Monday, October 28, 2013

Them!

"You still don't understand what you're dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility ...  I admire its purity. A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality." So says the android Ash in Alien, describing eponymous monster. The xenomorph is very much like an insect, and the idea is taken further in Aliens with the addition of the Queen and nest.

Bugs, the everyday creatures, are in many ways our superior; they breed faster and in much greater numbers. They can survive the loss of limbs, lift several times their own body weights, and endure much harsher environmental conditions than we can. They are survivors that know no fear or pity.

Them! (1954) strikes me as both predictably optimistic and unexpectedly grim. As one of the earlier giant, radioactive bug movies of the 1950s, it's less hokey than a lot of the movies that followed it, but looking back on it nearly sixty years later, there are some undeniably campy, silly, and implausible moments that date it. Yet, it contains some undeniably creepy ideas and is put together with better care and craft than one would expect, and it effectively plays on the social anxiety of its time: the unknown dangers of the Atomic Age.

New Mexico state police sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) investigates after a shellshocked little girl is found wandering alone in the desert, her family's trailer torn to pieces. She can say only one word: "Them." When other folks soon turn up dead, including Ben's partner, FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness) and the father-daughter science team of Drs. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and Patricia Medford (Joan Weldon) join the case. Soon, it becomes apparent radiation from the testing of the Atomic Bomb has mutated a colony of ants into gigantic, dangerous proportions that if they spread and breed will pose a threat to the entire planet.

It's thirty minutes into Them! before we get a glimpse of the giant ants. Before then, we find evidence of their rampage - totaled cars, dead bodies, etc. - coupled with the inexplicable: no money stolen from the dead shop owner's cash register to suggest robbery, the only item stolen is sugar, and the high-pitched, inhuman shrieking that carries on the wind. We also get some nice visual reminders of how precarious man's dominion over the planet really. The film opens with a shot of an airplane circling in the air; against the backdrop of the sky, the aircraft, a symbol of man's drive and technological success, is but a speck, like a fly. Our first shot of the little girl similarly makes her look small and helpless against the span of the desert. Children represent the future, the next generation, and to see a child looking so vulnerable reminds us of how uncertain our continued existence really is. All this helps establish an ominous atmosphere and build a sense of mystery.

When we do finally see the ants, they aren't particularly realistic, but the ambition suggested by them is epic. The idea of thousands of giant ants scuttling about through the night and devouring all they come across is an unsettling idea, and the filmmakers don't linger on the images of the ants. We don't get an entire long shot of any ant; often they appear from out of a tunnel, over a hill, or bursting through a wall. We never see that many of them at a time, but like in Aliens, the number we don't see feels much greater.

Them! still has some of the sillier aspects of the 1950s sci-fi genre. It does seem a bit odd that Ben is retained as a point man during the entire span of the campaign to eradicate the ant menace. Whitmore plays the determined, righteous hero well, and I'm not complaining he's kept around, but I would think the military would rather utilize their own trained soldiers to go inside the nest and eliminate he bugs rather than send in a state cop with a flamethrower. The movie is also almost cheerfully optimistic that all aspects of our government from the scientists and military to police and elsewhere would wholeheartedly accept the seriousness of such a threat as giant bugs and effortlessly work together to confront it instead of bickering, politicking, or denying it as a more modern movie might have done.

Which is a bit odd because there are a few darker aspects of human nature the movie could have made a bigger deal about. The movie notes it was nuclear testing that mutated the bugs into something dangerous and later adds that we won't know what else humanity will have to face in the nuclear age. Again, it is mankind's folly, his arrogance and reckless tampering with nature, that created a monster. But the movie downplays a couple of other disconcerting elements of human behavior. To avoid a panic, our heroes insist on keeping the threat a secret from the public; a noble reason, but it might have been considered essential to warn people. When a nest is found to be under Los Angeles, the city is placed under martial law and overnight becomes an armed camp, and the media are suppressed. In a darkly funny scene, Graham interviews a pilot (Fess "Davy Crockett" Parker) locked in the nuthouse because he claimed he saw flying saucers that looked ants (queen ants flying to set up new colonies); Graham orders the doctors to keep the pilot locked up and forbidden from having visitors.

This is fascist behavior, though arguably justified against such a relentless, hive-minded enemy (Communism?), but still, it's something to see such extreme measures of the government, police, and military as ultimately heroic. Maybe I'm just paranoid because I've recently seen both versions of The Crazies, which depicted ineptitude and corruption in the government's response to a crisis.

Them! is also darker in other senses. The victims of the ants are eaten alive, and though we don't witness it in graphic detail, it sounds like an awful way to go. The little girl's entire family, we learn, was killed by the ants(including a sibling). Later, we see a woman react after having to identify her husband's corpse. Even, and I won't spoil who, one of our main characters is killed by the end, which caught me off guard.

Even though it's nearly sixty years old, Them! sure doesn't feel like it all the time. For the most part, it takes itself seriously and still has some intense moments and relevant themes. There's some camp to overcome occasionally, but this one towers over other movies of its ilk.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Dead Alive

Peter Jackson is one strange fellow. He has to be; there's no other explanation for how the man who directed The Lord of the Rings is also responsible for the likes of Meet the Feebles. Dead Alive (1992), one of the decade's relatively few zombie movies (at least compared to the 80s and today), is one of the strangest movies I've ever seen, incorporating splatter horror with a zaniness of Monty Python, crazier in a way that even Sam Raimi hasn't matched.

It's certainly the goriest movie I've ever seen. It makes Friday the 13th look like Halloween. It makes The Thing look like The Thing from Another World. Hell, when it comes to the level of blood and guts on display, it makes Night of the Living Dead look like Bambi.

Wellington, New Zealand, 1957. Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme) lives under the tyrannical thumb of his overbearing and (let's be honest) evil mother Vera (Elizabeth Moody). But then, Lionel and a lovely girl, Paquita (Diana Penalver), hit it off, much to Vera's intense dismay and jealousy. She follows them on a date to the zoo where one of the animal, a Sumerian rat monkey, bites her on the arm. Before long, Mum has turned into a flesh-eating zombie who begins to bite everyone she can, thus creating more of the walking dead, and it's all Lionel can do to keep things from getting even more out of control.

Be prepared for a lot of awkward, distorted close ups of pretty much every character. Jackson jams his camera into everyone's face, their eyes bugged out, faces contorted into twisted, exaggerated expressions. The camera swoops, pans, and flies; it hardly ever feels like it stops moving. By comparison, Terry Gilliam's style seems like the model of restraint and sedation. If the Evil Dead movies function as gory Three Stooges bits, then Dead Alive is more like Looney Tunes, a live-action cartoon that operates on a whole different level of reality.

Several sequences could have been pushed for intense horror, but Jackson plays them for kooky slapstick. In one scene, Lionel finds himself surrounded by zombies and tries to run away, and yet he remains running in place. Looking down, he finds he can't escape because he's slipping on a pool of blood. There's also a high-society lunch that Vera insists upon hosting, seemingly nonplussed by the fact patches of her body keep falling into the meal.  There's also the kung-fu priest who re-enacts the Black Knight bit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail with a zombie, Lionel taking a zombie baby to the playground, the zombie baby's conception (in a word, ew), and the final twenty minutes involving a horde of zombies, zombified intestines, a blender, a lawn mower, and probably the most disgusting example of being born again I've ever witnessed.

The violence is plentiful; the movie, you might say, has a surfeit of blood and viscera. In addition to the bites and dismemberments that come with a zombie movie, you got disembowelments, bodies chopped into wiggling pieces, limbs shredded down to the bone, heads dangling by a thread off the spine, puss and slime shooting out of wounds, and faces yanked off. Amazing how soft and easy humans and zombies prove to be. It might be hard to take except it's obviously fake and filtered through jokes.

The movie has a single pace - frantic - and a single style - batshit lunacy. It never pauses, it never slows down, and it never stops the onslaught of gags, goofiness, and gore. Undeniably in bad taste, but in its own cockeyed way, it's brilliant.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

From Dusk Till Dawn

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), one of the earlier collaborations between Robert Rodriguez (director) and Quentin Tarantino (writer and co-star), is a lot of things: vulgar, violent, gory. It's also funny, exciting, intense, and, thanks to a key supporting performance by Harvey Keitel, poignant (at times). A blend of A- and B-movie sensibilities and stars, the film is never short of compelling and fun.

