Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Strangers

The home, ideally a place of safety, comfort, and stability, and yet far too often, a home does not offer any of these assurances. Consider real-life occurrences of domestic violence, burglaries, and break-ins, and it's disquieting to realize just how vulnerable we can be in our own homes. It is this fear that The Strangers (2008) exploits. The story of a young couple (Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler) terrorized by a trio of masked maniacs one night, The Strangers is a competent enough nail-biter and piece of domestic suspense with a few standout sequences and an atmosphere of creepy unease, but it is hampered by a couple of notable flaws and lack of staying power.

The film opens with James (Speedman) and Kristen (Tyler) arriving at an isolated summer house of his family's, and it's clear from the get-go there's trouble between them. Later, it becomes apparent he asked he asked her to marry him, and she said no, although we don't witness that particular incident. After a while, the masked psychopaths arrive and start messing with them, and from there, it's a deadly game of cat-and-mouse until the end.

That's all the plot there is. The Strangers is as straightforward as a thriller can get: one location, a small number of actors, and a single scenario. We never learn who the strangers are or see them without their masks on. Their motives are never explained; we only get a few hints that this is some sort thing they have done before, and it's pretty clear they enjoy tormenting people. Evil is just out there.

The fundamental challenge of this scenario is how easily it can become repetitious. There's only so many ways to depict such a small number of people being terrorized in a house before the suspense is replaced by tediousness or introducing more characters or elaborating and expanding the plot. It's a fine balance between maintaining the simplistic purity of the setup and stretching it beyond the breaking point. For the most part, The Strangers is successful on this front, although by the last 20 minutes or so, it starts to run out of juice. The early interactions between Kristen (while James is away for the time being) and the villains are the best. Before they try breaking in, the masked people simply spook her, announcing with little clues they have been in the house when she wasn't looking : a cellphone missing, the smoke detector left on the floor now neatly placed on a chair, etc.

The appearance of the first masked figure is reminiscent of Leatherface's entrance in the original The Texas Chain saw Massacre. No, he doesn't bash anyone over the head with a meat cleaver, but there is similarly no introduction or buildup. He's just suddenly there, in the house behind Kristen as she stands at the kitchen table. When she turns back, he's gone. Soon after, we get an effective jump scare at the window.

As I said, the movie begins to flag in the last third. Partly that's due to the limitations of the plot I outlined above, but also because the initial mystery of the strangers just becomes disappointingly vague. When they arrived, their agenda could have been anything and interest is piqued, but when we see what they do at the end, one wonders why they didn't do that at any number of opportunities. There's something to be said for evil not needing a reason to commit evil, but here, the movie felt like it was going to build to some kind of revelation. I'm not asking for a twist ending, but seeing what they do is not as scary as wondering what they might do. Not giving them a motive, rather than commenting on the randomness of evil, felt more like a way to prolong the movie's running length.

The movie's other problem, to be honest, is its leads. Speedman and Tyler are a little bland, a little too Hollywood, to really invoke a sense of "this could be you." The early scenes of their spat might have been interesting, but ultimately, when the creepy stuff begins, it's gone by the wayside. There's a potentially neat idea about these two people, ostensibly in love, not really knowing each other as well as they thought they did and being forced to confront that reality. That could have fit nicely in with a movie of the "Savage Cinema" genre, like in Straw Dogs, Deliverance, or The Last House on the Left. Even the back of the DVD case says Kristen and James are driven beyond what they thought themselves capable of to survive, but that really doesn't really occur in The Strangers. There's no sense broken taboos or committing extreme violence to survive and what impact it has on so-called "civilized" people.

I should also note The Strangers is remarkably similar to a 2006 French film called Them, also about a young couple in an isolated house being terrorized by a group of unknown assailants. I'm not accusing it of being a rip-off, a remake, or plagiarizing (so many horror movies borrow similar premises and ideas, after all), but The Strangers feels a little more polished and safer in comparison. Despite claiming to be based on a true story (which it's not), The Strangers never feels like more than a movie. Entertaining and suspenseful throughout, but it doesn't shake you to the core.

Attack the Block

I didn't have high of hopes for Attack the Block (2011). For one thing, the concept sounds like obvious schtick - outer space versus the inner city - and the DVD cover brought to mind the rather weak The Watch starring Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn that came out earlier this year or some other low-rent Men in Black ripoff. Thankfully, Attack the Block manages to succeed as a mostly serious sci-action thriller with humor that doesn't feel forced and characters that actually behave like real people instead of goofy stereotypes.

Set in London, Attack the Block opens on Bonfire Night when a gang of teenagers - leader Moses (John Boyega), Pest (Alex Esmail), Jerome (Leeon Jones), Dennis (Franz Drameh), and Biggz (Simon Howard) - mug a nurse, Sam (Jodie Whittaker).  Something then falls out of the sky, which turns out to be an alien creature the boys chase and kill. They parade the alien around and take it to drug dealer Ron (Nick Frost) for safekeeping, but before long, more aliens start appearing, only these beasts are bigger and nastier than the first, and the group must fight and flee to stay alive.

Written and directed by Joe Cornish, Attack the Block avoids the temptation to condescend and mock the material, and instead, it's played mostly straight. The aliens aren't too complicated, essentially just big, black, furry bear-like creatures with glowing blue fangs and no eyes, but they work. Most of them appear to computer-generated, but Cornish doesn't over expose them. There are a lot of chase scenes in which we only catch glimpses of the aliens or only see them from across a great distance, so they were never glaringly fake. Up close, they get pretty mean, ripping out throats and leaving behind bloody, bloody messes.

