for their wards, and at night, Carlos encounters the ghost of a child wandering the building. Meanwhile, Jacinto, a nasty piece of work, looks to steal the gold loot the doctor and principal are hiding for the Communist cause.

Though set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, The Devil's Backbone keeps the ideologies of both sides distant and instead focuses on the immediate costs and hardships created by the conflict. While Casares and Carmen provide support the Reds, their primary concern is the welfare of the children, and they are presented as disillusioned with the cause. There are hungry children whose parents have been killed in the fighting to care for, and these boys are mostly likely doomed to always suffer and/or die as well. That's something ideologues don't mention when they press their respective causes. Buried beneath whatever glory or agenda they are fighting for, there are innocents caught in the middle.

Repression of that truth is a theme throughout the movie. The ghost himself was a murdered child whose death was covered up. Since there is no one to grieve for him, he must moan. He's the elephant in the room, or rather, the ticking bomb in the school yard. Is there no better metaphor for buried secrets? It's right there, out in the open, but people pretend to ignore it, failing to realize that won't prevent it from going off sooner or later. War is death, and the ghost and the bomb are reminders. In fact, they appeared at the orphanage on the same night.

del Toro uses his ghost wisely. He could have had it leap from around corners, accompanied by a loud noise on the soundtrack, but his technique is more haunting. We get a lot of long shots of the ghost in the background, barely noticeable. In one of its early close shots, it's hiding from Carlos; it still feels fear and sorrow. The tension really builds when its slowly approaches the other characters, giving them (and us) time to actually confront and ponder it. That's the really horror of the film: facing past deeds and not being able to hide from them.

The Devil's Backbone is strongly acted and shot, and even though many of the actors are kids, it's also one of the most mature and sophisticated ghost movies ever filmed. The opening narration offers many definitions of a ghost: something dead that seems alive, a blurred photograph, a moment of pain, an emotion suspended at time. The accomplishment of the film is to capture all those meanings.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Alien vs The Thing

Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) and John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) are rightly regarded as masterpieces of the science fiction-horror genre. Both have virtually identical scenarios: a group of rugged people in a harsh, isolated environment battle an unknown organism that has infiltrated their midst. Each has the strongest character assert control over the weaker, more cowardly cast members, and interestingly, both groups use flamethrowers. In fact, those similarities were held against Carpenter when his film came: it was seen as a cynical, gory Alien knockoff released in the wake of Steven Spielberg's E.T. But really, that's a disservice to both movies. While there are some plot similarities, there are enough variations in design and intent to make each experience unique.

For reference, the xenomorph refers to Alien and the thing refers to the various incarnations The Thing.

SPOILERS LIE AHEAD

Alien takes place sometime in the far future on the spaceship the Nostromo. The crew is on a flight back to Earth carrying cargo when they receive a distress signal on an unknown planet. Once there, a crew member is attacked by a parasite attaching itself to his face. Back on board, he seems to recover until a creature bursts through his chest and escapes into the bowels of the ship, leaving the rest of the crew the task of killing it.

The Thing is set an American outpost in Antarctica in winter 1982. After an incident involving a pair of seemingly mad Norwegians and a dog from another camp, the men find the Scandinavian camp in ruins, no survivors. Soon, they learn the dog is no dog; it's a lifeform with the ability to replicate the appearance and behavior of other beings. The men realize some of their own might not be who they say are.

Carpenter has said there are two types of stories about evil: external and internal. The external is the threat of the outsider while the internal is danger from within; the most dangerous being is ourselves. Alien is an external story, and The Thing is an internal story. The crew of the Nostromo must hunt down the xenomorph, and while there is some infighting and a traitor subplot, the main threat remains the creature as picking them off one by one. The crew of the Antarctic outpost must determine who among them is not really human. The enemy has become them, and they begin distrusting and killing each other. Whereas Alien has been called a slasher in space, The Thing is a sci-fi version of an Agatha Christie mystery.

Most interesting about that classification is how Carpenter's film is much more graphic and violent than Scott's. While Alien is not without shocking violence and imagery, The Thing contains decapitations, severed limbs, spilled entrails, autopsies, and plenty of slime and blood. Scott's efforts add to the mystery. This alien can be anywhere and strike at any moment. You're uneasy going around any corner. Carpenter, not unlike David Cronenberg by way of H.P. Lovecraft, displays the fragility of flesh, the weaknesses of the human body, and the breakdown of reality. Expectations, assumptions, and people are literally falling apart.