I first caught the movie on TV when I was 13 or 14 years (which, despite the R rating, is probably the ideal audience or at least an audience that can appreciate those sensibilities), and it was already about half way when I came in, thus spoiling the movie's big surprise. Most movies start in one genre and stick with it throughout, or they cross-pollinate characteristics of some into one big blend. From Dusk Till Dawn, however, does something rarer; it begins in one genre and on a dime propels into another seamlessly. What starts as a story of criminals on the run with their hostages changes gears and becomes heroes under siege by a horde of supernatural monsters.

On the run from Texas police and the FBI, criminals Seth Gecko (George Clooney) and his brother Richie (Tarantino) take a lapsed preacher, Jacob Fuller (Keitel), and his children, Kate (Juliette Lewis) and Scott (Ernest Liu), hostage and commandeer their RV. Crossing the Mexican border, they hunker down at a fancy little bar called "The Titty Twister," but Seth and Richie cause trouble with some employees (including Salma Hayek as "Santanico Pandemonium), who reveal themselves as vicious vampires that proceed to feed on much of the bar's clientele. Seth rallies the survivors (including Tom Savini as a biker named "Sex Machine" and Fred Williamson as a scarred Vietnam vet), but even after clearing out the bar, more vampires appear outside, just eager for a chance to get inside.

There's no real deep message here, just skilled, bravura filmmaking and affection for the bad taste material.  From Dusk Till Dawn is a comically gory movie: the Mariachi band whose instruments are revealed to be human body parts, Fred Williamson overturning a table and in sequence dropping four vampires heart-first on the upturned legs, Cheech Marin turning up in three roles (border cop, vampire, and gangster), and Clooney converting a jackhammer into a weapon that drives stakes into hearts. Heads roll, limps are lopped, blood flies, and bodies melt. It's gross, but it's so over-the-top, it's funny and exciting instead of just disgusting.

The humor comes from these characters being forced on a dime to confront and accept the supernatural. The first half of the movie plays like an edgy, slow-burn crime thriller. There's no transition, buildup, or hint in the narrative that the undead are going to appear. One minute Salma Hayek is dancing in a bikini with a giant snake, and the next, at the sight of dripping blood, she leaps atop Tarantino and bites his throat out. Then all the strippers and bartenders transform into these demonic, long-eared, big-fanged vampires and start biting and clawing anything that moves. It's pure chaos, and it's awesome.

Things slow down a bit as the characters get into discussion about the nature of what they're dealing with and what to do about it. "Does anyone know what's going on?" Jacob asks. "I know what's going on," Seth says. "We got a bunch of fucking vampires out there that are trying to get in here and suck our fucking blood. And that's it. Plain and simple."

Performance-wise, everyone is in the spirit of things and has fun with the material. Clooney, in his first starring movie role, is a cool, dangerous presence that he balances with steady authority: "I don't want hear anything about 'I don't believe in vampires' because I don't believe in fucking vampires, but I believe in my own two eyes, and what I saw was fucking vampires," he says in the take-charge moment. Williamson and Savini (I wish I was cool enough to have a nickname like Sex Machine) are badass and funny, but it's Keitel who commands the show. The lapsed-preacher-finds-his-faith trope has been done a thousand times, but Keitel really knows how to sell and bring heartfelt emotion to it. In his best moment, when alone and surrounded by dozens of ugly vampires and forced to use a baseball bat and shotgun to fashion a makeshift cross, you really believe this is a man facing the hordes of Hell.

And for those of you who don't like Tarantino, he's as obnoxious as ever, but he gets killed. Graphically. Twice. Hell, that's fun even if you are a fan.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Dead

People who say slow zombies can't possibly be scary are the same type of folks who probably say baseball players aren't athletes, and I've run out patience with those people. Sure, you can walk around one zombie or a small group of them, but when they're everywhere and at the rate they multiply, they're threatening. Throw in the usual human element, and you got yourself a slow, painful apocalypse.

The Dead (2010), directed by the Ford Brothers, Howard J. and Jonathan, understands the unending, overwhelming dread shambling walking corpses can inspire, and by setting the film in the harsh, unforgiving desert of Africa, they highlight an often overlooked aspect of a zombie uprising: how do you survive not only the dead but also the environment? It's really hard to look for water and food when there are hordes of zombies looking to take a bite out of you. More importantly, The Dead accomplishes something even rarer in today's zombie cinema; it presents itself as a stark, serious, even grim thriller. Not even George Romero has done that since the original Night of the Living Dead.

The last military transport plane out of a zombie-infested Africa has crashed just off the coast. American military engineer Lt. Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman) emerges from the wreck and begins a trek through the dangerous countryside, encountering zombies and natural hazards as he tries to find a way to somewhere safe. Soon, he meets up Sgt. Daniel Dembele (Prince David Osei), whose village was wiped out, but his son managed to escape. Knowing the hazards of going it alone, they team up to navigate through this inhospitable land of the dead.

That's really it for plot. The film has an almost episodic feel as the two men go from encounter to encounter with the dead. Ultimately, there's nothing particularly new to the genre with the zombies themselves, and the characters, always focused on the immediacy of just surviving, never display much depth, even though they're the only two characters we spend any significant length of time with. And apart from a few lines about how all the American aid workers abandoned Africa when the zombies appeared, very little is done to give the movie any social or political meaning. The focus here is on action, suspense, and survival, so don't expect much the allegory or subtext that someone like Romero works in. You could argue it demonstrates how different men from separate cultures and backgrounds can work together in a crisis, but that's an obvious point and hardly original.

What the movie has going for it is that is makes zombies scary again. There are instances of ghouls leaping from around a dark corner to attack our heroes and several gory deaths, but real terror is generated by the zombies' constant, creeping presence. They are everywhere Brian and Daniel go; the idea of any place being safe is joke. Sure, you can easily get around one or a couple, but it doesn't take as long as you think for them to bunch up and trap you, especially when you're exhausted, thirsty, hungry, and in the middle of a vital task such as refueling a jeep, as these men usually are. They just keep coming and coming with no letup. They're aren't going to let you take a nap to catch you strength.

The violence and gore is nasty. People have chunks torn out of their necks and limbs, but it isn't brightly colorful in a splatter comic-book sort of way, like Dawn of the Dead. In one hard to watch scene, Brian encounters a wounded woman carrying her baby and limping from several zombies. A bite on her leg tells Brian she won't make it, and she pleads in some language he doesn't understand for him to take her baby, which he does. Then, she begs, crying, for him to shoot her. He doesn't want to, but the longer he hesitates, the closer the zombies get. This is a movie that takes zombies and the threat they represent seriously.

The Ford Brothers get good use out of their African locations: hot, desolate, a land as inhospitable as the zombies are dangerous. It's beautiful in a harsh, natural way. The characters are frequently covered in dirt, sand, blood, grime, and sweat; it's tangible. After watching this movie in a darkened room, you'll find daylight harsh and unforgiving.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Mortuary

Tobe Hooper's Mortuary (2005) was the first new movie of his I saw. When it debuted (on what was still the Sci-Fi Channel; I refuse to dignify the current spelling), I had seen of his work The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist, and Salem's Lot, probably his three best movies and yet to encounter the like of Spontaneous Combustion, The Mangler, or Crocodile. This was the first time I had the chance to look forward to something new from him . After watching Mortuary, I thought it was one of the worst films I had ever seen and embarrassingly bad.

Watching it again with a little more perspective, I've found it's not as bad as I remember. There's actually quite a bit to like and even admire, but overall, it's not very good. Many problems remain, including a cliched story, holes in the script, irritating performances from supporting characters acting as comic relief, and atrocious CGI effects that neuter any possible tension or suspense. Hooper has some fun with the material, but in the end, it's pretty weak.