The humor comes organically from the character and also because the movie spends most of the first act teasing the boys' expectations. With the alien corpse, they think it's their ticket to fame and fortune and act the way you would expect a bunch of teenage boys who just found an alien would act. The movie also takes its time building to the actual alien invasion, allowing the boys to think they only have to deal with one alien, and when more arrive, they think it too will be a pushover. Are they in for a surprise.

There's also a fair degree of post-modern self-awareness that's pretty funny. One character notes that when word gets out about the invasion, London will be swarming with the army, tanks, helicopters, and all that "28 Days Later shit." When they are in danger, they don't discount and deflate the tension; they take the threat seriously, but they do get in some jokes. One character wants to alert someone else with his cellphone but only has enough charge left for one text, and he complains how trying to explain an alien invasion in one text might be a bit much. When the group winds up at Sam's apartment, she threatens to call the police, and Pest says she should probably call the Ghostbusters instead.

Attack the Block has some dwell-drawn characterization, at more than what you would expect in a genre film. Moses, the gang leader, begins the film as a thief, mugger, and soon-to-be drug dealer who, as the film unfolds, evolves into a strong, capable leader and protector. The others, too, get little moments to show they're more than simple monster movie fodder. Biggz, while hiding in a dumpster, calls his mother and without overplaying it, tells he loves her and will be good from now on. Pest gets a moment where he somewhat scolds Sam because her boyfriend, she says, is in Ghana helping children. "Why can't he help the children in Britain?" We even see these kids mourn their fallen friends. How often do you see that in an alien invasion movie?

The movie's not perfect. I didn't much care for the subplot involving two younger boys who want to join the gang and hunt aliens. They felt a little too obviously comical (although, admittedly, how that story line pays off is fun). It also takes a little while to figure who the main five characters are and to differentiate them' it's been difficult because often they're all wearing hoods and face coverings. And the movie is disappointingly vague about the invasion itself. Is it going on all over London? Are they attacking because of some pheromone on some people, out of revenge for the first creature's death, or were they going to invade all along? Are the police aware of what's going and covering up, or are they in the dark about the aliens?

Oh well, those sort of questions ultimately don't matter. At its most basic, Attack the Block is about a group of characters working together to survive an extraterrestrial threat, and it's much more exciting and well crafted than I expected. I expected a joke but got something much better.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Invisible Man (1933)

James Whale is best known as the director of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, but in between those two classics, he directed The Invisible Man (1933) based on the novel by H.G. Wells. At its heart, the film is about the corrupting influence of power and a how man acts when he believes he is immune from consequences, but as we see, it's only so long before a man's character catches up with him, even if nobody can see him.

A mysterious tenant (Claude Rains) has rented a room at the Lions Head Inn in the English country side. His face remains hidden by bandages and a pair of black sunglasses, and he is always working on some sort of chemistry experiments. His odd and disruptive behavior angers the locals, and when the police arrive to arrest him, he pulls off the bandages to reveal nothing there. We eventually learn his name is Jack Griffin, a brilliant scientist who experimented with chemicals to make himself invisible, but the side effects include insanity and megalomania, and Griffin can't reverse the effects. Soon, he goes on a murderous rampage, believing himself to be beyond morality.

For a movie made nearly 80 years ago, The Invisible Man contains remarkably ambitious special effects, and for this part, modern audiences should be able to accept them. Granted there are a few minor flaws, but overall, Whale really sells the invisible man aspect, using several little tricks and visual guides to suggest the mad man's presence: empty clothing shaped like a man, a pair of pants running down a road, a bicycle riding by itself, people getting shoved and tossed around, etc. The moment Griffin unmasks, peeling away the layers of bandages to reveal the emptiness beneath the visage (both physically and morally), is a classic moment. There's always that sense he could be anywhere, ready to strike. In addition to sneaking up on people, Griffin also causes chaos in other ways that make him a terrifying mass murderer. At one point, he kills a railroad worker and then flips the tricks, causing a train full of people to crash. He also knocks several people to their deaths off cliffs.

Helping the film tremendously is the performance of Claude Rains. I don't know how often he was under the bandages for the physical parts, but his voice alone is enough to carry the role: obsessive, ruthless, maniacal, dangerous, pompous, and yet containing a great intelligence and malicious sense of humor. "The drugs I took seemed to light up my brain. Suddenly I realized the power I held, the power to rule, to make the world grovel at my feet," he declares. He also says, "Power, I said! Power to walk into the gold vaults of the nations, into the secrets of kings, into the Holy of Holies; power to make multitudes run squealing in terror at the touch of my little invisible finger. Even the moon's frightened of me, frightened to death!" Like Freddy Kruger years later, Griffin is a man who enjoys instilling terror in people. During the aforementioned pants scene, a terrified woman runs away screaming as he sings, "Here we go gathering nuts in May."

That dark humor works very well. Other more broadly comic scenes involving the bumbling police and the innkeeper's wife not so much, mainly due to such campy and shrill performances that are irritating and distracting. The invisible man story is also one of the hardest to do because strict adherence to logic can push the tone into unintended silliness. For example, we're expected to believe Griffin is able to run around naked in the middle of winter. But these are mostly nitpicks in an otherwise effective chiller, fitting nicely with Whale's other masterpieces.

The Fog (1980)

John Carpenter must have surely been tempted by the success of Halloween (1978) to follow with something similar, but he chose this moody, atmospheric supernatural piece instead. Drawing on the styles of both Edgar Alan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, The Fog (1980) concerns itself with a shipload of vengeful ghosts who return from the grave to seek vengeance on the coastal town that killed them 100 years prior, using the fog, which the townsfolk had used to lure them to their deaths, as their vehicle of revenge. The Fog is something of an overlooked entry in Carpenter's horror filmography, having been made between Halloween and The Thing, but it's an effective, rich, and old-fashioned ghost story.

