Friday, October 31, 2014

Murder Party

What a strange, strange movie Murder Party (2007) is. I really don't know how to begin to describe it. There's some shockingly graphic violence involving fire, an ax, a chainsaw, and other weapons and tools we find in a host of slasher movies, but the killers and victims hardly seem to notice at times, either because they're drugged out of their minds or too self-absorbed in their own pretensions to notice. It's inventive, it's funny, it's shocking, and it's original. It really has to be seen to be believed if not necessarily understood.

It's Halloween in Brooklyn, and Christopher (Chris Sharp) finds an invitation to a "Murder Party." Donning a cardboard suit of armor and bringing with him a batch of raisin pumpkin bread, he goes to the party and ends up in a dumpy, isolated warehouse where a weird bunch of costumed artists are gathered. Before he realizes it, Chris is tied up and told he will be killed, his death to be a true artistic masterpiece. What follows is a night of drug use, revelations, depravity, death, and lunacy.

Christopher is the only normal person in this entire movie. He seems like a nice guy, if a little dumb. I mean what kind of "dildo," to use the movie's terminology (take a shot every time you hear the word, and you might get alcohol poisoning), gets an invitation to something called a "Murder Party," an invitation that he didn't receive from anyone he knew, and decides to go to it? Still, he's not a pretentious artist type as his intended killers are, and he doesn't try to hurt anyone, except in self-defense.

These would-be, artistic murderers are really something. One's dressed as Daryl Hannah's character from Blade Runner, another looks like one of the Baseball Furies from The Warriors, one's dressed as a werewolf, and another as a vampire. They're amazed anyone was stupid enough to answer one of their invitations. Their first attempt to kill Chris, an ax to the back of the head, fails when the ax gets caught on a light cable. After they tie him up, Chris can only watch in bewildered horror as they casually discuss killing him, in between their bouts of drugs use, discussions about art, and their attempts to please Alexander, a patron who claims to have $300,000 worth of grants to bestow. Their nonchalance about casual murder is a source of much of the movie's humor.

The plot has a lot of twist and turns. Suffice to say, it's fortuitous for Chris that he brought the pumpkin bread and put non-organic raisons in it, leading to an unexpectedly bloody death. Chris also doesn't face a unified front; his tormentors distrust and eventually turn on each other once they learn the truth about each other's motives. One character accidentally sets himself on fire, and most of the others don't seem to notice or care, and the ones who do respond aren't too urgent about it. Another, who has spent the entire time sitting on the floor playing a video game, snaps and starts taking an ax to some of the others.

The laughs stem from the weird behavior of these insufferable, pretentious people, but the violence is graphic and unexpected. This is a very wet movie. Heads split open, limbs are lopped off, and flesh gets cooked. But even with these deaths, there's humor, mainly from how unexpected they are; some are complete accidents, and sometimes, the reactions are funny. One character gets shot in the head multiple times, and he still insists on finishing a photo he's trying to take. Talk about dedication to your craft.

Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, Murder Party is a kooky, low-budget comic thriller. It's quirky and you never know where it's going. It's so rare to find a movie that is genuinely unpredictable. It's not for everyone's tastes, but genre fans should get a kick out of it.

Bubba Ho-Tep

I didn't like Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) when I first saw it shortly after its release. With the promise of Bruce Campbell as Elvis teaming up with a black JFK to battle a soul-sucking mummy, I expected a wacky, gonzo romp, similar to Campbell's other work. I expected quips, poses, and action. What I got instead was a lot of fat, old Elvis lying in bed complaining about a cancerous growth on his dick and lamenting about how his life turned out.

Over the years, I've returned to the movie a few times, and each time, my fondness for it has grown. The movie's premise is undeniably weird, a narrative that just begs for a cult movie to be made from it, but Joe R. Landsdale, who wrote the story the movie is based on, and Don Coscarelli, who wrote the screenplay and directed the movie, do something unexpected: they treat the material seriously. It's a movie about Elvis and JFK, two of the largest icons of the twentieth century, battling one of the icons of ancient history, and in its own way, it's touching.

Elvis lives. He didn't die as was reported; that was an impersonator he switched places with after becoming fed up with the lifestyle. Elvis (Campbell) instead lives in a rundown retirement home in Mud Water, Texas with his best friend, John F. Kennedy (Ossie Davis), who says he survived his assassination attempt and had his skin dyed black by the government. Elvis has little to do but pass the time, waiting for death and reflecting on his life. But something is moving through the dank, dark halls of the building; a mummy is on the loose, and it's killing the residents, sucking their souls out through their assholes. With no one else to turn to, Elvis and JFK decide to take down Bubba Ho-Tep themselves.

Coscarelli has a thing about death and what happens to people after they shuffle off this mortal coil. In Phantasm, the villainous Tall Man stole the bodes of the dead, squashed them down to Jawa size, and enslaved them on a distant planet. In Bubba Ho-Tep, the souls of the doomed retirement home residents are digested in Bubba Hot-Tep's digestive tract and shit out in a toilet (As JFK points out, even a mummy needs a nice quiet place to take dump and he didn't have a toilet when he was alive.).

That feeling of being chewed up and spit out by life is what defines Elvis in this movie. He had it all: fame, fortune, women, drugs, and now he's reduced to living a third-rate rest home, needing a nurse to rub a lotion on the growth on his junk. Such is the cruel hand of fate. The movie is reflective as Elvis, often bed-ridden, thinks back on his life, the choices he made, and only knows regret. He's a cast-off, a forgotten relic just waiting to die.

Oddly enough, by teaming with another final idol, JFK, who went from being the most powerful man in the free world and lover of Marilyn Monroe (when Elvis asks him what she was like in bed, he tells that's classified information but between the two of them, WOW!) to just another rest home resident, Elvis finds meaning in battling a mummy and protecting the other residents of the retirement home. For the first time in years, he feels rejuvenated. Somehow, there's poignancy to that.

Of course, a story can't help but have a sense of humor, but it's more subtle and less outrageous than one would expect. Elvis' observations have a dry, sardonic touch (when thinking about Priscilla, he wonders whether they'd have sex or even if they'd still be able to), and his battle with a flying scarab beetle, which he wins with the help of his bed pan and an open flame, resembles the Ash we know and love, and reminds us of Coscarelli's use of the ball from Phantasm. Even some of the other residents have their laughs; one victim steals the glasses off a patient in an iron lung and seems proud of herself for it, and another friend of Elvis thinks he's the Lone Ranger and is always firing his toy pistols (there's something a bit sad and funny about him firing his toys at the mummy).

There's some action in Bubba Ho-Tep, but it's not flashy or gory. Elvis and JFK fight Bubba Ho-Tep like the broken down old men they are, using their walkers and wheelchairs to hold themselves up. They're so pathetic, they're funny, but there's an element of desperation. If they lose, the mummy will devour their souls.

Bubba Ho-Tep is an acquired taste. It has the goofiest of setups, but it's played straight with subtle laughs. When I was younger, I guess I expected something sillier and fun rather than a meditation on life, death, and fame. The older I get, the more I like it.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Salem's Lot

Maybe, when adapting Stephen King, Tobe Hooper should stick with the novels. The Mangler is based off a short story that appeared in King's Night Shift collection, and it's bad in the all the ways I outlined in my linked review. But Salem's Lot (1979) is based on King's second novel, and everywhere The Manger fails, Salem's Lot succeeds. A three-hour TV miniseries, it's better acted, better directed, better written, and creepier and scary with believable, human characters and a much stronger threat.