Widow Leslie Doyle (Denise Crosby), along with her teenaged son Jonathan (Dan Byrd) and the younger Jamie (Stephanie Patton), moves to a new town to start a new career as a mortician. Jonathan gets a job at a nearby diner where he falls in with Liz (Alexandra Adi) and Grady (Rocky Marquette). It's from them he learns the legend of Bobby Fowler, the deformed son of the funeral home's previous owners who disappeared around the time his parents were brutally murdered and is believed to be living somewhere in their cemetery. But Bobby does live; something has kept him alive, something deep underground, something fed by the blood, fluids, and materials from the funeral home from all those years, something spreading through the house through black fungus and turning its victims into obedient zombies.

At the center of Mortuary is a potentially interesting story about a family, coping with the loss of its patriarch, trying to find its footing while exploring the mystery of their new home; the mother neglects her children because of her work, her son tries to be a responsible caregiver, and the daughter is too young to understand or cope with death. At the same time, the house's dark history - child abuse, murder, treatment of corpses - has literally been pooling into something monstrous, and when this new family, with all of its pain, resentment, and anger, moves in, the beast has a new outlet through which to operate it. That right there has some immediate fright and dramatic possibilities, and Hooper should have focused in on it like a laser.

Instead, Hooper, working with a script by Jace Anderson and Adam Gierach who also wrote his Toolbox Murders  (good) and Crocodile (not so good), meanders off-topic into much less interesting story lines, forced comic relief, idiotic characters, and set ups with no payoff. There's the character of Elliot, the real estate agent who sold the funeral home to Leslie, and in both of his scenes, he never stops laughing, and it gets irritating really quickly. Usually a character this obnoxious is introduced only to be horribly killed, but he's dropped from the movie after two scenes, never mentioned again. The bully Cal and his two girlfriends prove to be little more than slasher fodder, and they get annoying quickly as well. Rita, Liz's hippy aunt, gets sprayed by the fungus that turns people into zombies, but this is a point that's never brought up again, and she's never seen again once this happens, which is a shame because I thought she was one of the more interesting supporting characters.

Hooper, admittedly, has a strange sense of humor; in interviews, he said he considers Texas Chainsaw comedy. It's one thing when the cook berates Leatherface for ruining the door (chasing Sally Hardesty) and having no pride in his home; there's a twisted logic to it, a perverse reflection of family values. In Mortuary, the humor is lame; there's no other way to put it. People act weird and hysterical, lots of screaming and running around, but I don't usually see what the joke is supposed to be. It just comes off as poor writing, confused direction, and bad acting. Too often, I'm just staring at the screen wondering whether a scene is supposed to be scary, funny, both, or what.

Not helping is some awful CGI and predictable jump scares. By the end, once we see Bobby Fowler and what he obeys, both are incredible letdowns. Bobby is a pale mute guy with a cleft lip while the source of the fungus is a poorly-rendered, animated pit, which on paper might have been creepy but looks like low-rent computer graphics from Windows 95.

Positives? I thought Crosby and Doyle were good. The funeral home itself is a creepy setting: rundown and filled with shadows and hidden passageways (though I could never imagine anyone in their right mind living there. The movie tries to lampshade this but only succeeds in pointing out how unlikely it really is), and beneath, Bobby Fowler's home in the crypt is suitably dingy, dark, and disorienting, bringing to mind the lair of the Sawyer family. The zombies themselves have some cool makeup, particularly the Mr. Barstow corpse, and sometimes, Hooper's dark sense of humor works, like the dinner scene with a possessed Leslie.

The real reason Mortuary disappoints is that it could have been so much more. Hooper seemed to have momentum from Toolbox Murders, reuniting with much of the same creative team, and the story could have really been an intense, atmospheric fight fest. Instead, the movie, despite some nice touches, is a confused, campy letdown.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Nosferatu

Nosferatu (1922), the wellspring that started it all, an early example of German Expressionism in film, one of the first adaptations of Dracula (albeit, an unauthorized version), and a movie that still influences our perception of vampires, poses a challenge to me in reviewing it. I can appreciate its impact on both the genre and cinema in general and recognize the iconic status of some of its scenes and style, but frankly, I find it a chore to get through. It's an important movie, and I would go so far as to call it required viewing for fans of the genre and students of film as art, but I have trouble staying awake when I watch it.

The story retains the basic elements of Dracula but condenses some things and changes other things, most notably the names. Count Dracula is now Count Orlock, Harker is now Hutter, Mina is Ellen, and Van Helsing is Bulwer (although my DVD refers to them by their Dracula names. More on the DVD later). In this version, Hutter is sent by his boss Knock (aka Renfield) to Transylvania to the castle of Count Orlock, who wishes to purchase property in Wisborg, right across from Hutter's own home. Hutter leaves his beloved Ellen behind, but when he arrives at the castle, he discovers the count is a hideous vampire who makes Hutter his prisoner. Soon, Orlock heads to Wisborg. His target: Ellen.

Vampires have proven to one of the more versatile of movie monsters. They can be suave and seductive, feral and zombie-like, tragic, romantic, funny, scary, mysterious, predatory, reluctant, and any number of other descriptions. Here, Orlock is not the exotic foreigner like Lugosi, the anti-hero Lestat, or the teen pinup Edward Cullen; he's unapologetically, unambiguously a monster. Both in appearance and actions, he is ugly; with his pointed ears, bald head, and fangs where his two front teeth should be, Orlock looks very much like a rat. He lives and thrives in the shadows, a figure associated with death and disease (he brings plague-carryin rats with him).

Today, horror movies are built on realism: are the special effects convincing, do the characters behave like real people we can relate to, does the plot make sense, etc.? Director F.W. Murnau crafts what can be described as  a surreal, fantasy atmosphere, and it doesn't feel like reality. He uses a lot of shadows, dissolves, and iris shots, and the result is something that feels very dream-like. And in this world, where we feel vulnerable and ill-at-ease, a phantom can easily move about.

Nosferatu has a number of standout moments that if they still don't possess the power to shock and terrify, then they still retain an impressive creep factor: the crewman of the ship descending into the bowels of the ship where Orlock rises out of his casket, Hutter lying in bed as Orlock descends the hallway toward him, and Ellen feeling the clasp of Orlock's claw (shown only in shadow) over her heart while he ascends the stairs toward. Cool stuff, and Max Shreck, the actor playing Orlock, really knows how to sell the role.

The not-so-cool stuff stems from the fact this movie is more than ninety years old. I hate to say the word "dated;" movies, as much as any art form, are products of the time they were made in, and I always try to keep that in mind when I watch older movies, but man, this Silent-Era acting of the human characters is silly, distracting, and often nonsensical. The inter-titles (which remain on screen way too long, a pet peeve of mine with silent films) contain such gems as "Wait, young man. You cannot escape destiny by running away," and "Is this your wife? What a lovely throat."

The other problem, that I'm not sure I can blame on the movie itself, is the music. The original orchestral score by Hans Erdmann was lost, according to Wikipedia, and depending on what version you have, you get a different score. My version had this repetitious, grating organ sound that sounded like it was playing on a loop, and it sounded the same no matter the context of the scene. It really got annoying. My DVD also seems to have botched the transfer job; because of the limitations of the technology of the time, films then were shot day-for-night, but this DVD doesn't have the filters used to suggest darkness, so night and day look exactly the same.

Nosferatu is a movie I'd recommend for those with the interest and patience for classic horror cinema and to those who are vampire completists. For those looking for entertainment, look elsewhere.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Crazies (2010)

In an age when we have endured Sept. 11, the Patriot Act, school shootings, Hurricane Katrina, and other disasters, calamities, acts of violence, and blunders, an update of The Crazies, directed by George Romero in 1973 during the social upheaval of such events as the Vietnam War and the Watergate Scandal, could not have been better timed to be more relevant. It's not hard to envision some virus (like say, Swine Flu) running rampant through the population, and the government completely botching its response. Just look at the current government shutdown; our leaders don't seem capable of managing the day-to-day operations of government, much less something like climate change or nuclear-armed terrorists.

This remake of The Crazies (2010), directed by Breck Eisner, starts off on the right note with Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again" playing on the soundtrack. Stanley Kubrick famously used that song over his nuclear explosion montage at the end of Dr. Strangelove, his black comedy about military and political blunders leading to the annihilation of humanity.  By using this song, Eisner indicates he will similarly take a social and political vision with his material. Unfortunately, this remake arrives with all the strengths and baggage of a top-drawer Hollywood feature, resulting in a disappointing movie that starts out promisingly before devolving into just another let's-run-from-the-maniacs-on-the-loose narrative that's obvious and predictable.