The cast who make up the small town of Antonio Bay is a who's who of actors who have worked prominently in the genre and/or with Carpenter regularly. If there is a central character, it's probably Adrienne Barbeau (then Mrs. John Carpenter) as radio DJ Stevie Wayne, who has a young son. There's also Hal Holbrook as Father Malone, Tom Atkins as fisherman Nick Castle, Jamie Lee Curtis as hitchhiker Elizabeth Solley, her mother Janet Leigh as Kathy Williams a fisherman's wife and organizer of the town's 100th anniversary celebration, Nancy Loomis as her assistant, Charles Cyphers as weatherman Dan O'Bannon, and Darwin Joston as pathologist Dr. Phibes.The characters are barely drawn with more than the most basic traits, but the cast give them life, and most importantly they feel like real people in this town. Their collective story is that of a town under siege.

There's very little actual plot in The Fog. The film proceeds at a relaxed pace, beginning with a ghost story around the campfire by a sailor played by John Houseman setting the tone for what's to follow. We then go through various locales throughout the town as unexplained occurrences happen: payphones all ringing at once, car alarms going off for no reason, items in a grocery store shaking and falling off the shelves, and windows spontaneously breaking. It's an eerie and foreboding sequence. By this point, we've learned the story of Captain Blake and the doomed sailors and how it is whispered they return at the "witching hour" (midnight to 1 a.m.), but we haven't learned about the town's culpability in their deaths. We see all these strange things happen and know something supernatural is going on, but at this point, the threat is unmentioned and only hinted at.

From there, the movie cuts between different groups of characters - Stevie Wayne, Nick and Elizabeth, and Mrs. Williams and her assistant - as they encounter different aspects of Antonio Bay's history and the curse of the ghosts until finally they meet during the climax at the town's church to fight off the marauding spirits that are attacking through the fog that has blanketed the town. The exception is Stevie, who remains at her post to warn others of the threat until the ghosts come looking for her.

The ghosts themselves are never seen straight on, always shadowy outlines embedded in the fog. The only close shots we get of them are usually of a hand or two smashing through a window or door or clutching a hook or sword. However, Carpenter is much more effective in creating tension from the environment. Stevie Wayne broadcasts her show from a lighthouse, and we see shots of her driving through wide opens fields and walking perilously down a flight of stairs near cliffs to get there; it's effective at generating a sense of isolation and loneliness. Nick and Elizabeth go looking for a missing ship out to sea, and the ocean has this alienating, slightly threatening touch to it. It's these touches, along with the hints of the supernatural, that give The Fog a spooky feel.

Carpenter also is able to use irony to underscore his trademark anti-authority streak. This cozy little community, we learn, is built on lies and murder, and the church was complicit. During the town's celebration, Mrs. Williams gives a speech about how they work to keep the spirit of their founders alive. Little does she know how accurate and wrong she is

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Mummy (1932)

Of the classic Universal lineup of monsters - Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man - the mummy might be the hardest to get right or at least find new things for him to do. Whereas the others can be moved and dropped into a number of different roles, it's really hard to conceive of the mummy outside of Egypt coming to life and attacking those who have defiled his tomb.

But still, there's something inherent about the mummy that gives him iconic status. The full-body bandages covering a now hideous and decayed form, the lumbering gait with the arms outstretched, his often tragic background (usually a high priest who fell in love with the Pharoah's wife or daughter and was punished for it), his gruesome mummification (buried alive and cursed in afterlife), his desire for his reincarnated love, and his vengeance on defilers give him enough to be counted among the aforementioned greats.

We get a good deal of this in the original Mummy (1932) starring Boris Karloff. The film opens in Egypt in 1921 where an archeological expedition disturbs his tomb causing him to awaken, drive an assistant mad, and disappear with an ancient scroll. He returns in 1932 as Ardeth Bay, a distinguished-looking but sinister man who shows another expedition where to find the tomb of Princess Anck-es-en-amon. When she's unearthed and taken to a Cairo museum, Bay takes steps to reincarnate his lost love into the body of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), a half-Egyptian, half-British woman.

Watching The Mummy is frustrating because it feels like a condensed version of a longer, much more elaborate story. The opening expedition, the only time the mummy is presented as the classic bandaged figure, is only about five minutes long while the search and discovery of the other tomb feels rushed and over before you know it. Even the mummy's tomb is already found and his body unearthed by the time the movie begins. We don't witness how the mummy becomes reincarnated as Ardeth Bay. One of  the concepts I liked from The Mummy remake of the nineties was how the mummy restored himself to life (sucking dry the lifeforce of those who opened his casket), but here it goes unexplained.

The movie's main problem is how much its narrative draws on the previous year's Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. Hell, even a good part of the cast returns playing the same roles, including David Manners as a Jonathan Harker type and Edward Van Sloan as this movie's Van Helsing. There's a piece of religious iconography that repels the monster's power. Bay, like Dracula, uses hypnotic powers to control people, particularly Helen to make her his. Both the mummy and Dracula are creatures who have lived past death for a long time, albeit Dracula continuously for hundreds of years, and the mummy is awakened after thousands. The Mummy also shares many of the same flaws with Dracula: the stagy and dated performances, the tendency to tell rather than show, the incredibly slow pace (only 73 minutes long but feels much longer), and how the tone feels more like melodrama than horror.

The movie's ace in the hole is Boris Karloff, or maybe more accurately, his face. With his dark sunken eyes, piercing stare, and heavily wrinkled cheeks, he has a haunting and memorable presence. His performance, along with his imposing manner, lends the movie a great eeriness and dignity. Unlike Legosi, Karloff is more restrained and less of a predator; the character's passion for his lost love cannot be dismissed, and that suitably makes him more tragic. Plus, he towers over everyone else on screen, establishing his threat and power.