Ben Mears (David Soul) returns to his hometown of Salem's Lot, Maine to write a book about the Marsten House, house with a dark history of attracting evil. Ben tries to rent the house, but it's already been purchased by a pair of Europeans, the sophisticated Mr. Straker (James Mason) and the never-seen Mr. Barlow (Reggie Nalder). While writing, Ben romances Susan (Bonnie Bedelia) and reconnects with his old teacher, Jason Burke (Lew Ayres), but weird things start happening. A young boy disappears on a walk home one night, his brother dies in the hospital, and a sleazy realtor is found dead in his car. Others start turning up dead or vanishing. It isn't long before Ben and the others realize there's a vampire on the prowl in good old Salem's Lot.

Salem's Lot was King second book, and this was the second adaptation of his work and the first TV miniseries, paving the way for the likes of It, The Stand, and a second take on The Shining. It was originally intended as a feature film, with the likes of George Romero and Larry Cohen being touted as possible directors before the decision was made to use the extended format of television to retain as much of the novel as possible. Even with three hours in running length, Hooper and teleplay writer Paul Monash alter the text in a number of ways: combining characters, eliminating others, moving around plot details, and altering others entirely. The biggest change is in the nature of Barlow, the master vampire. In the novel, he is a cultured, gentleman-like aristocrat very much in the Dracula mold who gives speeches about his history and what he plans to do to our heroes. In the miniseries, he is a mute, pale blue, rat-like creature, closer in look to Nosferatu, right down to the rat-like fangs.

Even with all these changes, Salem's Lot is mostly faithful to the book, at least in spirit and retaining several of the book's most potent scenes: vampire children floating in the air, clawing at windows, shrouded in fog; Mrs. Glick rising from the dead in the morgue as Ben tries to fashion a makeshift crucifix with a pair of tongue depressors; and Barlow's attack on Ned Tibbets in the jail, in which Barlow's ugly face suddenly fills the frame with a searing jolt on the soundtrack. Even the non-undead scene of George Dzundza's cuckold husband pulling a shotgun on Fred Williard gets a great jolt.

Since this is network TV, there's an absence of blood and gore, and most of the violence is implied, like another Hooper movie. But unlike The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Salem's Lot is a more refined, traditional horror story, one you could even call classy. Instead of the rotting, impoverished home on unemployed, inbred slaughterhouse workers, the story is set in a cozy small-town where everyone knows everyone's business and outsiders like Ben and Straker are mistrusted. And unlike Chain Saw, the narrative has a more recognizable structure, a beginning, a middle, an end, build-up, and resolution.

Visually, even though this is a TV project, Salem's Lot has a very cinematic feel; it doesn't look confined or static. Hooper takes his time to build the suspense, like when Jason, hearing the sound of a rocking chair, walks up stairs, and the camera follows him up. Overall, Hooper's choice of composition suggests a depth and not a flat square one expects with TV, and the editing is dynamic, especially in the Mrs. Glick scene, cutting between her body under a sheet, Ben making his cross, and a clock on the wall until the tension is ready to pop. The Marsten house, once we get inside it, is an impressive, crumbling piece of rotting architecture; the aforementioned shots of the floating vampires outside windows is spooky and dream-like; and although the makeup on the vampires isn't elaborate, save for Barlow's, their eyes are unnerving, those glowing, piercing, inhuman orbs.

The cast is impressive. Soul, then a name for his role on Starsky and Hutch, is OK, but the supporting cast is a dream. Mason, playing what is basically the Renfield role, steals the movie with an almost absent-mindedness menace and intelligence; one could argue he's the main villain more than Barlow, who's total screen time only amounts to a handful of minutes (interesting to note, both Mason and Nalder played villains in Alfred Hitchcock movies, North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much respectively). Still, Barlow is a creepy creature, suggested more often than shown (we don't get a good look at him until more than two hours into the movie). Elsewhere Ayres, Bedelia, Williard, Dzundza, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook, Ed Flanders, and Geoffrey Lewis round out the various small-town types and bring them to life (or undeath when need be).

King fans will be horrified by the changes, and they do have reason to gripe in places. The first half spends a great deal of setting up the characters and the town, but in the second half, a number of characters vanish, and the narrative jumps from set piece to set piece with only a few lines of dialogue to explain where we are and why. Near the end, some of the changes from the book wreak havoc on the clarity of the narrative, particularly with Susan's final fate. You're left wondering where, when, why, and how.

And unlike in the novel, the notion of vampires taking over the town doesn't quite come across. Reading the book is seeing a town become Hell on Earth and overrun with monsters. This miniseries tells us this is happening but doesn't show enough to convince of it. Regardless, it's still an effective, creepy adaptation with enough scenes that are the stuff of nightmares.

One Hour Photo

This is my first post on a Robin Williams since his death. I didn't enjoy all his roles and thought to a certain extent he was too reliant on his usual comic persona, but he was a rare, one-of-a-kind performer, and his loss is tragic. There won't be another like him.

Williams was known more for his zany, comedic parts, the manic and rapid-fire way he flung himself into different voices, mannerisms, and impressions of various celebrities and other characters. It's easy to forget he was a good actor, brilliant even. Some of his best performances, I think, occurred when he managed to get away from his usual goofy self.

One Hour Photo (2002) strips away every sense of humor and humanity that Williams brought to his comedies. Williams plays Seymour "Sy" Parrish, a photo technician at Savmart. Sy takes great pride in his work, but he is lonely and lacking anything resembling a social life. He imagines himself as a favorite uncle to his favorite family, the Yorkins - father Will (Michael Vartan), mother Nina (Connie Neilsen), and 9-year-old Jake (Dylan Smith). The Yorkins have been developing their photos with Sy for years, and he's seen Jake grow up; they have everything he wishes he could have. He even makes duplicates of all pictures, so he can pin them on the wall in his empty little apartment. But when he gets fired by his boss (Gary Cole) and discovers the Yorkins' perfect family life isn't so perfect, he snaps.

Looking back on the movie, I can see how, with a little tweaking, One Hour Photo could have been another zany Williams comedy. Sy could have been a goofy, lovable photo clerk with a heart of gold who grows close to the people whose photos develops and helps them with their problems. It could have even been charming. It could have had a kinship with Mrs. Doubtfire, in which Williams played an out-of-work, divorced actor who disguises himself as a British nanny to be close to his children.

But the movie is not comedy, and it is not heartwarming. The chilling thought behind One Hour Photo is how a complete stranger can learn, rather easily, the intimate details of a family and think he belongs as a member. The Yorkins recognize Sy but don't know much about him. Will meets him once and barely gives him a thought while Nina thinks of him as the kindly photo technician. Only Jake recognizes something a bit off about Sy he tells his mom Sy is lonely, and later, when Sy tries to give him a toy he wants, Jake wisely declines.