One day, in the idyllic farming community of Ogden Marsh, Iowa, a man with a shotgun wanders onto a baseball diamond during a game, and the sheriff, David (Timothy Olyphant), shoots him when he becomes threatening. That's the first of a number of weird and violent incidents that spring throughout town, and before long, the military has contained the town and rounded up everyone. Evidently, some toxin leaked into the water supply after a plane crashed outside of town, and the effects drive those infected homicidal. Soon, David, his pregnant wife Judy (Radha Mitchell), deputy Russell Clank (Joe Anderson), and teenaged Becca (Danielle Panabaker) are on the run, trying to avoid the Army's sweep operations and encounters with the Crazies.

On  every technical level I can think of, the new versions of The Crazies is superior to Romero's original. The acting is better, the special effects pack more punch, the editing is no longer jarring, and the cinematography and production can even be described as gorgeous. Eisner also does well creating a sense of the apocalypse, building a much wider scope than the original. We still don't see the plane crash that sets everything in motion, but we see the plane this time, in a neat reveal showing its outline under water. The action scenes in particular have been pumped up, and they, too, are better than the ones in the original. The film also includes more mystery and buildup to the insanity; Romero's plunged us right into the thick of things in the first five minutes, but here it's about thirty minutes before the military arrives with its quarantine.

When the military does show up, the movie still seems to be heading into fertile socio-political territory. There are some really good sequences of soldiers rounding up all the civilians in school buses and herding them into the high school for medical screenings. Those with a high temperature are immediately tagged and dragged off, strapped into a bed in a room full of other similarly effected people. It's paranoid, it's visceral, it's intense, and it's relevant. It's hard to watch these scenes and not be reminded of our responses to Sept. 11, the Boston Marathon Bombings, and airport security. And unlike in the original, there is no Col. Peckem or Dr. Watts equivalent in this version; the military and government here are for the most part faceless, ruthless, and monolithic. Frequent cutaways to an overhead satellite view of the chaos reinforces the notion of an even colder, more invasive Big Brother.

But once the situation is established and our heroes begin their flight to freedom, the movie turns into another action thriller. Instead of expanding on the paranoia of the earlier scenes, the movie plunges from one gory set piece to the next, and it doesn't take long for this to grow wearisome. The original concerned itself with the challenges, both practical and bureaucratic, with taming an entire town under siege, but our heroes have relatively few encounters with the military. Romero also peppered his version with dark humor and some genuinely taboo material, but here, there's nothing as distinctive as the sweet old lady with a knitting needle, the father raping his daughter, or the housewife literally sweeping a battlefield with a broom. Eisner loads up plenty of visceral shocks like the bit with the pitchfork and the encounter in the mortuary, but without the psychological unease of the original, they aren't as effective.

The movie also loses the unpredictability of the original. In the original, it was hard to discern who was infected and who was just hysterical. Here, it's quite obvious; at first, the infected act a bit strange and then become violent. By the end, all the crazies have becoming bleeding, black-vein-protruding ghouls who murder on sight; they might as well as have been zombies. Worse, the scares themselves are easy to predict. The movie has too many scenes of characters hiding from the crazies and thinking the coast is clear only for one to pop up for a jump scare, and every time David and/or Judy get into trouble, we can be certain someone or something will save them at the last second.

Despite the presence of better actors, the characters are blanks without the memorable quirks or traits of the originals. Olyphant at least brings some authority and command to the standard good-guy hero, but Mitchell is wasted, essentially all shrieking and crying. You'd think it would reflect some sort of gender advancement since she's a doctor and her counterpart in the original was a nurse , but she's always getting into trouble and it's always her husband who saves her. Elsewhere, only Anderson and Panabaker as their companions get more than a couple of scenes; I liked him despite the obviousness of his arc (infected but nobly sacrifices himself). As for Panabaker, it would have been nice if she got something to do.

Ultimately, what really sinks The Crazies is that it offers nothing new. The last decade has brought a glut of apocalyptic zombie, madness, and/or disease movies, including 28 Days Later, The Signal, Zombieland, and even the remake of Dawn of the Dead, and while technically well made, The Crazies doesn't distinguish itself in any memorable way.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Army of Darkness

Army of Darkness (1992), the second sequel to The Evil Dead. What else is there that can be added about this movie that hasn't already been said? It's the epitome of a cult movie, made by a savvy and inventive director, filled with all sorts outlandish scenes and absurd jokes and references, and stars arguably the most famous B-Movie legend of our time, the Chin himself, Bruce Campbell. I've started and stopped this post three times now, unsure of what I could discuss, but I shall press on as best I can.

Following the events of Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, our hero Ash (Campbell), who if you remember lopped off his demon-possessed hand and replaced it with a chainsaw, finds himself yanked back to the year 1300 AD where the local population, led Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert), is also beset by the Deadites. Believing him to be the prophesied chosen, the local wise man (Ian Abercrombie) sends Ash on a quest to retrieve the Necronomicon, the power of which will not only be able to send him home but free them from the terror of Deadites. In the middle of all this, Ash finds time to romance a lovely feudal lass, Sheila (Embeth Davidtz). But when Ash goofs up while getting the Book of the Dead (he would, wouldn't he?), he unintentionally awakens the Army of the Dead, led by his evil doppelganger, that marches straight on the humans' castle. If the Deadites should recover the Necronomicon, all of mankind will be consumed by their evil, so it's up to Ash to rally the band of humans and save the day.

The Evil Dead, despite some campy moments, functions as a straight-up horror movie. Evil Dead 2 is a comedy-horror piece, balancing the scares and gore with laughs and slapstick in equal doses. In Army of Darkness, the pendulum has completely swung away from The Evil Dead. Sure, we still have demonic possession, zombies, skeletons, witches, dismemberment, geysers of blood, and treks through a haunted forest and cemetery, but Army of Darkness packs in way too much silliness and action-adventure elements to creep anyone out. If Evil Dead 2 was a cross between Dawn of the Dead and The Three Stooges, then Army of Darkness includes even more of the Stooges as well as Jason and the Argonauts and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

At a mere one hour and twenty minutes in length, Army of Darkness is a lean, cut-right-to-chase motion picture, propelling itself forward from one action scene to the next and from joke to gag, all tied together by Campbell's persona and one-liners. It's not deep, and it's not particularly smart, but it has a tremendous energy and subversive humor. Raimi, ever the stylist, almost never seems to restrain camera, whether it's chasing Ash through the woods as the unseen Evil Force or flying through the air, and it's impossible to not feel caught up. This entry also includes some real good stop-motion animation (something I'll never get tired of), and while some of the blue screen work isn't so hot, the silliness carries keeps it from being a problem.

The usual gross-looking demons, ghouls, and zombies turn up, but they're much goofier this time around in appearance, speech, and actions. When dozens of skeletal hands reach of the ground and pull Ash down, they proceed to re-enact a Stooges bit - eye pokes, slaps, etc. - complete with silly sound effects. Ash is also harassed by dozens of evil clones of himself that come from a broken mirror, and the sequence plays like a violent take on Gulliver's Travels. As I stated in my review of the previous entry, it's not enough the Deadites want to steal Ash's soul; they're going to be dicks about it by beating him up and insulting him in the process.

Campbell, for his part, does what he does best: being a not-too-bright wiseass jerk who must be the hero when all else fails.  He's in full-comic book hero mode here, always ready with a cool pose and catchphrase. He really goes all out in the dialogue, action, and slapstick, and he deserves some award for all the punishment he goes through. For me, this was my introduction to his brand of B-Movie glory, and it is simply awesome. It's hard not to spend the next several days after watching it quoting all the cool lines; "Good. Bad. I'm the guy with the gun" and "Hail to the king, baby" are just a sample.

Hardcore horror fans, the type who disdain comedy, are likely to be appalled by the series transformed into by the time it reached Army of Darkness. For cult movie aficionados, only word will suffice: "Groovy."