Director Karl Freund, the famed cinematographer of Metropolis and Dracula, generates a number of atmospheric set pieces. The mummy's reanimation is well done, and Bay's religious chambers are fittingly ornate. The makeup on the mummy is creepy and nicely decayed, and it holds up better than other aspects of the film; too bad we get so little of it.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn

Looking back on director Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy, there's a clear tonal trajectory. The Evil Dead begins the series with a straight-up, grueling, and atmospheric horror experience while Army of Darkness concludes it as the demonic slapstick child of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and Jason and the Argonauts. Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987) falls appropriately in the middle of this shift. Equal parts splatter horror movie and slapstick comedy, it's the kind of movie you'd get if blended the sensibilities of Dawn of the Dead with The Three Stooges, equally adept at making you laugh and squirm.

The Chin himself Bruce Campbell returns as our hapless hero Ash. Once again, he and his girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler) arrive at the isolated cabin in the woods, and it isn't long before an ominous tape recording of passages from the Necronomicon Ex Mortis (the Book of the Dead) releases some dark spirits that possess Linda and try to drive Ash crazy and kill him. Soon, other doomed folks arrive at the cabin: the owner's daughter (Sarah Berry), her boyfriend (Richard Domeier), a redneck (Dan Hicks), and his girlfriend (Kassi Wesley). The forces of the Necronomicon whittle the cast down until eventually Ash must take charge, minus a hand but plus a chainsaw, to send the demons back from whence they came.

Name a type of graphic violence, and it likely appears in Evil Dead 2. We get dismemberment, decapitation, stabbing, chopping, shootings, and the splattering and spraying of all sorts of blood, guts, limbs, skin, slime, drool, and other unidentifiable fluids and substances. Don't look for subtly here; the M.O. of the film is why do anything when you can do it with gallons of blood. The level of excess pushes a scenario nestled firmly in the horror genre over-the-top into parody. It's a comedy disguised as horror movie (or more appropriately, a horror movie possessed by a comedy).

Raimi works in several gags that were clearly inspired by the Three Stooges. Ash stomps on the head of one deadite, causing its eye to shoot out of its socket through the air and into the screaming mouth of another character. Early on, the possessed, decapitated head of Linda attacks Ash, biting down on his hand, and he runs around screaming trying to get it off. Later, Ash's right hand is possessed by the demons, and the rebellious appendage tortures our hero by punching him, smashing plates over his head, and causing all sorts of pain. Ash's solution? Lop it off and affix a chainsaw to the bloody stump. That doesn't stop the hand from continuing to cause trouble.

The evil demonic forces are also good for laughs. Yes, they're dangerous, but they also enjoy tormenting poor Ash and being assholes about it. Ash, trying to pull himself together, looks into a mirror and says everything's fine, only for his reflection to lunge out of the glass and say, "I don't think so. We just cut up our girlfriend with a chainsaw. Does that sound like fine?" The evil also possesses inanimate objects, leading to a sequence in which a deer head on the wall, a rocking chair, a lamp, and other items begin laughing at Ash until he joins in. 

There are other cast members, but this is really the Bruce Campbell show. He's on his own for much of the first half of the movie, and he carries it. Unlike the first movie, in which he was a panicked victim, and the third, in which he becomes a comic book styled hero with no shortage of one-liners, Ash is pretty much a normal guy driven mad until he can take no more. Everything that happens is an excuse to see Campbell get beaten up and thrown around; it's a very physical role, but he maintains comic timing and sarcasm throughout. While not quite the ass-kicker he'd become in Army of Darkness, he's well on his way. Groovy.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Tremors

Tremors (1990) is  a movie to cherish. I'm not saying that because it's the scariest monster ever made or because the creature effects are the most inventive or even because it's the funniest comedy horror produced. It is to be treasured because it balances on a narrow line few genre films are able to straddle; it works as an effective and exciting monster movie for kids while having a strong enough sense of humor and a charismatic cast to endear it to the older crowd. Simply put, Tremors is fun.

Val and Earl (Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward respectively) are handymen in the small desert town of Perfection, Nev. The very day they decide to ditch town and move on to bigger prospects, strange things start happening. The town drunk is found on an electrical tower dead of dehydration, a farmer and his flock of sheep are slaughtered, and before long, the way out of the valley is cut off, trapping everyone from outside help. Val and Earl, along with seismology graduate student Rhonda (Finn Carter) soon discover giant, subterranean worm-like creatures are responsible, and they're heading straight for Perfection.

Twenty-two years, Tremors is a franchise that has grown to include two straight-to-video sequels, a prequel, and even a TV series. Along with the concept of graboids (the name a shop owner played by Victor Wong bestows upon them before becoming lunch) and the town of Perfection, we witness the creatures become scuttling ground critters and flying threats and back to worms again over the course of the series. Looking back, it's easy to forget just how fresh and energetic the original was. There's a genuine sense of discovery and mystery as our heroes find evidence of the monsters' rampage and are perplexed by the lack of explanation: what would keep a man up on a tower for three days to die of thirst, what could eat a farmer and entire flock of sheep, what's strong enough to bury a car, and why would it do? The clues just pile on, our heroes learn a little more about the danger with each encounter, and finally, the creatures literally burst on screen.

For the most of the movie, the graboids are kept off-screen, mostly suggested by their snake-like tongues poking and squirming out of the dirt or by their manipulation of objects as they move (most notably a line fence posts being knocked over as they chase Val and Earl and various dust clouds). In a sense, Tremors is a goofier, lighter land version of Jaws. Unlike other monster movies, most of Tremors is set during the day and out in the open, so while there is not much claustrophobia, we do get an effective sense of isolation in the middle of the desert.