Meanwhile, Sy has been developing the photos of the Yorkins since before Jake was born. He's seen photos of their wedding, Jake's birth, his birthday parties, and all those other special moments they captured on film. He knows all about them, and they know nothing about him because they've practically handed their lives over to him, trusting an anonymous photo clerk with those cherished memories.

Sy might be superficially polite and friendly to his customers, but they aren't his traits; they're his mask. Beneath his bespectacled, smiling visage is a blank slate, a desperate, empty existence. Sy lives vicariously through his customers. He has no friends, no family, no interests beyond his job and the people who bring him their photos. The photos, to him represent, perfection, the good life he wants but can't have, and when real life contradicts the happiness he sees in those pictures, he's shattered.

One-Hour Photo has the elements of a thriller, and Williams is undoubtedly creepy and obsessive, but more than anything else, it's a character study, a portrait of deranged loneliness. Even when he starts threatening people with a knife and crossing personal boundaries, Sy is pitiful or at least someone we as the viewers can understand and feel sorry for. He's not mean-spirited, and for the most part, other people ignore him or treat him with contempt (as his boss does). The creepiness stems from how he tries to immerse himself in the lives of the Yorkins and starts losing his grip on reality.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Pandorum

Until some studio bigwig decides to give John Carpenter the money to do it right, Pandorum (2009) is the closest we've got to a live-action Dead Space movie. Pandorum bares a number of striking parallels to the popular video games. A science fiction horror movie set on a desolate spaceship of the future, it features crew members moving through dark corridors, trying to avoid getting killed a horde of rampaging monsters, and battling the effects of madness. Also, the main character in both is trying to find his wife/girlfriend.

Pandorum comes packed with intriguing sci-fi ideas. It gazes upon such concepts as madness in space, how generations of people survive on a spaceship, how humanity will try to colonize planets in the future and make them livable, and what it would mean to among the last of the human race still and what that knowledge would do to you. Unfortunately, despite the richness of the material, the movie's execution leaves much to be desired, getting bogged down in the tired run-and-hide-from-the monsters instead of exploring its ideas.

The spaceship Elysium is on a mission to colonize the planet to help ease the dangerous overcrowding and resource depletion on Earth when the crew receives a startling message from home: "You're all that's left of us. Good luck, God bless, and godspeed." And then, silence.

Sometime later, Corporal Bower (Ben Foster) and Lt. Payton (Dennis Quaid) are woken out of cryo-sleep to discover most of the power on the Elysium is down. Because of how long they were out, they're suffering some amnesia, unable to remember their mission and some other details. Bower, with Payton guiding him by radio, maneuvers through the ship to reach the reactor to get everything back up and running. But there's a problem; a tribe of cannibalistic humanoid hunters have infested the ship, and Bower also has to worry Pandorum, a space-induced form of insanity that can drive a person to panic, irrationality, and even violence.

When the film focuses on the horror of space, Pandorum is effective. Space is vast and claustrophobic, and the movie understands that. Out there, all alone, there's nothing else around for infinity, and it's a sobering thought. Yet, being on a spaceship, a relatively small, tight area, is confining and panic-inducing. This best demonstrated in a scene illustrating a previous space mission disaster. As Quaid narrates, we see an insane crew member of another ship launch thousands of escape pods into the vastness of space, and in a wonderful long shot of the the ship, we see thousands of little specks shoot out in all directions. One flies right at the camera, and we get a good, solid look at the panicked, screaming occupant of what is essentially a glass coffin. It's a chilling sight but also strangely beautiful.

The production design of the film is also splendidly realized: dark corridors, vast chambers, and murky waste pits, very lived in and in parts decrepit. The characters are filthy, often covered in blood, slime, and grime. Even the props are cool, such as the anti-riot gun Bower wears on his wrist (shades of Samus Arun), and the various methods more normal survivors have adapted to life on this derelict ship is interesting, especially the one who balances protecting biological specimens and her own survival, which means eating an occasional grasshopper.

The problem with the film is its monsters or at least how they're filmed. They look mean and nasty and do all sorts of ghastly things to people, but their favorite pastime is eating them and sometime their own. One poor bastard wakes up out of cryo-sleep to be met by a horde of them. Unfortunately, they're not scary in the way they're filmed. Instead leaving them in the shadows or suggesting their presence, director Christian Alvart brings them out in the open and obscures with overly sped-up film and scenes that are edited too rapidly to follow. It's distracting, and it negates the threat of the killers because instead of being immersed in the action, we become aware we're watching it, and the effect is hokey. It doesn't help that the design of these creatures isn't particularly original either, resembling the possessed miners from John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars in how they attack.

I didn't particularly care about any of the characters, although Foster is solid in a rare non-psycho role, but his characterization is limited to being the hero and convenient flashbacks. Other characters are limited to mostly espousing exposition or acting bug-eyed weird. My beef is with the amnesia business. For the record, I hate amnesia as a storytelling device because the amnesic always is able to remember exactly what he or she needs to whenever it's needed; it always feels contrived, and Pandorum is no exception.

The insanity angle feels contrived, too. The notion of a spaceship full of people going insane is an interesting concept for a story, especially because they realize they have no outside authority to answer to anymore, but like the amnesia, it's only apparent when it's convenient, and like the creature scenes, it's filmed in a glaringly distracting style, all rapid cuts, awkward closeups, and sped-up action to underline the point.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Manhunter

Earlier this month, I discussed watching a Stephen King movie back before King became a brand name. Manhunter (1986), directed by Michael Mann, is the chance to go back in time to see Hannibal Lector (or as his name is spelled here, Lecktor) before he became embedded in popular culture as one of cinema's greatest villains and boogeyman, largely due to Anthony Hopkins Oscar-winning performance in The Silence of the Lambs.

Manhunter, like Silence, is based on a novel by Thomas Harris, in this case Red Dragon (which would later be remade with Hopkins). Its stars William Peterson as Will Graham, a retired FBI agent who is called back into service to track down a deranged serial killer, the Tooth Fairy, aka Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan). To figure where this psycho is going to strike next, Graham must delve into the mind of a disturbed killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox), an incarcerated lunatic genius who scarred Graham physically and mentally when Graham stopped his serial killing ways.

While possessing the expected glitz and gloss one would expect in an eighties movie (this is from the creator of Miami Vice), Manhunter is curiously more grounded and gritty than the subsequent Harris adaptations featuring Lector. In Silence, Hopkins awaited Clarice Starling in the last cell in a line of cells that were seemingly carved into out of rock, and the atmosphere evoked resembled a dungeon of monsters; we enter the lair and share Starling's POV as the camera descends the stairs and moves through the corridor.

In Manhunter, Lecktor is seen in a single, isolated cell, with white walls. It's a very sterile, clean room that is probably a more likely location for a psychotic like Lecktor. This approach even extends to the performances. Hopkins would bring a theatrical element to his part, an intellectual gentleman who enjoys the power he has over others and didn't have qualms about showing it off. Cox is more restrained, his Lecktor almost bored with the inferior minds around him and more insulted to have to deal with them. Hopkins is an iconic monster, darkly charismatic yet capable of the most appalling atrocities, and he relishes his repulsive nature. His most memorable scene is his escape, where he mutilates a pair of guards and wears one's face as a mask. The details of Cox's crime are left unstated, the horror more understated, and his inspirations seems to be based on the type of sickos that are actually locked up in real-life insane asylums. His best scene demonstrates his calculating nature when he uses a phone that can't be dialed along with a stick of gum to get Graham's home address.