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Killer Klowns from Outer Space

With that title, Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988) joins The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, and Snakes on Planes in the ranks of movies that tell us all we need to know about their plots with their titles. Whatever your first reaction is about what type of film goes along with that name, you're probably right. Killer Klowns from Outer Space is as goofy and stupid as it sounds, but it's also a lot of fun if it catches you in the right mood, and at times, it's even creepy, even if you don't suffer from  coulrophobia. Maybe the movie taps into a subconscious fear and suspicion we all have of clowns.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space has a plot that plays out like a typical 1950s, teen horror movie, right down to the cheesy pop theme song. A young couple (Grant Cramer and Suzanne Snyder) see a meteorite crash in the woods outside their small town, and when they investigate, they find a strange circus tent filled with monstrous-looking clowns that are using ray guns to cocoon people into cotton candy. They go to the police where one (John Allen Nelson) tries to the help, but another (John Vernon) proves an incredibly cranky skeptic. Meanwhile, the clowns advance on the town, intent on killing or capturing everyone in their path.

There are monsters that lurk in the shadows, waiting for the right moment to strike their intended victims; there are fiends who infiltrate among us, gaining our trust before revealing their true colors; and then, there are these clowns. Before they zap people, they usually walk right up to their victims (or have their victims approach them) and distract them with a little show: shadow puppets, Punch-and-Judy puppets, candy grams and other clown activities the movie turns on their head. Sure, it's very predictable, but the clowns use so many different techniques to get people that it never becomes boring, and it remains enjoyable even because it's so obvious.

Granted, I can't imagine real people being entranced by these clowns. These guys don't look like Ronald McDonald, Bozo, or even the Joker; they resemble Pennywise's monstrously inbred cousins and not anything you would hire for a children's birthday party. Their mouths are so big and wide and filled with such nasty-looking teeth that they make Captain Spaulding look like  a Crest commercial model. And of course, they always have a leering smile and stare at you with their massive, bugging eyes. Their weakness is to be expected: go for the nose.

The low-budget effects are cheesy but enjoyably so and inventive. The inside of the clowns' tent is a twisted funhouse filled with hanging rows of cotton-candied victims, twisting passage ways, and doors that open up continuously to reveal smaller and smaller doors. The clowns pervert just about everything we associate with them and circuses - pies, popcorn, balloon animals, balloons - to use them for nefarious intentions, and it's a riot.

Performances are expected for this type of B movie. For the humans, the one who makes the most impression is Vernon (aka Dean Wormer from Animal House) as Officer Mooney. This guy takes the disbelieving cop to a whole different level. Sure, we expect him to discount the first teens who show up to tell him clowns are going around killing people, but even when the station is bombarded with phone calls for help and he encounters one of the clowns himself, he remains convinced the entire town is pulling a prank on him, and he won't be a sucker.

Mooney ends his first scene near the start of the film by declaring no one will make a dummy out of him. Can you guess what the clowns do to him?

Friday, October 11, 2013

Dagon

In 1985, Stuart Gordon directed Re-Animator, an adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story. Brian Yuzna served as producer, Dennis Paoli wrote the script, and nerdy, bespectacled Jeffrey Combs starred as the obsessive, brilliant Herbert West. In 2001, just about all these elements returned for Dagon. Another Lovecraft adaptation, the film was directed by Gordon, written by Paoli, produced by Yuzna, and stars Ezra Godden, a nerdy guy in glasses.

Despite the overlap of creators, Dagon differs greatly from Re-Animator in a number of ways. Re-Animator, featuring a mad scientist using his secret formula to raise the dead, was an outrageous, darkly funny barf-bag movie, featuring scenes of gory death and mutilation in which heads are lopped off by shovels, intestines take on a life of their own, and of course the head gives head sequence. By contrast, Dagon is more or less a straight-up, serious movie with a few laughs that despite some gruesome moments has a stronger emphasis on atmosphere than splatter, ironically making it more faithful to the spirit of Lovecraft than Re-Animator.

The movie actually combines two Lovecraft stories: "Dagon" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." Following some sort of lucrative business venture, Paul Marsh (Godden) and his girlfriend Barbara (Raquel Merono, who deserves the Barbara Crampton Good Sport Award) vacation off the Spanish coast with another couple, Howard (Brendan Price) and Vicki (Birgit Bofarull), when their boat crashes into rocks as a storm hits. Paul and Barbara head into a nearby decrepit fishing village for help, but when night falls, the weird townspeople begin to act hostile and chase Paul after he is separated from Barbara. Some of the townspeople also seem to have tentacles and gills, and what do Paul's dreams about swimming underwater with a mermaid (Macarena Gomez) have to do with anything?

It's an accomplishment of the film that it takes its basic concept - mutant fish-people - and actually treats them seriously and makes them a credible threat. At first, they seem only a bit odd and slightly threatening with their pale skin, cold eyes, and blank expressions (where's Henry Gibson when you need him?) as Paul and Barbara try to talk with them to get help. The film's first part play off as the vacation from hell as Paul finds him alone in a foreign land where he doesn't speak the language or understand the customs, and the village itself is a rundown slum, dirty slum with no electricity, working phones, or any means to contact help from civilization. Then, the village turns on Paul, and the chase ensues and doesn't really let up (I can't be the only person reminded of Resident Evil 4 when I watch these weird Spanish villagers chase our hero from building to building). Curiously, it never stops raining once it starts, and that just adds to the harsh, hostile atmosphere

Dagon includes a number of Lovecraft's  tropes, namely cults that worship monstrous gods, leviathans emerging from the ocean, and family bloodlines that reveal a terrifying legacy. The people of the town, we learn, worship Dagon, a god from the ocean, and the mutated people with gills and tentacles are his children, the offspring from the human women who have mated with their deity. The movie notches up the creepy ick factor when Paul is nearly seduced by the village girl, kissing her until he pulls back the blanket to reveal her tentacles. There is also a harrowing scene where a tied-up Paul can only watch as another victim has his face carved off, knowing that the same fate awaits him.

Where the movie falters is its revelation in the final moments. SPOILER, we learn Paul himself descends from this same line of mutant fish people. While that's faithful to Lovecraft story and theme, it ends up taking something that feels plausible (stumbling to this freakish village by accident) and makes it hard to swallow. How does the fish girl know about Paul and why doesn't she tell the other villagers who are trying to kill him? And it certainly is awfully convenient that Paul just happens to be vacationing near the hometown he never knew about. There's some talk of destiny and how his dreams guided him there, but it feels far-fetched; after all, it is Howard's boat.

Not helping matters is Godden's performance. It's not bad, but Godden, who is so much better in one of Gordon's Masters of Horror episodes, comes off as too modern and a bit condescending to be endearing or sympathetic. As Herbert West, Combs nicely underplayed the mad scientist part and made him a fun, memorable character in an over-the-top movie, but Godden should be more like Bruce Abbott's character, the average guy we can relate to and root for. He always seems to be complaining about something, and for the tone the movie's going for, he just feels out of place, like he belongs in something more comedic. To be fair, he does much better toward the end of the movie when things start getting really grim.

Overall, Dagon proves to be an effective if occasionally underwhelming Lovecraft. It's not as good Re-Animator or From Beyond, but Gordon demonstrates he still knows how to bring Lovecraft's words to life.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Lifeforce

Lifeforce (1985) has all the preposterous sci-fi nonsense of Zardoz and none of the pretensions. Directed by Tobe Hooper and written by Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby, the movie is based on noted occult writer Colin Wilson's novel, The Space Vampires, and it is a go-for-broke space opera and would-be blockbuster that arrives packed with expensive special effects, gruesome set pieces, deadly serious actors uttering daft expository dialogue, flagrant sexuality and nudity, and complete nonsense passing for a plot.  And yet despite all this, or perhaps because of all this, Lifeforce remains a grandly entertaining piece of pulp cinema, is never once boring, and contains some unforgettable imagery.