The film also has fun with the graboids' method of attack. They hunt by sound and get people from under the ground, so climbing up on a rock or building will keep you safe. It's like an extreme version of the kids' game quicksand. Or if you remember to freeze and not make a sound while on dirt, they won't be able to find you. The methods the characters use to stay safe are a blast: pole-vaulting, tossing rocks, and even tossing out lit dynamite tied to a rope like they were fishing.

A large part of why the movie works so well is its cast. Bacon and Ward are excellent as the squabbling, not-always-too-bright duo of Val and Earl. Instead of being disbelieving skeptics, they embrace the graboid phenomenon, talking about these monsters as their ticket to the big time, provided they don't get eaten first, but when they chips are down, they take charge and save the day. They play off each other great and have some really funny lines and exchanges.

       - "Damn it, Valentine! I'm older and I'm wiser."
          "Yeah, well, you're half right."

       - "You ever seen anything like this before?"
         "Oh, yeah, Earl, we all knew about 'em. We just didn't tell you."

       - "Must be a million of them!"
         "Nope, just one."

Of course, you can't mention Tremors without mentioning Michael Gross and Reba McEntire as Burt and Heather Gummer, the resident gun nut survivalists. They play their roles so straight they're hilarious, and they give new meaning to the phrase "home defense" when one of the monsters bursts through their basement. Carter is also good as Rhonda. She's got the kind of thankless task of Val's love interest, but she has some fun with the scientist part, having to come up with explanations on the fly. Plus, she thankfully doesn't fit the stereotypical Hollywood leading lady mold. I also liked Victor Wong as the sneaky store owner Walter. Upon finding Val and Earl have caught a mysterious snake creature, he says, "I'll give you boys $5 for it."

Tremors has its share of blood and slime, but most of it comes from the graboids (there's a hilarious bit involving a blown graboid's guts raining down on people). The deaths themselves aren't too graphic apart from the characters pulled into the ground, a simple yet creepy notion. There's some profanity, but only one f-bomb. If anything, Tremors is a good introduction to the genre for younger audiences: not too scary, a good balance of excitement and laughs, and an education of how the small town under siege by monsters is done right. For the older crowd and people like me who grew up watching it on TV, Tremors remains something to feel affectionate toward.

Frenzy

I must confess; I felt dirty watching Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972). To see a picture like this, it just seems so wrong and inappropriate. What could I have been thinking? I mean really, watching a Hitchcock movie on pan-and-scan VHS? Ugh.

Regardless of format, Frenzy remains a wickedly entertaining and morbidly funny film. Once again, Hitchcock draws on one of his favorite tropes - the man wrongfully accused - but instead of concentrating on the potential chase and man-on-the-run elements like he had in previous films (most notably in North by Northwest and The 39 Steps), he revels in the delicious irony of all the clues pointing to an innocent while nothing incriminating is tied to the real criminal, and he teases the audience with a number of standout suspense scenes.

A London serial killer is strangling women with a necktie, and all evidence points to Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), a recently fired barman down on his luck. He was the last man seen near where his ex-wife was raped and murdered, and he's got a bad temper and a bit of a drinking problem. The problem: he didn't do it. The real killer is a friend of Blaney's, Bob Rusk (Barry Foster), a market salesman with a warped sexual compulsion hidden beneath his charming, helpful personality. In the middle is Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen), who discusses evidence of the case with his wife while trying to avoid eating her ghastly meals.

Frenzy is probably Hitchcock's most warped movie, or at least one of his tackiest. That's a bold statement considering three of his best films involve a transvestite who acts like his mother (Psycho, uh, spoiler), a detective who controls and shapes a woman to match his obsessive fantasy (Vertigo), and voyeurism (Rear Window). You could also argue it's misogynistic; the female victims are treated as discarded objects while some degree of sympathy is generated for their murderer. I suppose it's a testament to Hitchcock's skills as a filmmaker that he takes this subject matter and is able to apply his trademark black humor. Unlike the earlier pictures, Frenzy is also more graphic. We witness the murder of Blaney's ex, and there are  closeups of the tie tightening around her throat and of her terrified face as she gags and struggles. The bodies of other victims are found in the river and the back of a potato truck, naked, bruised, pale, and stiff. This is also reported to be the first Hitchcock movie to feature nudity.

The humor typically comes from dark irony. The film opens with long, sweeping shots of the London cityscape and proceeds to an outdoor press conference where a government official boasts about efforts to clean up pollution in the Thames River, only for someone to cry out there's a dead woman floating by. Later, Rusk, looking for a piece of incriminating evidence in a victim's hand, climbs into the potato truck, getting knocked around by all the sacks and growing increasingly frustrated and desperate; it's a sequence that's as humorous as it is tense. The public, instead of being shocked or repulsed by the murders, are actually fascinated by them, treating them as just the latest piece of gossip. One extra notes how the city could use a little excitement. More traditional humor comes from the dinner scenes between Oxford and his wife; he elaborates on the case while hiding his disgust for her cooking. Given that the film is about appetites - Rusk's depraved carnal hungers - it makes sense that the detective who eventually figures out the truth is the one who has trouble swallowing what's put in front of him.

Part of the reason I think Hitchcock succeeds is the casting. Finch as Blaney is not likeable like Jimmy Stewart, smooth like Cary Grant, nor honest like Henry Fonda; he's rather unpleasant, quick to anger and indignation, kind of self-pitying, and drunk at the worst times. It's very easy for the police and public to accept he's the culprit. Unlike other Hitckcockian protagonists, he does little to help his own cause, content to go into hiding rather than find the real killer as audiences might expect a hero to do. Foster as Rusk, on the other hand, is charming and personable (at least when he's not killing women). When Blaney is fired and homeless, Rusk offers him money, grapes, and a great tip on an upcoming horse race (which Blaney is too proud  to borrow money to bet on). We meet his mother, and Rusk always seems a bit more quick-witted and has a sense of humor. Even as a killer, when things don't go his way, he resolves problems by taking action and getting his hands dirty.