Set in the future, Alien is beyond the known boundaries of space, and the then-contemporary The Thing takes place in the frozen tundra of the southern most continent. Both achieve an effect of isolation and claustrophobia, and both crews are beyond the reach of help from civilization. In interviews, Scott has stated to the intent was to model the spaceship after the cramped, sweaty conditions of a submarine. The crew of Nostromo, with its course set toward Earth, must destroy the xenomorph before reaching their destination. As the subplot with Ash reveals, their company has plans of capturing the alien and using it for weapons research. The crew are expendable. The thing is already on earth, and if it reaches the mainland, it will only be a matter of time before it takes over everything. The outpost men must find out who's who before spring before a rescue team arrives; by then, they all may be infected. While the Nostromo is far away from our planet and pushing humanity's limits, the scientific outpost is precariously close to home. This gives the crew of the Nostromo hope; there's still time. The scientists and other crew members in Antarctica are already doomed; if someone comes for them, they'll be found the same way the Norwegians were.

Alien has had three sequels, two spin-offs and possibly a couple of prequels on the way. Throughout the film, we follow the creature on its life cycle, from conception to birth to adulthood. In subsequent films, we have become quite accustomed to how it looks and acts, and each film in the series ends on a note of finality: the creature has been vanquished and order restored. Sadly, there is a sense of overexposure in the series. In the first film, the creature is limited to shadows, and we only catch pieces of it visually. But even here, its shape and texture is defined.

Unlike the xenomorph, we never get a clear idea of the thing. We know how it operates, and we see it take many forms, but which is its true form? Because we never stick with one incarnation for too long and it was limited to one film, the thing maintains a sense of the unknown. We know it can plot, strategize, and deceive. Whatever it is, it's an intelligent being. The alien, for all its physical dexterity, strength, and brutality, amounts to an over-sized space bug (note the hive mentality in the sequels). The Thing ends on a note of uncertainty. The camp has been destroyed, and the last time we saw the exposed thing (as opposed to an assimilated form), it was caught in the explosion. But did that kill it? We end with MacCready and Childs waiting to die, but it's entirely possible one is the thing.

Perhaps the most interesting parallel, at least on a thematic level, is the striking sexual subtext. The xenomorph is essentially a rapist. It impregnates its victims, completely violating their bodies to sustain its reproductive life cycle. Note the creature design by H.R. Giger. The chestburster, in particular, as well as various jaws, tentacles, and tendrils are undeniably phallic. It's always drooling, and the final two humans left, Ripley and Lambert, are women. The creature seems to have a sadistic, voyeuristic glee in toying with them. Before it kills Lambert off-screen, we see a peculiar claw-like tail creeping up between her legs. Not only are the victims violated, they are used to breed even more monsters. It's aggression personified.

The thing is also not nearly as aggressive as the xenomorph. In isolation, it will take over a man but will only fight when exposed (Norris' heart attack, the blood test, etc.). The sexual aspect is more subtle. In 1982, attention was just beginning to be paid to AIDS, which was then and still is to a degree today regarded as the "gay disease." Is it coincidence there is not one female character in Carpenter's movie? AIDS is a blood-borne disease, attacking the body's white blood cells. Similarly, on the molecular level, through the blood, the thing infiltrates and assimilates. A man being taken over by the thing is literally having his cells taken over and turned against him. The key sequence occurs when MacReady discovers a way to expose the thing with a blood test. A disease that weakens and rots you from within is not unlike a creature that takes over your body cell-by-cell.

So what can be learned by comparing The Thing and Alien? Two movies with remarkably similar setups can wield wildly different styles. Scott is more deliberate in building his narrative and restrained with the violence. Carpenter jumps right in and features plenty of gore. Both set their characters in harsh, unforgiving environments to confront the terror of the unknown. For Scott, the unknown is a monster with an unmatched viciousness and purpose. For Carpenter, the unknown is ourselves and the beast that lurks within.


Saturday, October 2, 2010

Halloween Rock Songs

Last night, I returned to Ohio Wesleyan to attend a Zombie Prom. People were wearing torn suits and blood-splattered gowns, makeup encrusted with rot and decay, and assorted other trinkets and decorations. One person had a human-heart corsage. So why couldn't I enjoy this macabre mash (aside from being an antisocial type)? The music.

I arrived early before the festivities and asked one of the organizers what sort of tunes to expect. I asked if we'd be hearing Ozzy Osbourne's "Zombie Stomp" and Rob Zombie's "Living Dead Girl," and the answer was no. Attendees probably wouldn't enjoy stuff that heavy. Instead, we got a lot of pop and hip hop melodies. Sure, there was some fitting selections, but most of it felt out of place.