While exploring the tail of Haley's Comet, the space shuttle Churchhill under the command of Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) discovers an alien spacecraft containing not only carcasses of strange, bat-like creatures but also the bodies of three nude humanoids in some kind of force field containers, and Carlsen orders they bring the humanoids back with them. Thirty days later, the shuttle returns to earth, but only the humanoids are found alive. Soon, the Space Girl (Mathilda May) wakes up and escapes containment, in the process draining the energy, or "lifeforce," out of several people, turning them into zombies that must similarly feed or be reduced to dust. Col. Caine (Peter Firth) of the SAS and Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay) head the investigation and pursuit and are at wit's end until Carlsen is found alive in an escape pod. It's soon discovered Carlsen has a psychic link with the girl to help track her, but before too long, London becomes overrun with soul-sucking zombies.

In short, Lifeforce starts out like Alien, turns into something resembling The Quatarmass Experiment crossed with Dracula and ends up like a cosmic take on a George Romero zombie movie. The change of style and genre from scene to scene (and sometimes within a scene) is quite baffling at times and enough to make your head spin. The movie also moves at a brisk pace that really doesn't allow the viewer ample time to absorb and process everything that's happened or been explained, so if you're not on your toes, you'll fall behind.

Actually, you'll still probably be confused if you do try to pay attention. I have not read Wilson's novel, but I hope he explains all these ideas about energy fields, telepathy, soul collecting, and all these other metaphysical notions and concepts more clearly than the movie does. Some of it sounds kind of interesting, but it's hard to follow, and I don't blame anyone for becoming impatient with it.

What the movie does having going for it is a first-class production team. The special effects - the space ship in orbit, Haley's Comet, the destruction of London - are done by John Dykstra, and they are quite impressive. The space scenes, in particular those shots that make these tiny, floating astronauts look so minuscule among vast surroundings, is hypnotic and awe-inspiring. Hooper utilizes a lot of dissolves and unorthodox camera angles (upside down) to not only suggest weightlessness but also a dreamy, surreal sensation. Composer Henry Mancini turns in a rousing and bombastic score that not only builds anticipation but suggests an epic scope seldom realized in this kind of movie.

The movie proceeds from one spectacular set piece to the next. The death scenes are impressive. The victims are drained right in front of our eyes, shriveling up spectacularly into wrinkled, walking corpses, and when they occur, the screen fills with flashing lights and electricity. It's gross but not revolting and in retrospect obviously fake, but these and other attacks work in a comic-book kind of way. The mantra of the film seems to be pile on one outrageous deed after another whether it be the bizarre deaths, the giant bat creatures, Patrick Stewart locking lips with Steve Railsback, or Mathilda May spending most of the movie completely nude before anyone can get bored.

That last item tends to be the one element of the film everyone remembers, and it's quite bold for what was intended as a mainstream film. I always thought it let the movie become one great big joke: these grim, uptight Brits being confronted by such blatant, aggressive sexuality, sort of a comic, situational inverse of The Wicker Man. You could also argue Lifeforce is a comment on the then-emerging AIDS epidemic. After all, vampirism here is a seduction by a beautiful woman who leaves her victims emaciated husks. That kind of subtext is hard to ignore.

The actors - a who's who of respected British thespians plus Railsback (an American) - give such deadly serious performances, you'd think they were performing Shakespeare.  The characters more than anything else parallel those in Dracula: Carlsen as Jonathan Harker, Finlay as Van Helsing, etc. Even Railsback's venture into the spaceship resembles Harker's trip to Dracula's castle in terms of tone and effect, and the psychic link used to track the Space Girl via hypnosis also mirrors the hypnotizing of Mina to track Dracula.

Despite the Dracula parallels, Lifeforce really resembles Frankenstein's monster. Cobbled together from many different parts and pieces from other works, it can be really ugly, but somehow, it holds together.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Candyman

The slasher boom of the 1980s introduced such villains as Michael Myers, Freddy Kruger, and Jason Voorhees, By the end of the decade, the genre had grown long-in-the-tooth, and these once formidable, frightening  boogeymen had been commercialized, watered-down, and overexposed. The 90s brought us more true-to-life killers - Hannibal Lector, John Doe, etc. - who though twisted and brilliant were decidedly more human. Few villains of the period carried the supernatural mantle.

One notable exception was the Candyman. Candyman was the son of a former slave, educated at the best schools, and much celebrated as an artist when commissioned to paint the portrait of a beautiful, virginal daughter of a wealthy man. The artist and his subject fell in love, and when she became pregnant, her father exacted a horrible revenge. Candyman had his right hand sawed off with a rusty blade, a hook fitted on the bloody stump, and then his body was smeared with honey and left to be swarmed by bees. Now he haunts the Chicago housing project Cabrini Green; look in the mirror, say his name five times, and he arrives to gut you "from groin to gullet."

That's the legend we're told in Candyman (1992). Directed by Bernard Rose and based on "The Forbidden" by Clive Barker (who acts here as executive producer), Candyman explores the power of stories, specifically urban legends, the roles they play in people's lives, and how they sometimes can take on a life of their own. More importantly, it's an exquisitely crafted horror movie that contains moments of utter revulsion matched by moments of pure poetry.

Graduate student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), along with her research partner Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons), is working on a thesis about urban legends when she learns the story of Candyman. Investigating, she discovers a local gang leader using the legend to tighten his hold on Cabrini Green. When Helen gets the thug arrested, disproving the legend in the process, the real Candyman (Tony Todd) appears so she will believe in him. Candyman commits a series of gruesome crimes, leaving Helen to be framed. The only way to prove her innocence is to prove the legend is true.

I find the Candyman just a fascinating character. Michael Myers, when unmasked, looks like a normal young man, Freddy Kruger is horribly disfigured by burns, and Jason Voorhees was a misshapen child when alive and a decayed zombie when resurrected. Most slashers are ugly, scarred, and usually adorned in a mask or some other concealing garment. By contrast, Candyman possesses an air of nobility about him. Instead of ratty clothes, he dresses in a manner fitting a regal aristocrat, not a deranged killer: fur coat, polished shoes, etc. He is an eloquent speaker as well, neither a mute like Jason nor a raspy-voiced jokester like Freddy. His voice is so thick, so resonant, it rattles bones and walls. But Candyman is more than image and sound.

In Hamlet, Queen Gertrude utters "Sweets to the sweet" as she scatters flowers on the grave of Ophelia. This phrase appears on the walls throughout Candyman, and it's not the only connection to Shakespeare's play. Like Hamlet, Candyman is an existential character. He kills not out of revenge, thrills, or compulsive psychosis. Candyman wants to live; he wants to exist. As the movie explains, it is the faith of his "congregation," the terrified residents of Cabrini Green who attribute daily ghetto horrors to him, that gives him his power, his ability to be real.Without that belief in him, he is nothing.

Hamlet, in the play's most famous soliloquy, describes the fear of what lies beyond death, that "undiscovered country" from which "no traveler returns." Candyman also wants Helen to be his victim, to solidify in his legend in the minds of his believers. Helen says she fears not only the pain of dying but what lies beyond. He assures there is nothing to fear; they will live on as the "writing on the wall," the stories lovers tell to hold each other closer, the tale told frighten children, and the whispers in the night. To have that belief is to live forever.

Candyman contains some powerful images, some beautiful like when Helen climbs through a hole in a wall that is revealed to be the mouth of a painting, and some are gruesome like when Candyman pulls open his coat to reveal a swarm of bees crawling over his entrails. Just as effective is the music. Composed by Phillip Glass, the music is haunting and ecclesiastical, like a dark church choir, and again, it's beautiful, a mix of vocals, piano, and organ.

There are horror movies that work by being gritty and ugly. Films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead break decorum and put their audiences through the wringer, brutalizing them as much as their characters. Then, there are movies like Candyman. Yes, they're scary, but they leave you in awe.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Let the Right One In

I first watched Let the Right One In (2008) several years ago and admired it greatly, but since then, even after acquiring the DVD, I've been hesitant to watch it again and unable to say why. Seeing it again for this review, I now know: this is a depressing motion picture. It's strongly acted (bravely so by its two leads), beautifully photographed, quite shocking at times, and surprisingly tender and intimate, but it is a major downer, filled with wounded characters, desolate environments, and feelings of fear, loneliness, and claustrophobia. There's tremendous filmmaking skill and moments of poignancy, but the movie leaves me feeling down, not invigorated.

Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) is a lonely twelve-year-old living in Sweden. Alienated by his divorced parents and bulled by thugs at school, he harbors a fascination with death, violence, and crime. Eli (Lina Leandersson), is a twelve-year-old girl who, in her own words, has been twelve years old for a long time; she's a vampire, one is forced to murder people to feed or have her adult helper Hakan (Per Ragner), who poses as her father, kill people and drain their blood to bring to her. When Eli moves in next door to Oskar, these two gradually develop a friendship that becomes a deep connection in an otherwise cold, barren world.

When I say this movie is cold, I don't mean it's detached and cruelly logical like a Stanley Kubrick movie; I mean cold in a literal sense. The narrative takes place during the cold, dark winter months of Sweden. Characters bundle up in thick wool, snow crumpling beneath their boots and mist appearing on their breaths. The film is also mostly devoid of color; save for a Rubik's Cube and the blood, this world is a stark, at times grimy palette of white, black, and grey. Watching Let the Right One In makes me want to curl up in a warm blanket with some hot chocolate while I lament the frigid harshness of the world.

But nature is not the only cold thing in this movie. The constant misery Oskar endures from the bullies borders on sociopathic: whips from a cane, his clothing stuffed in a urinal, being called a pig, threats with a knife, having his head dunked under water, etc. It might seem excessive, but compared to some of the stuff that's actually happened in real life, it's entirely plausible and perhaps understated. The adults, meanwhile, are blithely unaware of the torment Oskar puts up with, either clueless like the teachers or absorbed in themselves. No wonder Oskar feels alone. The first time we see him - a pale, scrawny thing - he's a misshapen, distorted reflection in a window. The film's grammar continually reveals him to be a small, isolated figure.

Oskar's not the only lonely creature. Vampires, in other literature and films, are usually solitary creatures, perennial outsiders who exist beyond the comforts of normal society. They can live hundreds if not thousands of years and only watch as remnants of their former human lives fade away. Sure, there are plenty of villainous vampires who relish their bloodlust and power, but Eli comes from the stock that doesn't enjoy committing murder to survive. Hers is a sad, desperate way of surviving, and that's why, I think, she prefers having her Renfield get her blood, that way she doesn't have to confront the reality of what she must do. If Oskar is typically filmed alone, Eli is filmed as an outsider, the one looking in through windows or perched above, the eternal observer and sometimes a predator on the hunt.

One of the strengths of Let the Right One In is that it takes its time. It's not a flashy, action piece like Blade, a gothic melodrama like Dracula, or even a teen romance like Twilight. The relationship between Oskar and Eli ripens bit by bit over the movie's nearly two-hour running length. At first, they're curious about each other, but Eli doesn't want to be friends, owing to the nature of her existence. Then, they start to bond over little things, like when Oskar shows her the Rubik's Cube. By the end, they've grown extremely close and come to protect on each other. Not only does the movie take vampires seriously, it takes its characters seriously.

There are moments that aren't for the squeamish, although they are artfully done. Blood flows readily, but the worst of it occurs just off-screen or is implied. In one case, a door closes at just the right time as Eli makes an attack; a bloody hand bursting through the door tells us all we need to know about how brutal it was. Director Tomas Alfredson also elects shoot a couple of the attacks in static long shots, showing Eli claiming a victim underneath a bridge or overpass; the technique effectively demonstrates how vulnerable her victims are and again doesn't show us too much violence.

If there's a flaw, it's a subplot involving a neighbor (Peter Carlberg) tracking down Eli after she's killed some of his friends, one of whom tried to help Eli when she pretended to be hurt. On one hand, I appreciate the effort to depict these neighbors as well drawn characters who feel real and show grief over the death of friends. It would have been easy to make them unsympathetic, even deserving targets to foster more sympathy for Eli, but these scenes take up a lot of time and ultimately seem to exist outside the relationship between Eli and Oskar, which is the heart of the movie and where our interest lies.

Let the Right One In is a cold, dark, and sad picture, and those are the traits that make it exemplary. There's a lot to like and admire about it, but when all's said and done, you won't enjoy the rest of your day after seeing it.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Crazies (1973)

The Crazies (1973), the story of a man-made virus leaking through a small town from director George Romero, asks who the crazy people are. Obviously, there are those infected by a virus that leaves its victims dead or incurably mad, but what about the other townspeople, the ones who aren't infected but who succumb to panic and hysteria, resulting in their behaving just as irrationally as the infected? Or how about the soldiers who gun down unarmed civilians, rob the homes of the people they round up for quarantine, and blindly follow stupid, ill-informed orders without question? Or the scientists who created the virus? There are also the Washington bureaucrats, more concerned with cover ups and protecting their jobs than they are with stopping the spread of a dangerous virus but willing to drop a nuclear bomb one of their own towns.

In other movies such as Creepshow and Dawn of the Dead, Romero utilized blood, gore, and other shocking imagery in a comic book, Grand Guignol style of excess and black humor. In The Crazies, he uses a more psychological approach to generating tension. There's no shortage of blood in this film, but the sense of dread stems from not knowing who might be infected. At every level, whether military, medical, or civilian, people behave in irrational ways that could be virus-induced or could be perfectly understandable responses to an extremely emotional and dangerous situation. Zombies at least have the decency to die first so you know who they are.

Six days after a military plane carrying an experimental bioweapon crashes just outside the Evans City, the military, led by combat officer Col. Peckem (Lloyd Hollar), moves in to quarantine the small town when residents begin showing symptoms of being infected. Dr. Watts (Orson Welles scholar Richard France), a member of the scientific team that worked on the virus, codenamed Trixie, is brought in to see if he can find a cure, but he and Peckem are hampered by an inept, self-serving leadership in Washington D.C. that inflicts one bureaucratic blunder after another. While soldiers and townsfolk clash in several firefights, a group of people - former Green Beret David (W.G. McMillan), his pregnant fiancé Judy (Lane Carroll) and his best friend Clanker (Harold Wayne Jones) along with Artie (Day of the Dead's Richard Liberty) and his kooky daughter Kathy (Lynn Lowry) - tries to escape a town that's turned into a war zone.

The Crazies has a frantic, urgent tone as one bad thing snowballs into another, and the bodies pile up. The soldiers, anonymous and faceless in their gas masks and biohazard suits, storm homes, clubs, bedrooms, farms, churches, and other places we tend to consider safe. All these notions like due process, right to privacy, and respect for private property are tossed out the window in an instant when it becomes convenient for the government. Those who are resist are designated enemy combatants and likely to be shot, their bodies incinerated. Freedom is fragile, always at risk of being snuffed out. Throw in an armed citizenry that doesn't like being treated this, and then you have a volatile pressure cooker ready to explode.

On the flip side of the Orwellian, totalitarian government and military turning is citizenry into prisoners, there is also the inept, red tape of the government. Whether it's the bureaucrats in charge who wait days to take action and fail to properly supply the military with enough men and vaccines to the officers rigidly sticking with a voice-recognition communication system that wastes valuable time, it's, to quote the trailer, "madness unleaded by human error." In the film's most egregious example, Watts seems to have found a cure but gets mistaken for one of the townspeople by the soldiers and is killed in a riot. It's funny in a satirical sense, but it's also too believable to dismiss.

Amidst this turmoil, Romero throws in unsettling images: a priest self-immolating, an old woman calmly stabbing a soldier with her knitting needle before returning to her interrupted task, a father sexually assaulting his daughter, etc. Other effects are just as crazy but also blackly funny; in one battle, a line of rednecks slaughtering a group of soldiers with pitchforks, dynamite, and hatchets is followed by a dutiful housewife calmly sweeping the field with a broom. Other instances are kind of sad: the infected Kathy flirting with a group of soldiers who respond by shooting her, and Judy giving away her hiding spot with nervous laughter. It's almost impossible to say if an action is the result of the virus or something else: the priest could be making a protest, the father might already have  had unsavory designs on his daughter, and Judy could just be cracking under the pressure. The virus and its effects are so subtle and so easily mistaken for something else that by the time someone is determined to be infected, it's too late, and when it occurs among the members of the group we've been following and rooting for, the result is all the more heartbreaking.