Being the master of suspense, Hitchcock shows he still knew how to turn the screws. The potato truck scene as I mentioned is a standout sequence, and the murder of Blaney's ex-wife is another great example. It's brutal, shocking, and drawn out. We watch her mind work as she tries to talk her way out of it and then try fight. When the deed is done and Rusk leaves, there's a long shot held on the building's entrance outside; we see the secretary walk inside, but we wait outdoors for the inevitable scream of discovery. Rusk later leads another victim up to his apartment, and when the door closes, the camera pulls back, down the stairs, and outside; we know what's going to happen, and we're helpless to stop it.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Deadly Blessing

Director Wes Craven can be a pretty hit-or-miss filmmaker. For every A Nightmare on Elm Street or The Serpent and the Rainbow, he's got a Shocker or Deadly Friend on his resume. Deadly Blessing (1981) falls right in the middle. While not an outright classic, it is made with sufficient skill and thematic subtext to make it watchable and better than his lesser works.

Craven's career can be divided roughly into three periods: the backwoods brutality and savagery of The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, the fantastical and rubber-reality of A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Serpent and the Rainbow, and the post-modern, ironic Scream and its sequels. Deadly Blessing falls in between the first two periods, not only in terms of when he made it during his career but also in how Craven tries, not always successfully, to blend the supernatural with human violence.

After her husband is killed in what appears to be a freak tractor accident, Martha (Maren Jensen) finds her problems growing worse. Her husband was an ex-member of the fundamentalist religious group the Hittites, which are lead by his father Isaiah Schmidt (Ernest Borgnine). The Hittities consider Martha an Incubus for having lured one of their own away from the faith, and Isaiah, with threatening overtones, attempts to buy the farm she lives on. She refuses and is soon joined by visiting friends (Susan Buckner and Sharon Stone). But danger is afoot; a killer is on the loose, targeting believer and non-believer alike, a killer that might not be entirely human.

I don't remember where I read it, but someone once said at the heart of most horror is the idea of repression. Think of all the stories of buried secrets coming home to roost in the most horrible manner. A theme Craven has explored a number of time is the sins of the father, the idea that trespasses committed by parents will have drastic consequences on their children. That is represented here by Isaiah, a man whose fanaticism drives both of his sons away and causes his followers to live in fear and isolation. In this environment, where these people have deliberately cut themselves off from the safety of the modern world (the sheriff at one point notes he's hours away if anything bad happens) and they are afraid to speak up, evil can flourish and operate.

Craven draws on elements of both the then-emerging slasher genre as well his past in the savage cinema, with some supernatural horror on the edges. The final showdown is reminiscent of the Craven's early work with "normal" characters being forced to become vicious to defend themselves. We get plenty of stalking-through-the-night scenes plus of creepy crawlers involving spiders and snakes. One shot of Martha in the bathtub as a snake slides into the water would later be reused by Craven in A Nightmare on Elm Street with Freddy Kruger's claw. There's also a really freaky dream sequence (another Craven trademark) in which a figure holds Sharon Stone in place as a spider plops down into her mouth. Another rather intense sequence involves Sharon Stone again becoming trapped in a barn as someone or something tries to get at her. I also liked the rather gorgeous shots of the countryside and farmland, a nice contrast to the dark lurking just beyond the edges, as well as the ominous long shots of the black-clad Hittites overlooking Martha and company. 

But the script and pacing are not up to snuff. Events unfold slowly without a whole of action to sustain them; the narrative lacks a driving force to keep it tethered and moving. There are too many periphery characters who lack much interest. I also cannot understand why Martha chooses to remain on the farm, and I don't recall hearing any plausible reason given. She's established as an outsider, so she's clearly far away from the life and people she knows; she doesn't seem to have any particular interest or knowledge in farming; and it's not like she had any financial imperative to stay. Maybe if the Hittites were claiming the land was theirs and trying to force her out, I'd understand, but Isaiah offers to buy it. And once the elements of danger creep in, I never could fathom why she continues to stay.

My other big problem was the character of Isaiah. Now, Ernest Borgnine was undeniably a legend of the movies, and no doubt, he has a commanding presence, but there is not a trace of subtlety to the performance or the writing. He's always going on about fire and brimstone, whipping his children, and making veiled threats to Martha, and I kept rolling my eyes. He's presented as a self-righteous hypocrite - a holy man who drives his sons from his flock and shuns them, covets material possessions, and is undeniably cruel - but I think it would have been much more effective if that had been the underlying characterization and not the surface presentation. I'm thinking of something like 2011's Red State in which Michael Parks plays a preacher who we see is a loving family man and devout believer appearing almost grandfatherly, but we hear him preach the most hateful things imaginable and commit some pretty heinous deeds; there's a dichotomy, a contradiction that's s frightening as it is believable. In Deadly Blessing, Isaiah is just a cranky guy in a suit and beard.

Deadly Blessing should be of interest to Craven and genre fans. It's a rather unorthodox setting for a horror film, and the subtext is rich in themes that have always fascinated Craven, but it falls short of the classic it might have been. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Dark Half

Richard Bachman was the pen name Stephen King adopted so he could publish more books without diluting his brand with overexposure. The books he published under the Bachman name include Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, The Running Man, and Thinner. Eventually, the King-Bachman connection was discovered, and King subsequently killed off Bachman with "cancer of the pseudonym."