In this state of mind, I have compiled a list of 12 rocking tracks that would be perfect for Halloween. If you want to get away from ambiance sound effects played on a loop for trick-or-treaters I recommend these killer tracks. These aren't in any specific order, but let me state upfront, these are songs picked because they fit more so with the morbidity of Halloween. Some songs could work for costumes (like "Iron Man"), but I picked these to be ghoulish. I deliberately left off "Monster Mash" by Boris Pickett and the Cryptkickers because that goes without saying.

1) "Bark at the Moon" by Ozzy Osbourne
From the album of the same name, "Bark at the Moon" features Ozzy as a werewolf, the unholy creature of lore inciting frightened villagers and seeking vengeance from the beyond the grave. It's a fun dichotomy of heavy metal and old-fashioned monster tale. This is also the first time Ozzy worked with guitarist Jake E. Lee. Other good Ozzy songs for Halloween include "Zombie Stomp," "Hellraiser," "Let Me Hear You Scream," "Mr. Crowley," and "Diary of a Madman."

2) "Werewolves of London" by Warren Zevon
If "Bark at the Moon" is reminiscent of Lon Chaney as The Wolf Man, then "Werewolves of London is reminiscent of An American Werewolf in London. It's funkier and more lighthearted, but that makes it a good counterpoint.

3) "Living Dead Girl" by Rob Zombie
Just listening to the introduction, I get this mental image of a zombie girl jumping rope. Then, the title is revealed in a distorted vocal proclamation, and the song kicks into hard-driving gear. For years, I tried convincing my sister to use this as her batting song in fast pitch softball because it's forceful and cool. I guarantee she would have intimidated any pitcher she faced. This song contains numerous references to the 70's exploitation films Rob Zombie grew up on. Just about anything by Zombie would fit in at a Halloween party, but I recommend "Superbeast," "Dragula," and the stuff he did with White Zombie.

4) "Boris the Spider" by The Who
Written and sung by bassist John Entwistle, "Boris the Spider" is about the creepy crawler he sees on his wall. It may not involve dismemberment and devils, but some people are freaked out arachnids. It's got a solid bass line and an awesome snarl on the refrain, but overall, the song has a playful feeling. The rhythm is so simple and catchy, it's hard not to smile while listening.

5) "Thriller" by Michael Jackson
To give credit where it's due, this was played at the zombie party, and it certainly is an iconic song, even if it is pop. I'm not a Jackson fan, but I admit he's in top form here. And for a pop song, it is pretty dark. Special props for getting Vincent Price to read the passage in the middle, and the music video by John Landis is effective. It creeps me out.

6) "Night Prowler" by AC/DC
This song, the final track of Highway to Hell, generated controversy in 1985 when a Los Angeles serial killer known as the "Night Stalker" was a reported to like this song, and police stated he wore the band's shirt while committing the murders. The Young brothers maintain this song is about a boy sneaking into his girlfriend's bedroom while her parents are asleep. Still, the song has a sense of danger and menace that fits with Halloween. It's slower than the band's other songs (time signature is 6/8 instead of the usual 4/4) and under tuned, very bluesy but heavy. Listening to it, you feel like someone's coming to get you.

7) "Black Sabbath" by Black Sabbath
You can't discuss ominous without mentioning the lords of gloom and doom. Here's a song about being chosen by Satan to bring about the end of the world, and it works like a Gothic poem. The lyrics are sparse and contain distinct images: "figure in black which points at me," "big black shapes with eyes of fire," and "Satan's sitting there, he's smiling." When Ozzy comes in with,"What is this that stands before me?" you can picture this evil being rising up out of the fog and atmosphere. . "The Wizard," "N.I.B.," "Children of the Grave," "Lady Evil," and "Paranoid" also work for Halloween.

8) "The Thing that Should Not Be" by Metallica
Metallica, like Sabbath, has a number of apocalyptic songs, and this is one. Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," which is about a mutant race worshiping god figures from the Cthulu mythos, this song came at the height of Metallica's thrash days, but this is a slower, moodier piece than "Master of Puppets." We got monsters lurking beneath the sea, people driven insane after seeing the indescribable, fallen cities, and living dead. Other Metallica tracks inspired by Lovecraft include the instrumental "The Call of Ktulu" (a deliberate misspelling lest the creature be summoned) and "All Nightmare Long."

9) "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult
Love against death. That's what this song is about. Death, as represented by the Grim Reaper, claims all, but in the meantime, we have our love and let's go with that. The song has two tones, the defiant rhythm section celebrating life and the dark guitar solo representing death. It's undeniably a classic, but it could have used a little more cowbell.