The success of The Silence of the Lambs inspired a whole slew of imitators and copycats that focus on criminology, pathology, criminology, and psychology, the sciences of the little physical details that identify a criminal as well as the behaviors and histories that lead to a killer's homicidal tendencies. Manhunter predates the trend, having the bad timing to come out in the decade of the supernatural slasher, but the focus is no different. Here, we see Graham figure out where the coroner should look for fingerprints on the corpses based on a type of power associated with rubber gloves, technicians examining notes with infrared filters to see the ballpoint pen ink that has been written over with a felt-tip marker and Graham trying to figure out the psychological reasons for the murder methods the Tooth Fairy uses.

The focus is more on the psychological effects the case has on Graham. Thinking like a serial killer and examining his work has a way of imprinting dark thoughts on the mind, and Graham feels it. He's burned out on the FBI, and he's found happiness and contentment with his wife and son. But seeing what the Tooth Fairy has done to entire families, watching their home movies and then seeing the photographs of their mutilated bodies, inspires him to stop this sicko. Both times the killer struck on the full moon, and the next one is only a few weeks away. But if he goes down that path again, finds that edge inside himself again, will he be able to get back?

Mann uses colors quite extensively throughout the film. He's a big fan of red, often in those labs as the investigators use examine evidence with different equipment, and it's a harsh, unforgiving red, which is fitting. Although ghastly acts of violence are implied or discussed, on-screen violence is relatively limited. The lighting scheme creates an unsettling, almost dream-like feel. Mann also uses cool blue, most notably in the oasis of Graham's beach house, while Lector's asylum is also completely white: walls, floor, ceiling, and outfits.

Mann also effectively utilizes slow motion, most notably in a long shot of Graham, using himself as bait, as he walks through an empty parking lot to draw out the Tooth Fairy, and the scene creates the sense that the killer could appear from anywhere. Even with all his fellow agents and officers standing by to swoop in, Graham looks so small, helpless, and alone. Another great shot like that occurs when Dollarhyde punishes a tabloid journalist, Freddy Lounds (Stephen Lang, wonderfully sleazy with Joe Piscapo's haircut): Lounds, engulfed in flames and strapped to a wheelchair, as he is sent flying down the ramp of a parking garage. It's visual but not too graphic, and it shows how much he has to suffer before he dies.

Performances are good all around. Peterson is solid, although the scenes in which he figures something out and starts talking aloud to the absent Dollarhyde are distractingly over-the-top. Noonan is really creepy (when he tortures Freddy, it's really messed up). Joan Allen is also convincing as a blind photo technician who romances Dollarhyde, not knowing about his serial killing, even though the subplot comes out of nowhere and doesn't really go anywhere.

The ending is too routine for this story, wrapping things up with a shootout, and it plays more like an action movie climax than the result of careful detective work and confronting a disturbed individual. Plus, this whole genre has been done to death over the last twenty years or so, so Manhunter's uniqueness has worn off. Still, the journey along the way is worth checking out, though worshippers of the cult of Hopkins might cry blasphemy.

Friday, October 24, 2014

It's Alive

Evolution, the changes that occur as life adapts to its environment. It's no secret humankind has not been a particularly good steward of the planet, what with all the pollution, deforestation, hunting species into extinction, and burning fossil fuels that contribute to global climate change. As a result, in the future, there's a strong chance Earth might not be so hospitable to humans, at least not in our current form. If we're to survive a harsh planet, we're going to have to evolve, but will the future generations still be human?

That is one of several questions raised by writer-director Larry Cohen in his mutant baby opus, It's Alive (1974). The subject matter is pure B-grade schlock: a monster baby, complete with an over-sized cranium, fangs, claws, and a thirst for blood, rampages through Los Angeles after its birth. It's hard to take seriously, but Cohen, whose filmography has given us sentient dessert and a flying lizard nesting in the Chrysler building, understands this. Instead of giving in to the campy elements, he instead packs the movie with character-based drama and socio-political commentary. For a movie about a killer baby, it's much better written and acted than one would expect.

The Davis family - father Frank (John P. Ryan), mother Lenore (Sharon Farrell), and son Chris (Daniel Holzman) - are excited for the arrival of a new baby, and in the middle of the night, Frank and Lenore go to the hospital for the delivery. But something goes wrong. Frank races to the delivery room to find all the doctors and nurses dead, evidently slaughtered by his newborn son, who has been born an inhuman monster, and it has escaped the hospital. While Lenore recuperates at home and Chris stays with a family friend, Frank assists the authorities with hunting down his mutant offspring, to destroy it before it can kill anyone else.

Cohen's always been a better writer than director. The movie looks cheap, and his direction of the monster baby attacks aren't especially frightening. His strength as a filmmaker was always his resourcefulness and quirky sense of humor, and he demonstrates his flair for both here. One of the first victims of the baby is the milkman, whose blood mixes with his delivery as both fluids spill down a sewer drain.

While the competent cast is comprised of mostly no-names and a few character actors who became Cohen regulars, the behind-the-scenes talent is impressive. The mutant baby was designed and built by future multiple Oscar winner Rick Baker; it looks fake and barely moves, but it has a cool design, sort of a monster version of the star child from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Cohen does his part by not showing it too much, limiting sightings to shots of claws, fangs, and the occasional shadow. Music is by Bernard Hermann of all people; it's not his finest score (cough, Psycho, cough), but it brings a touch of class to the proceedings.

The movie might be low-budget schlock, but it is packed with potent material. A number of different explanations are tossed around for the origin of the mutant baby. There's the aforementioned evolutionary idea, that this is the beginning of a new species of humanity, one evolved to survive the aggressive, polluted, irradiated world we have made for it. It's also possible the baby is the side effects of drugs; Frank and Lenore were on the pill when she got pregnant, and though they considered an abortion ("Doesn't everyone do that nowadays?" Frank asks at one point), they decided to have the baby, but who knows what kind of effect all those pills and other new medications of the modern age had on the developing fetus? Or maybe it's genetic; maybe there's just something wrong with Frank and Lenore's genes that produced this monstrosity.

It's that last point sticks the hardest with Frank. We see him try to re-establish some sense of normalcy after the events of the hospital, walking through the house, looking down at the empty crib (symbolic, no doubt, of his and Lenore's crushed dreams), and getting ready for bed. The next day, he returns to work at a PR firm, where co-workers whisper about him (the media has already picked up his and Lenore's names in the massacre), and his boss tells him to go home; his presence would be bad for business at this time. Later, in a revealing talk with police and scientists, Frank remembers how growing up, he thought "Frankenstein" was the monster; it wasn't until high school when he read Mary Shelley's book that he learned that "Frankenstein" was actually the monster's creator. "Somehow, the identities get all mixed up, don't they?" For all that's happened, he feels at least partly responsible, and society does seem to blame him.