The Dark Half was the book King was inspired to write because of the whole Bachman business. Written in 1989, the novel is about college professor, Thad Beaumont, who writes both respectable literary work under his own name and trashy pulp crime thrillers under the name George Stark. When threatened with blackmail by a creep who discovers the truth, Thad instead elects to go public and "kill off" George Stark. That's when people around him start getting murdered in gruesome ways, and fingerprints on the scene implicate Thad.

The 1993 film adaptation comes written and directed by George Romero, best known for Night of the Living Dead, and starring Timothy Hutton as Thad. King and Romero have worked together before, most notably on the EC Comic homage Creepshow, but curiously, this is the only time Romero has adapted a novel of King's. For what it's worth, the film remains remarkably faithful to the source material bar two minor tweaks I caught: one being the attempted blackmail is mentioned in the novel but is dramatized on film while the character of Rawlie Delesseps, a colleague of Thad, is now a woman played by Julie Harris.

Despite the names of Romero and King, The Dark Half is less of a macabre horror show than it is a psychological thriller. Yes, there are scenes of victims being dispatched by a maniac with a razor blade and the supernatural eventually finds its way into the proceedings, but the film is more or less a modernized take on Jekyll and Hyde. Thematically and narratively, George Stark is essentially the unrepressed id of Thad Beaumont. Instead of a meek, clumsy professor with a wife and twin babies who has quit smoking and drinking, he is a blunt, tough, dangerous man who takes and gets what he wants, how he wants, and always has a sharp reply ready.

The movie spends a good portion of the first half toying with the question is Thad a victim being framed or is he a schizophrenic. The film has good fun exploiting that ambiguity. Even before the murders occur, Thad continually speaks about George as if he were real person and describes to an interviewer the writing process in which the spirit or will of Stark takes over to write his best sellers. Stark is essentially his chance to be bad, and some level, Thad has always admired and encouraged George.

The movie starts to come apart around the time we learn Stark is another character and not just Thad going nuts. After being symbolically buried and killed, he emerges with a vendetta, going after Thad's loved ones and associates to force him to write another book. The problem is that Stark, played by Hutton in a duel role, is not particularly scary, even when he slices people and threatens Thad's family. Hutton has fun playing  him with his hair slicked back, five o'clock shadow, and a slight southern drawl, always flicking a razor and wearing all black with leather boots, but for a figure so hyped, it's kind of a letdown that the story's idea of a bad boy is a stereotypical bad boy. It's rather mundane.

The supernatural elements, which should have pushed the film over the edge, actually end up falling kind of flat. There's a vague but neat idea that as a developing fetus, Thad was originally a twin who absorbed the other. As a boy, he had headaches and seizures until doctors removed what they thought would be a brain tumor that turned out to be the remains of the other twin (this is revealed in a graphic prologue). Presumably, Stark has absconded with these remains to materialize himself, but like I said, it's vague and not really well exploited or explained. There's also the notion of Stark weakening and physically deteriorating now that Thad doesn't want him around, and somehow it's tied in with all these sparrows that keep flying around, but it feels almost shoehorned in. I got the sense the filmmakers were almost trying to downplay the horror elements and make something a little mainstream.

That's not to say the movie isn't enjoyable. It certainly is. Hutton is good in both Jekyll and Hyde mode. Amy Madigan, with the rather thankless part of the wife, also does well with what she has as the concerned spouse who wants to trust her husband but begins questioning his sanity. And any movie that casts Michael Rooker, his first genre role after breaking out as the title character in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, as a good-guy sheriff has to be channeling some kind of perverse inspiration.The murder scenes and mystery are fairly exciting in their own right, I rather liked the confrontation when Thad and George meet face to face, and there are touches of Romero's trademark dark humor.

What The Dark Half really lacks is an obsessiveness. It never quite gets inside Thad's head, and instead of the proceedings being deranged and paranoid, the narrative feels a bit flat and lacks a much needed edge. Except for a few scenes, we never dig really deep on the more tantalizing psychological aspects, and instead, it's a lot of surface shocks and violence. This is an arms-length adaptation.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Dog Soldiers

Dog Soldiers (2002), the feature film debut of director Neil Marshall, is proof it's not what you do but how you do it that matters. The film offers very little in terms of originality; even its DVD cover notes it's a cross between "Jaws, Aliens, and Predator with a werewolf twist," but it's put together with enough energy, humor, testosterone, action, suspense, and just the right amount of creep factor to make it the best lycanthrope picture since the glory days of The Howling and An American Werewolf in London.

A squad of British soldiers (among its members are Sean Pertwee as the grizzled sergeant and Kevin McKidd as the main character Cooper) is on a training exercise in the Scottish wilderness when it stumbles upon the dismembered remains of the Special Forces team they were supposed to operate with, along with the injured Captain Ryan (Liam Cunningham). As the night begins to grow, the squad is attacked by a ferocious enemy with a lot of hair, claws, sharp teeth, and a bad attitude. The men are saved by Megan (Emma Cleasby), who drives them to an isolated house where the werewolves besiege them, and the humans try to survive the night as their ammunition and numbers dwindle.

I'm trying to think of a plot element in Dog Soldier that hasn't been done before, and I can't seem to recall any. We get the soldiers fighting off the first wave of monster attacks, the escape attempt that ends disastrously, the infected member of the group putting the others at risk, and the final confrontation with one big, bad baddie, but like I said, it's done remarkably well with great conviction on the part of the cast. The characters might only be written in the most basic terms - the hero, the gruff leader, the girl, the sneak, the scared kid, the gung-ho soldier - but the actors all work together, and no one seems out of place.