On a technical side, the movie is rough around the edges. Several times it's clear Romero's ambition exceeds his budget, and some of the effects, staging, and editing come off as cheap and amateurish. However, there are several well shot and tightly edited action scenes that are quite exciting and intense, mainly Clanker's last stand and a sequence where David and Clanker take down a pursuing helicopter. They aren't flashy or dominated by explosions, but they work. Romero, never the most subtle of filmmakers, sometimes resorts to overkill and heavy handed symbolism, most notably with the squabbling government officials; after a while, we get it: they're stupid and incompetent.

In many ways, The Crazies foreshadows Romero's work in Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, most notably with the breakdown of society and paranoia of the military, and again its demonstrates one of his favorite themes: we're the monsters. This time, he didn't need a single zombie.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Opera

My (small) understanding of operas tells me they tend to be big, boldly produced, highly stylized productions combing theatrical melodrama with intense yet beautiful music, and those attributes can all be applied to several films of Italian director Dario Argento. Though (or maybe because) he works in the horror and psycho-killer genres, Argento at his best incorporates a beautiful, surreal aesthetic in his work that evokes a nightmarish, hypnotic atmosphere. Sure, he's staging absolutely brutal, graphic murders, but instead of making them ugly and disgusting, Argento conducts then in a manner that makes them gorgeous and gory; it may be horrible but you can't look away.

That summarizes what I admire about Argento's filmmaking. The part of Argento I'm not enthused about is his disinterest in plot clarity, characterization, and logic. Specifically, his characters tend to behave in ways that don't even approximate believable human behavior, and in a genre where a rooting interest in the victims is essential to generating terror and suspense, that makes it hard to care for their fates. Consider Laurie Strode in Halloween and Chief Brody in Jaws; when I watch those movies, I'm invested in their survival. When I watch an Argento character (whose names I can't recall without having to look up), I'm not invested in their fates; I'm transparently aware of a director manipulating an avatar.

Argento's 1987 effort Opera demonstrates both of these tendencies. Argento's direction - his use of camera movement, color, and music - is some of the best he's ever done. There are some absolutely stellar sequences of style and technique, and even the setup, a sort of modernized take on The Phantom of the Opera set against the backdrop of an operatic, post-apocalyptic MacBeth, is pretty cool, but again, Argento treats his characters as props to be moved around and killed. When you're not entranced by the Argento's virtuoso and directorial flourishes, you're laughing at the overwrought silliness of the enterprise underneath the surface.

After an accident incapacitates his leading lady, horror director Marco (Ian Charleson) taps the young understudy Betty (Christina Marsillach) to play the lead in his opera of MacBeth. Betty is nervous and insecure and becomes even more so when a murder occurs during her first performance. It becomes clear soon enough that a psycho is targeting people at the theatre, especially those close to Betty, and the killer is adamant that Betty always has a front row seat to the butchery.

Opera finds Argento back in the Giallo territory. Giallo was a genre of Italian thrillers. Typically they were gruesome murder mysteries in which a deranged killer with a twisted psychological obsession and penchant for wearing black gloves murders beautiful women. These killings are elaborate and glory; stabbings and strangulations aren't enough when the killer can incorporate decapitations, dismemberments, and disembowelments.  As in his other Giallos, Opera allows to showcase brilliant staged set piecees. His camera swoops and dives weightlessly over the opera house and sometimes from the point of view of the killer. These are matched by wince-inducing close shots of blades, needles, and bullets penetrating soft flesh of eyeballs and through mouths.

Even by Giallo standards, this villain is nasty and sadistic. A number of times, he ties Betty up and tapes needles under eyes so she is forced to watch as he butchers people. There's just some sort of immediate, palpable fear of not only being completely at this maniac's mercy but also being unable to look away from a horrible act. It's unsettling and disturbing.

Argento also stages an absolutely amazing scene in which of a flock of ravens are set loose during the opera performance to identify the killer in the audience, and it's a sequence that would make Edgar Allan Poe proud. It's not entirely plausible, but it's so well staged and stunning that I don't care. There's also an absolutely brutal murder involving someone being shot through the eye while looking through a peephole.

But again, the characters and logic are ridiculous. Some of this might be lost in translation from Italian, but after Betty watches her boyfriend get massacred by the killer, her reaction is laughably nonchalant; she walks in the rain while a sad song plays, you'd think she and the boyfriend had just broken up. She calls the police in a pay phone but doesn't wait for them to arrive. For the things she goes through, you'd think she'd take off running screaming murder or calling for help, but instead, she walks off as merely despondent over her personal life, not threatened by a lunatic. The other characters also don't seem to notice how a number of crew members have been killed. Character reactions and behavior are just so jarring to the events they're going through, and it's hard to take seriously.

Opera also has a good score, mixing opera performances with a heavy metal assault during the murders. There's also effective use of the crows' squawking and flapping of wings. It's unusual combination that somehow works.  Sort of like the movie itself.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Phantasm

Phantasm (1979), the film that made director Don Coscarelli's name in the horror genre, taps into a universal fear, a collective unease we don't always wish to confront. The story of two brothers and their ice-cream man friend who battle an evil mortician who steals and enslaves the bodies of the dead is really about a more fundamental anxiety: Jawas, those hooded dwarves from Star Wars. Hiding their faces, speaking some indecipherable language, stealing robots in the desert, there's something creepy about them. Did anyone shed a tear when we found out stormtroopers had wiped them out?

Ok, there aren't any Jawas in Phantasm, only hooded zombie dwarves, and even then, they aren't the only threat in the movie. There are also the flying metal balls (dubbed "Sentinels" in the sequels) that latch onto the foreheads of victims, drill into their skulls, and spray out all their blood and brains. Then, there's the mysterious woman in Lavender; she seduces men in the cemetery and murders them. But she's not even real, merely a disguise of the true villain of the piece: the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), the mysterious mortician who steals bodies of the dead to use as slave labor on another planet, and when two brothers, 13-year-old Mike (Michael Baldwin) and 24-year-old Jody (Bill Thornbury), stumble upon his scheme, he sets his wrath on them, along with their friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister), an ice-cream man.

That's the ... I was going to say that's the plot of Phantasm, but it's probably more accurate to state that's what happens in the movie. Narrative cohesion and plot structure aren't to be expected from any Phantasm movie; anyone looking for either can only expect to find a jumbled mess and frustration. Scenes jump around, characters pop up and then vanish, never to be seen or mentioned again, and the lack of clear transitions only creates more confusion. In one scene, Mike goes to a fortune teller before the movie cuts away to a scene between Mike and Jody only for the movie to cut back to the fortune teller scene; looking back, it's meant to be flashback, but the movie doesn't make that immediately clear.

What the movie lacks in clarity, it makes up with a surreal, dream-like atmosphere, and that's actually enough to make it work as a spooky, unsettling picture. Phantasm functions as a cinematic representation of a nightmare, and in nightmares, not everything makes sense, and that's part of what makes nightmares scary. In dreams, friends can be enemies, the mundane threatening, and the irrational the only logic at work. Phantasm, for all of its nonsensical storytelling, captures that feeling better than almost any other movie I can think of.

In interviews, Coscarelli said he was inspired by the sci-fi classic Invaders from Mars, a paranoid tale of a boy who tries to convince people that aliens are taking over people, including his parents and the police. Few things are terrifying in a nightmare as a parent turning against his or her child, especially if that child is you. In Phantasm, Coscarelli incorporates that notion of a boy seeing things that adults either can't see or refuse to see. In this world adults are mysteriously threatening, especially old people like the Tall Man, and venturing into a creepy mortuary regularly ends with being chased and/or getting lost.

The Tall Man is certainly an iconic horror movie. villain. Tall, gaunt, he looms over everybody, and he's not afraid to get his hands dirty, whether it's by lifting a casket all by himself or chasing after Mike, arms outstretched. His first face-to-face encounter with Mike is classic; Mike turns around to see the Tall Man standing at the ending of the hallway. He takes a step forward, and so does the Tall Man. And so on, the Tall Man matching every one of Mike's movements, each step echoing through the lonely corridor of the mortuary until they're merely feet apart. There's a pause. Then Mike takes off and the chase ensues. That's one of those nightmare logic scenes; the taunting villain who waits for his target to make the first move.

A movie like Phantasm  can make you believe that had Mike not run, the Tall Man would have stood there staring at him forever.