Plenty of parents in real life give birth to babies with physical and mental problems. I'm not aware of any who delivered a mutant that immediately went on a killing spree, but if there are any, I'm willing to bet It's Alive is a close representation of what they went through. Lenore is an emotional wreck who doctors keep drugged up, and Frank, in an attempt to prove he's not responsible for his inhuman son, joins the effort to kill it. The Davises are hounded by the press (a reporter poses as a nurse to tape record a private conversation, and Frank does what I think anyone would do when he catches her and destroys the tape), and they become isolated, outsiders to a society they previously enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle being a part of. In the end, they really only have each other.

Cohen clearly has sympathy for the monster. It is, after all, only a baby, and its kills aren't so much as attacks by a vicious monster as they are panicked reactions by a scared, confused creature on its own with no one to protect it. Lenore and Chris unconditionally accept and love this child, despite Frank's assertion that "It's no relation to us." Even as police hunt it down, even as scientists request permission to collect its corpse to study it, they don't see it as a monster but as a family member who needs love and protection.

The poignancy of the film occurs when Frank comes around to their thinking. He shoots the poor creature, wounding it, and with the police, he pursues it to the sewers. But at the moment of truth, when he has it cornered, he can't bring himself to kill it; this is his child, and he decides to try to save it. What follows is a heartbreaking tragedy as we witness how society ultimately treats those who are different.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Phantom of the Opera

Many have lamented the state of the modern vampire. Once a monstrous creature of the night who terrorized villages and corrupted the living with his/her unholy thirst for blood, the dominant image of the vampire today is not Dracula or Count Orlock but Edward Cullen. But, if you know where to look, there still some vampire movies in which they are still monsters.

Fewer people seem to discuss the modern image of The Phantom of the Opera. A character first introduced in the novel of the same name by Gaston Leroux, the phantom is the twisted, disfigured, obsessive genius and madman who haunts the Paris Opera House.  The phantom's modern representation is encapsulated in the Andre Lloyd Weber musical, and it's a much more romantic interpretation of the character. Because the phantom is a specific character and not a type of creature, it's harder to escape the shadow of over-familiarity. You don't need Dracula for a vampire story, but the phantom kind of has to be in the opera. If you want a more horrific handling of the material, you'll need to re-visit one of the older movies.

Lon Chaney plays the phantom in the 1925 silent adaptation. Mary Philbin is Christine, the understudy who becomes the star thanks to the phantom's obsession with her, and Norman Kerry is her betrothed, Raoul. Those three comprise the tragic love story at the heart of The Phantom of the Opera, and the question stands: will Christine choose love with (the boring) Raoul and risk the phantom's retribution or will she accept the devil-incarnate's bargain of fame and success at the cost of being his slave?

Chaney was likely the first great horror movie star, paving the way for the likes Lugosi, Karloff, Lee, Cushing, and Price (interestingly, he was pegged to star in Dracula before his death, which paved the way for Lugosi's iconic interpretation that would define the cinematic vampire for decades). I don't know whether Chaney could have successfully transitioned from the silent era to talkies, but as the phantom, he didn't a voice. Entirely through body language, gesture, and makeup of his creation (the Man of a 1,000 Faces as he was known grew up with deaf parents and had to communicate non-verbally with them), he creates an unforgettable portrait of theatrical madness and villainy.

The phantom is all over the map: twisted, tortured, hopeful, enraged, lamenting, insane, domineering, lonely, sardonic, and calculating. Whether racing through the bowels of the theater, perched on a concrete angel statue, or playing the organ, he is just compulsively watchable; he really makes you feel everything he's going through. Sometimes all we get is a glimpse, a shadow on the wall or a passing figure in a coat in a crowd - but it's enough to sell his presence and his dark threat. At the end, when trapped by the requisite mob with pitchforks, he holds them at by acting like he's got something in his hand before laughing, revealing he has nothing. Without Chaney, the movie is a just a silly costume drama.

There are a few nifty images in The Phantom of the Opera - the phantom's unmasking by Christine, the labyrinth of tunnels that lead to a river underneath the theater, the shadow of a dead man dangling from a noose. Like Nosferatu there is an element of German Expressionism in the movie's visual style. While the stage itself looks realistic, the underground lair beneath it, with all its enormous statues and endless maze of tunnels, is a surreal dungeon. Another nice image occurs when Raoul and a detective descend into the dungeon in pursuit of the phantom, and they are warned off by a stranger who walks by them, lit only be a lantern, giving us the impression of a disembodied head.

But I'm not sure the material lends itself to a silent movie. A movie set in an opera and featuring performances, especially ones in which the quality of the singers' voices are imperative to the plot, needs to let us hear them (and the stock music on my DVD is inappropriate and destroys any sense of mood or atmosphere). I'm not saying I prefer the musical, but when the story involves how the phantom trains Christine to be the best singer in Paris and considering how so much horror could be conveyed by his voice (instead of inter-titles asking "Did you hear voices?"), the silent format feels limiting. Plus, there are too many title cards explaining the plot, the characters, and the themes instead of telling the story visually.

Overall, there are much better silent horror movies from this period. Maybe the story has been overdone, but it's really hard to take this story seriously anymore. Except for the phantom, the other characters are laughably simplistic and dull, but for Chaney's performance, truly one of the most iconic of the genre, it is worth seeing.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Little Shop of Horrors

It's not one of my favorite movies, but I enjoy Little Shop of Horrors, the musical directed by Frank Oz and starring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin. The songs are catchy, the characters are fun, the man-eating is inventively realized, and there's an underlying sweetness and charm to it.

The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) is the original movie by B-Movie king Roger Corman that inspired the off-Broadway musical, which in turn inspired the Oz movie. It's a stripped down, cheap, black-and-white feature: no songs, no elaborate special effects, and the only name actors in it are Dick Miller and a then-unknown Jack Nicholson as a masochistic dental patient (who's only in one scene and yet is featured prominently on all the modern advertising for it). Corman reportedly filmed it in two days on a budget of $27,000 (there's a reason he made hundreds of movies and never lost a dime.). It's a dark comedy, more cynical than the musical that followed, but it is modestly entertaining. I prefer the musical, but sometimes it's interesting to go back and look at the original seed of an idea before it blossomed into a beautiful flower.

Seymour (Jonathan Haze) is on the verge of being fired from the Skid Row flower shop he works at when he presents his boss, Mr. Mushnick (Mel Welles), a strange, new, Venus flytrap-like plant. The new plant, named Audrey Junior - after the co-worker (Jackie Joseph) the nerdy Seymour has a crush on - is a hit with the public, and the shop's business begins to grow. But what no else but Seymour realizes is that the plant is carnivorous; it feeds on blood at first, and it isn't long before the plant starts munching on people.

Somehow, the original version of Little Shop of Horrors manages to be sillier than the musical but not as funny. My main problem with it is Haze, who might as well have been Gilligan for all the dopey clumsiness he brings to the role, and it gets irritating after a while. Moranis' Seymour was a nerd and a wimp but still pretty lovable, but Haze, I just wanted to slap him. The rest of the cast is OK, but the scene stealer is Nicholson, obviously, as the patient who prefers drills without Novocaine, but he's only around for one scene.