10) "The Number of the Beast" by Iron Maiden
You know your song is ominous when the opening passage about the devil is from the Book of Revelation and read by a Vincent Price sound-alike. This album also marked the debut of Bruce Dickinson as vocalist and how fitting. This song really gave him a chance to show off his operatic style and high range. Coupled with the band's typically excellent musicianship, you have an instant classic lineup.

11) "Feed My Frankenstein" by Alice Cooper
Ah yes, the monster as a phallic image. "I'm hungry for love and it's feeding time," Alice Cooper sneers during the chorus. Once again, Cooper revels in the underlying humor prevalent in most horror movie imagery. The more blood and guts there are, the funnier it becomes. When performed live, this song is accompanied by Cooper assembling a Frankenstein mannequin on stage. It's Cooper at his most fun, and the song garnered exposure by appearing in Wayne's World. Like Rob Zombie, Alice Cooper has an entire catalog that can be used on Halloween: "Teenage Frankenstein," "Sick Things," and "The Ballad of Dwight Fry."

12) "Pinhead" by The Ramones
Inspired by the classic shocker Freaks (which used real deformed people to portray side show attractions), "Pinhead" is classic Ramones: stripped to the basics, short, and catchy. This also where we got their catchphrase, "Gabba Gabba Hey." The song refers to the film's most memorable aspect, the freaks chanting "Gooble gobble, we accept you one us!" When the villains run afoul of the freaks, it becomes "Gooble gobble, we will make you one of us!" It's creepy but darkly funny poetic justice, and the song captures the mood about being one of society's rejects and outcasts.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Friday (the 13th) Freakout

Most people know what Friday the 13th is. Even if they aren't horror fans, people know who Jason Voorhees is: the hockey-masked slasher who hacks, cuts, and stabs his way through about a dozen oversexed teenagers at a time in a middle-of-nowhere summer camp, Camp Crystal Lake. The movies haven't been very good; at best, they're fun, escapist romps with a heaping of gore and conservative morality thrown in (i.e. Don't engage in premarital sex, or a masked lunatic will eviscerate you).

But that hasn't stopped Jason from being a cultural icon. He endures, almost unchanging. In fact, when you get down to the heart of it, not much has changed. That formula remains intact through out the series. Teenagers arrive at camp and wander off alone to engage in some illicit behavior, a storm blows in, and they get picked off one by by one until the virginal heroine is left to take the maniac on in mortal combat. She wins, but there's always a suggestion Jason will return.

When you go down the list, each movie has only one attribute to distinguish it from the rest. Everything else remains identical, but there's always one little hook to justify resurrecting Jason for one more go with the machete.

Friday the 13th (1980) Jason's mother is the killer.

Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) Jason doesn't have his hockey mask yet. Here, it's just a potato sack.

Friday the 13th Part 3 (1982) Jason gets his mask, and even better, it's in glorious 3-D. Those expecting Avatar-level quality will be disappointed.

Friday the 13th Part 4: The Final Chapter (1984) The one with Corey Feldman. You know you've exhausted your ability to scare when it only takes one of the two Coreys to kill you.

Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning (1985) The impostor Jason! Yes, Jason isn't really in this one. The killer is some side character with a few lines near the beginning so we can remember who he was when he's unmasked. For this reason, it's regarded as the worst in the series. This is also when they shifted to Roman numerals in the titles; I guess to look more sophisticated.

Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986) The one with a song by Alice Cooper.

Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988) Jason battles Carrie. Okay, it's not Carrie. Paying for the rights to use that Stephen King character was probably out of their budget, but this does feature a cool battle between Jason and a telekinetic girl.

Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989) The biggest cheat in a title ever. This should be retitled to "Jason Takes a Cruise Ship to Vancouver, and We have a Brief Shot of him in Time Square."

Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993) This should be retitled to "Jason rips off The Hidden."

Jason X (2001) 2001: A Jason Odyssey. Jason in Space. Enough bad puns about Jason going into space?

Freddy vs. Jason (2003). A battle between two slasher titans about fifteen years after everyone stopped caring.

Friday the 13th (2009). Produced by Michael Bay, this one probably had more money in its budget than the rest combined. So what's different here? We finally have an Asian in the cast. It would appear at first glance this is merely a Token Asian, but this inclusion shatters that perception. The stereotype of Asians is they are nerdy geniuses. By having one turn up as a hapless victim, we're seeing an Asian who does not fit that label. He was too stupid to stay out of this movie.

I kid the franchise. Certainly, the genre has produced worse, and Friday the 13th has had an impact that cannot be denied. It has its moments. It has its fun. You know what you're getting when Jason Voorhees is your villain. He's the reliable warhorse of the genre. Nothing flashy or graceful, but he gets the job done.