McKidd is effective as the soldier who has to take charge eventually, but it is Pertwee who is easily the best.  Let me tell you; if I'm ever in combat, this is the guy I want to lead me. Tough (even with his guts hanging out, he continues to fight), no-nonsense with a sharp sense of humor ("If Little Red Hiding should turn up with a bazooka and a bad attitude, I expect you to chin the bitch."), and always looking out for his lads, he's the perfect sergeant. He even gives the movie some emotional pathos, talking about signing his life away for king and country and always in possession of his wife's picture. Cunningham is also good as the slimy weasel Ryan with whom Cooper has an uneasy past, and you know has a secret. Also of note is Darren Morfitt as the wild man Spoon who relishes the chance to re-enact a horror-movie version of Zulu.

Filmed on a low-budget in Luxemburg at mostly one location, Dog Soldiers never feels cheap or small. Granted the one full transformation occurs off-screen (but is built up effectively), but the werewolves look great when we see them. Marshall creates tension by keeping them in the shadows, only showing glimpses of fangs, snouts, or claws or giving us black-and-white point-of-view shots. Plenty of times we only see a claw slashing through a window or a door as the soldiers desperately try to fight them off.

The movie also a strong sense of humor but not intrusively so. The soldiers have a great repertoire with each other and some hilarious dialogue. They get some great lines in the face of death; one soldier, realizing he has been ambushed, grabs his knife and rushes the nearest werewolf. And I won't dare reveal the movie's capping joke as the end credits begin to roll.

In short, if you're a horror fan, Dog Soldiers is worth checking out. It strikes a fine balance between the horrific blood-and-guts stuff and the more tongue-in-cheek macho humor. Easily the finest of its sort since Predator.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

No Holds Barred

It's obvious why World Wrestling Federation owner Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan made No Holds Barred (1989). Made during the glory years of Hulkamania, the movie is a cynical attempt to cash in on the Hulk Hogan brand, but thankfully, the movie's reception proved you couldn't just slap Hulk Hogan onto any product and automatically sell it. McMahon has been credited with taking professional wrestling, with its seedy and violent public perception, and transforming it into a global, larger-than-life enterprise with cartoon characters aimed at children, and yet this foray into motion pictures is a scummy, mean-spirited, haphazard, and frankly out-of-touch endeavor. One thing's certain: whether you're a wrestling fan or not, you're not likely to enjoy No Holds Barred.

In the movie, Hulk Hogan is called Rip for some reason. I don't know why they couldn't have just kept calling him Hulk Hogan; he's essentially the same character: World Wrestling Federation champion, beloved icon to millions, and a role model to children (23 years later, the Hulk Hogan sex tape has just been released). After refusing an offer from Brell (Kurt Fuller at his slimy best), the head of a rival TV network, Rip becomes a target of the deranged tycoon. Brell sends hired goons after Rip, infiltrates a publicist (Joan Severance) to seduce him, and finally brings in the meanest monster in the land, Zeus (Tommy "Tiny" Lister) to destroy the All-American hero.

At its bare basics, the plot of No Holds Barred resembles many a classic wrestling angle. An evil manager like Bobby "The Brain" Heenan attempts to bribe the good guy who of course righteously refuses, and so the manager brings in a bigger, badder muscle like Andre the Giant to crush our hero. Of course, this really isn't anything you can't already see television, so the script throws in Brell's attempts to create a program to counter Rip, Rip's romance with the publicist,Rip's brother Randy getting beat up by Zeus, and a robbery that Rip foils at a diner.

All of this is played at a laughably simplistic level. Rip is such an obvious good guy, and Brell is obvious evil. Unlike 2008's The Wrestler, which showed the behind-the-scenes of a broken-down wrestler and did not hide the fact professional wrestling is staged, No Holds Barred tries to pass it off as "real." Everything is hilariously and ineptly overblown, and the resulting drama is just silly.

That's not the end of the movie's problems, though. Despite being pitched at this cartoon-like level, again presumably for kids, the movie is loaded with unsavory details and bottom-of-the-barrel, lowest-common-denominator elements. Brell's search for a monster to topple Rip takes him to these dirty bars filled with fat, stupid, toothless people and bathrooms containing overflowing urinals and nasty toilets. It's here where a big burly guy (wrestler Stan Hansen) intimidates two of Brell's cronies and refrains from beating them up after catching glimpses of their"teeny weenies." When Rip refuses Brell's offer, he's attacked by hired goons, and after fighting them off, Rip picks up the last guy who we can clearly see has crapped his pants. There's also a scene in which the publicist is attacked in attempted rape. The whole movie just feels sleazy, and given it's intended audience, that's inexcusable.

Hulk Hogan has an undeniable presence and charisma about in the squared circle, but on the silver screen, he's a bore. Presumably, No Holds Barred's intended audience are the Hulkamaniacs (Hogan's fans, for you non-wrestling fans), but there are surprisingly long stretches when the Hulkster is not on screen.When he is on, he's played off as a low-key, calm, everyday sort of guy, which is not what his fans want to see. He's just kind of lifeless. In fact, we only see two wrestling matches featuring him, at the beginning and end. With his massively muscled physique and shaved head, Zeus is an imposing figure, at least until you notice his lazy eye and uni-brow; then you realize he'd have been better as a henchman for Dr. Evil. Only Fuller as Brell brings any life to the movie; he's hilariously over-the-top and just unapologetically evil. Clearly, he's meant to be a parallel to, or at least partly inspired by, Vince McMahon's competitor Ted Turner, who eventually did lure Hogan to his company World Championship Wrestling, a few years after this movie, but if anything, Brell comes off more like a McMahon himself: a power-hungry, maniacal, cold-hearted businessman.