The plotting is also looser here than in the musical, which is odd because this version is the shorter film. Steve Martin played the deranged dentist in the musical, and he was also Audrey's abusive, motorcycle-riding boyfriend, but here, the dentist is just a weird customer of the plant shop that Seymour visits for a toothache, and they end up fighting with drills and Seymour stabs him. Knowing what I know about Corman, I wouldn't be surprised if the only reason there's a dentist in this movie is because Corman had access to the props. Dick Miller also turns up in a role of little consequence, only around to eat the flowers he buys.

The movie is also a bit darker than I expected. The first victim fed to Audrey Jr. isn't the evil dentist but an innocent bystander that Seymour accidentally murders by knocking him into an oncoming train. Later, he also murders a prostitute to use as plant food. Maybe this is why I don't find this particular Seymour all that endearing or sympathetic. More likable is the blustery Mushnick, who is horrified by what Seymour does, but in a pinch, he feeds an armed robber to the plant.

Still, for a cheap B-movie, there's fun to be had. I've always been a fan of these type of Faustian stories, and the plant itself, while obviously not as elaborate as the 80s version, works in a hokey way. It looks like a puppet on a table top and really doesn't move much apart from opening and closing its mouth, but the film does a good job with it. If you can't enjoy the sight of a wimp stuffing dismembered body parts down the gullet of a man-eating plant, then you already know this movie isn't for you.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Eaten Alive

With the writers, director, and star of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; a deranged motel owner who feeds guests to his pet crocodile; Morticia Addams as the madam of a bordello; and Robert Englund as a redneck obsessed with anal sex, Eaten Alive (1977) is unsurprisingly a grindhouse picture, the kind of movie that forces you to wash your hands after picking up the DVD. It's undeniably sleazy, violent, and crude. What is surprising is just how boring it is, a plotless mess that goes nowhere and regurgitates the elements that made Chain Saw a success.

Eaten Alive was Tobe Hoopers's followup to his groundbreaking hit from a few years prior, and he is reunited with that film's co-writer Kin Henkel and star Marilyn Burns. He's also joined by a number of recognizable (or soon to be) Hollywood character actors and stars including Carolyn Jones, Englund, Mel Ferrer, Stuart Whitman, and Neville Brand. There's also the Phantom of the Paradise himself, William Finley, as well as Janus Blythe, one of the family members from The Hills Have Eyes.

Instead of a family of cannibals in the Texas countryside, the movie has Brand as Judd, the loony owner of the Starlight Hotel in a decrepit area of the Louisiana Bayou who murders pretty much anyone who stays at his place (so much for repeat business) and dumps what's left of them in the pit where he keeps his pet crocodile, a foam rubber creation the movie does a decent job of hiding and suggesting, but it is pretty fake-looking when we do see it.

Like Chain Saw, Eaten Alive's narrative unfolds over the course of a single day/night, but the earlier movie concerns one group of friends stumbling into a spiral of madness and macabre and has the gritty credibility of a documentary, and the followup feature feels contrived and melodramatic. Over the course of one night, we get a runaway prostitute, the prostitute's sister and dying father who have been searching for her, a family on the lam from something, a little girl's dog, the amiable sheriff, the hick looking to get laid, and the prostitute house. It's hard to buy that all these people would stumble on Judd's middle-of-nowhere motel over the course of a few hours and that all would have their own little soap operas going on.

The big issue is the nature of the performances. In a word, they're batty. In several words, they're loud, hysterical, over-the-top, shrill, campy, and completely insane. Pretty much every character is a screaming, frothing-at-the-mouth lunatic, even the ostensibly normal characters. We expect Judd to be off his rocker, and he certainly is bizarre: muttering incoherent monologues, chasing people with scythes and rakes, lurking around on a wooden leg, giggling and hopping up and down when his beloved pet gets a meal. The problem is a little goes a long way. Too much time is spent watching him act weird without a whole lot happening, and like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, he's obviously bonkers from the very first time we see him, leaving him with nowhere to take the performance, and it gets tiring.

Everyone else is crazy and loud, too. The nuttiest of the meat on the hook is Finley who barks at his young daughter after her dog gets eaten, rants about extinguishing cigarettes in people's eyes, and argues with his wife Burns over a backstory we never understand or care to. Scenes of would-be suspense and horror are constantly undermined by the droning soundtrack, and constant shouting and screaming.

There is an overall weirdness that you'd think would make the movie more compelling. Judd's motel is on a stage-bound set, constantly shrouded in mist and bathed in hazy red and orange lights creating a claustrophobic, other-worldly atmosphere. It's an unglamorous look at the American backwoods, the kind of movie that shows us a monkey in a cage dropping dead. The movie is filled with random weird shit like that, but there's no reason to care about of any of it. There are no sympathetic characters to root for and little of the artistry Hooper and company brought to Chain Saw.

Trivia: Englund opens the movie by saying, "Name's Buck. I'm raring to fuck." Just in case you were wondering where Quentin Taratino got that line.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Hellraiser

With Hellraiser (1987), the feature film debut of director Clive Barker (who based the movie off his novella The Hellbound Heart), Pinhead, leader of the deformed Cenobites, joined the ranks of Freddy Kruger and Jason Voorhies as one of the most memorable horror movie villains to emerge in the decade. In retrospect, it's kind of ironic because a) he's only in a handful of scenes, and b) he's not really the villain.

Yes, Pinhead (played by the impressive Doug Bradley) does some awful things to people in this movie (torture, mutilation, and other party favorites at my family reunions), but he and his coterie are more dispassionate observers than active participants, impartial judges who enforce the rules, amoral scientists who explore the boundaries of flesh and sensation. And unlike Freddy, who enjoys killing, and Jason, a silent brute, Pinhead and his buddies can be reasoned with. If you know what they want, you can strike a bargain with them, but it does come with a price.

The real villains of the piece are not the demonic, graphically-distorted Cenobites but a pair of twisted lovers: Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman in human form, Oliver Smith in non-human form) and Julia (Clare Higgins), who is married to Frank's brother Larry (Andrew Robinson). When he solves the riddle of the mysterious Lament Configuration, a puzzle box that promises untold sensations for its users, Frank is literally torn to pieces by the hooks and chains of the Cenobites. They take what's left of him to Hell.

Meanwhile, Larry and Julia move into an old family house, and after Larry bleeds on a bedroom floor, Julia finds the sentient, skeletal remains of her lover. Frank needs more blood and flesh to regain his human form, and it must be done before Cenobites find him, so Julia lures men to the room where she murders them. But when Larry's daughter from another marriage, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), acquires the Lament Configuration, all Hell breaks loose.

Hellraiser centers on a perverse love triangle. While many horror films, especially those in the 80s, are fundamentally survival stories - characters trapped with a killer or killers who pick them off one at a time - Barker's film, while luridly gory and violent, functions as a character-based drama, and in some ways, it could be categorized as a tragedy, since it is the flaws of these characters, especially their arrogance and (blood)lust, that lead to their downfall. Frank is the mortal man who thinks he's experienced everything human pleasure has to offer, and in his arrogance and boredom, he summons up a force beyond his comprehension. Julia commits adultery (a flashback shows she and Frank passionately made love on her wedding dress), and because her husband can't satisfy her, she commits murder to resurrect the man who can do it for her. Then there's Larry, a relative innocent but something of a pushover, so trusting, so oblivious, so doomed.

The Cenobites are on the periphery of this drama. They don't care who's screwing who or who gets off on what; they are so detached from human experience, pleasure and pain are all the same to them. They merely explore the limits of the flesh of the people they take, the fools who open the Lament Configuration. The Cenobites arrive when summoned by the box, and when they do, they take whoever opened it, whether it's the vile Frank or the naive Kirsty, who has no idea of the Lament Configuration's true nature.

"The box. You opened it. We came," Pinhead bellows. When Kirsty, crying, begs not to be taken, he chides her. "Oh, no tears, please. It's a waste of good suffering." This is the point when Kirsty, remembering all she has seen, offers the Cenobites Frank in her place. Pinhead sounds peeved to learn anyone has escape him; he tells Kirsty maybe they'll spare her in return for Frank, but if she tries to cheat them, they'll tear her soul apart.

Barker, who had already established himself as a writer by this point, demonstrates raw talent behind the camera, packing the film with graphic, unforgettable imagery: the hooks that shoot of the air and sink into tender flesh, the telltale signs (and sound cues) of creeping shadows that announce the arrival of the Cenobites, the Cenobites themselves. Everyone knows Pinhead, with his pale head crisscrossed by all the nails embedded in his skull, but there's also Butterball, a rotund creature with sagging folds and stitched-up eyes, and Chatterer, whose lips are pulled back by wires so his teeth are always clapping together. Barker also packs in his expected lurid sexual themes and ideas. In one kinky if bloody moment, Julia sucks on Frank's finger, even though it lacks skin.

The underfed Frank creature looks creepy, even though efforts to make it look skeletal only add to the actor's bulk. There's also a giant snake-like creature that chases Kirsty at one point, but its effect is undone because we can see some of the crew pushing it.

Christopher Young contributes a nice, atmospheric soundtrack (which White Zombie sampled in one of its songs). Barker only directed two features after this (plus a music video for Motorhead), and that's a shame because he demonstrates a willingness to break taboos and push boundaries. A lot of his work has been adapted, some very well (Candyman) and some poorly (Rawhead Rex). Hellraiser is one of the best.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

White Zombie

With a name like Murder Legendre, Bela Lugosi must be playing the bad guy in White Zombie (1932). I guess the filmmakers thought calling him Villain McNasty was too on the nose.

Regarded as the first zombie movie ever, White Zombie predates the rotting, flesh-eating ghouls we've become accustomed to since Night of the Living Dead, and instead, it presents us with the Voodoo zombies of Haiti, the mindless slaves who perform the bidding of an evil master, their wills totally destroyed. And in much the same way a certain Mario Bava film gave Black Sabbath its name, so did this movie inspire another heavy metal band, the one that gave us Rob Zombie. How's that for a legacy?

An engaged couple, Neil and Madeline, in Haiti takes a carriage ride to the estate of their friend, Charles Beaumont, who has offered to host the wedding. Beaumont is in love with the bride-to-be, and in desperation, he turns to the aforementioned Murder Legendre, who has a plantation that he mans with the walking dead. Legendre gives Beaumont the zombie powder to use on Madeline so she'll be subservient to his will, and she seemingly dies after the wedding. Neil and a local missionary track them all Legendre's mountain castle, where Beaumont realizes that making the woman you love a zombie probably isn't the best idea.

There is one really great visual in White Zombie. Beaumont arrives at Legendre's sugar mill, and all the workers are zombies. They shuffle mindlessly, emotionless, one endless line dropping harvest into a machine while other ghouls push a wheel to grind it. One zombie stumbles into the grinder, but the process continues uninterrupted. It's such a creepy, unforgettable image, the normalization and exploitation of the monsters by a human master. It's like stepping into the underworld, a vision straight out of Hell.

A few other images approach the sublime of the sugar mill. Legendre has a pack of zombies that serve as his attack dogs, and they pick up one poor bastard and dump him into the moat where he apparently drowns (The movie is a bit vague on that point. If someone ever does a remake, the zombies ought to dump someone in a vat of boiling sugar.). The bride's funeral and her subsequent removal from her tomb by Legendre and his ghouls has an effective eeriness. The film also shows the agony of Beaumont as he slowly turns into a zombie himself, and you have to enjoy a villain who turns his enemies into his mindless slaves.

White Zombie also pushes into taboo territory. Beaumont finds himself unable to love the zombified Madeline, even though she still possesses her beauty. Without her mind and soul, she's not the same person, he says. One only wonders how he, and possibly Legendre, had his way with her before he came to his conclusion. It's not spelled out, but I think we can assume that the thought of having sex with her crossed his mind, and it's even possible that he did try something with her. I doubt Legendre would have any qualms about it. Clearly, it would be rape if he had, but I wonder if it's necrophilia.

The underlying material of White Zombie is very solid, but the execution is mixed. Apart from Lugosi, who's his usual hambone self complete with accent and stares (now with a unibrow) - the acting is terrible, dated, stagy, poor even by 1930s standards. The movie runs one hour and five minutes in length, but it drags when it lingers on the dopey romance of Neil and Madeline; they're so boring, and the movie jumps right in before we get a chance to get to know them. Plus, I'm not sure why they agree to get married at Beaumont's plantation when the impression I got is they both don't know him that well. Beaumont's love for Madeline, which should be the tragic crux of the movie, is barely shown; we're told he loves her when he goes to Legendre, and the only honest attempt of his to woo her occurs as he's walking her down the aisle. I don't know if my copy of the film is missing scenes or if these important character scenes were ever made.

I would love to see a remake of White Zombe. The Romero zombies (albeit sped up) have been in vogue for decades now, with only the occasional Voodoo zombie movie that a throwback could work. There are some buried ideas and concepts here that a new version would have more freedom to explore. For a 1930s movie, there is some twisted subject matter, including, in an implied way, necrophilia. Someone with a dark imagination could really hit one out of the park. The makers of this one mostly settled for another Dracula.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Carnival of Souls

So many movies, especially in the fantasy and horror genre, are described as "dream-like," but Carnival of Souls (1962) might be one of the only movies that accurately fits that description. A low-budget, black-and-white effort filmed in Kansas with a cast of unknowns, it is nevertheless a surreal, unsettling examination of mortality and the inevitable nature of death. It's rough on the edges and a few parts border on camp, but what it is not is a formulaic slasher, ghost, or monster movie.

The sole survivor of a drag race that ends with a car going off a bridge, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) accepts a job in a new town as a church organist. However, ever since the accident, weird things have been happening. Occasionally, Mary finds herself unable to hear or speak with the people around her, and for some reason, she finds herself drawn to an abandoned, derelict carnival. Most unnervingly, a nameless ghoul (the film's director Herk Harvey) is pursuing her, appearing on the road while she's driving, outside the window of her apartment, and even in the mirror behind her. But no one else seems to see him.

Carnival of Souls might very well be the first "Surprise! You're Dead!" movie (if there are any that precede this one, I'd be curious). As you can probably infer from the plot summary above, Mary did not survive the crash into the river (the final shot shows her cold, lifeless body still in her seat, half-submerged). Somehow, for a time, she is granted a reprieve, a temporary release from the cold, dark clutches of death, but it is not for long. Death, in the form of ghouls, follows her everywhere, appearing without rhyme or reason, and she's not sure if she's being haunted or going crazy. In the end, the last vestiges of her life are squeezed out, silenced by death's hand, and as dying shadow in a world of lights, Mary sees her world become irrational and frightening, a waking nightmare.

Movies about nightmares usually establish some kind of ground rules, so that even in the dream world, there is some kind of logic that can be followed. Look at A Nightmare on Elm Street: Freddy is the dream demon, and when his victims are asleep, he is free to do whatever he wants to them. He can kill them, transform himself and them, and reshape reality however he wants. After all, it is the dream world, not governed by real world sciences or laws. When they're awake, he has no power over them.

Carnival of Souls eschews any sort of logic or rules, and instead, the movie constantly keeps us off balance. Scenes melt into each other without any transition; we begin in one location when suddenly we're in another. Once, at her apartment, Mary closes the door on a ghoul, and almost immediately, she opens it to reveal her landlady, who of course saw no one else. Other times, when Mary is playing at the organ or looking off in the distant at the carnival, she'll see entirely separate scenes that physically don't match up to the location she's at: ghouls rising out the water and dancing among merry-go-round. Wherever she goes, the nightmare can follow and replace her reality; death will not be denied its target.

The film contains a number of creepy, memorable images. The ghoul's first appearance is in the middle of the road at night, lit up only by the headlights of Mary's car. Harvey also uses fast-motion photography on the dance of the dead, suggesting something otherworldly about it. The best shot (which George Romero used in Land of the Dead) shows the ghouls lying underwater and eventually rising out of the river, front and center as they approach the camera. The makeup on the ghouls is not especially freaky or complex, but like in Night of the Living Dead, it's just enough to let you know there's something wrong about these people but you're not sure what, and in this case, it adds to the aura of mystery.

For the most part, the movie covers its low-budget roots well, turning its limitations into strengths, but the narrative is a bit repetitious after a while, and some of the acting is amateurish. From a technical standpoint, the sound mix is weak, with the dialogue sometimes too quiet and the background, static noise too loud. Carnival of Souls lacks polish, but it makes up for it with creepy visuals and an unrelenting feeling of dread.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Carrie

As far as remakes of Stephen King movies that nobody was clamoring for, Carrie (2013) could have been worse. It's not good, but it's not terrible. Despite a few changes to some details and some minor additions, nothing is really done to distinguish this take from Brian De Palma's original version. It's an update that doesn't update much.

The remake hits the same points as the original. Carrie White (now played by Chloe Grace Moretz) is the much abused, telekinetic girl with a radically Christian mother Margaret (Julianne Moore). Classmate Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde), feeling guilty over her cruelty toward Carrie, convinces her boyfriend Tommy (Ansel Egort) to take her to the prom. Meanwhile, a cruel prank planned by Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday) and her boyfriend Billy (Alex Russell) involving pig's blood causes Carrie to snap and exact a terrible vengeance with her powers.

Let's start with the positives. The actors playing the high school students actually look like teenagers and not 20-somethings playing teens like in the original. The screenplay includes some updates such as cellphone video footage and cyberbullying (Chris creates a fake web profile that mocks Carrie for her first period in the gym locker room). The relationship between Carrie and her mother is a bit more nuanced; Margaret is only overblown on occasion, and the two have some quiet moments and attempted tender, and their relationship has more give and take and is not just a cartoon monster dominating our innocent heroine. We also get to meet Chris' father, who threatens a lawsuit if his "good girl" is suspended and barred from attending prom, giving us a hint of the spoiled, consequence-free upbringing she's had that made her the cruel person she is.

Sadly, these nice touches are mostly for an effort that really doesn't add up to much. I'm not a big fan of the original Carrie, but even I'll admit it has more energy, impact, and edginess than this. True, the young actors might look the appropriate age, but they're bland and not memorable in the slightest. In the original, the characters were one-dimensional stereotypes, but they were enlivened by the performers, even if they were hard to take seriously; these new actors just aren't as charismatic as Amy Irving, Nancy Allen, or John Travolta. The set pieces in the original - Margaret forcing Carrie into the closet, the menstruation in the locker room, the breaking of the mirror, the prom - are revisited but not in any way that makes them comparable to the original or even able to stand out in their own way.

Take the prom scene. De Palma used extensive slow motion, a spinning camera, and split screen to tell the story visually. It feels dream-like, and the use of split-screen, showing Carrie's unblinking eyes and the effects of her powers, was unusually effective and intense. Here, director Kimberly Peirce doesn't use any inventive cinematic techniques, instead counting on the special effects, which are now bigger and bolder, to carry the scene, and it's not as effective.

Which brings me to my main criticism: the role of Carrie. In my opinion, the difference between a good performance and a great performance is this: with a good performance, you're still aware that it's a performance, and with a great performance, you forget about the actor and only think of the character. Sissy Spacek carries the original film; she was Carrie White, so convincingly fragile, vulnerable, and yet endearing. When she finally stood up to her mother, it felt like she was finally coming out a suffocating shell for the first time. It was heartbreaking when things played out the way they did. When she burns down her prom and strikes back at her tormentors, she stands ramrod straight, occasionally cocking her head, her eyes open wide. Ironically, she seemed helpless as a horrible power flowed through her and manifested in this horrible way.


Meanwhile, Moretz, a promising young genre actor of recent years, gesticulates wildly, throws her arms around, and lets all the fury and bloodlust show on her face during the remake's prom; she's made to act almost like an avenging witch, and again, I don't want to belabor the point, but it's not as effective. Moretz's Carrie is a character I'm always aware has an actor behind her; the wallflower meekness, pain, and fear aren't as convincing. She's just too pretty, too determined, and too strong as Carrie.

Despite the minor details I mentioned about websites and cellphones, not much else about Carrie has been updated. Considering we live in a post-Columbine world, the world of King's novel feels old-fashioned - i.e. that missing prom is the worst thing that can happen to a high school girl - and this adaptation feels tame. The characters and scenarios are still cartoons, and the story doesn't tap into the anxieties and fears we have today about schools and students. Peirce previously directed Boys Don't Cry, about the life and murder of Brandon Teena, and that film dealt so intensely and honestly about the plight of an outsider who doesn't fit in with society and the cruelty of that person's tormentors, so I was intrigued when she was announced as the director of this remake. The result is just the latest project of the Stephen King brand.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Night of the Hunter

Many horror movies and thrillers today strive for realism. The found-footage style, in which what we see is ostensibly recorded by the characters in the story, are common; movies are praised for being raw and gritty; special effects that are obviously fake, no matter how inventive or stylish, are considered flaws; and when characters behave in ways not considered realistic, the audience screams at those "stupid" people who make it impossible to take a movie seriously.

The Night of the Hunter (1955) is not a movie that strives for realism. It's a thriller, for sure, but it's not concerned with being credible or gritty. It's highly stylized, and even though there are no explicitly supernatural events, it has the feelings of a very grim fairy tale. Even though the imperiled protagonists are young children, this is not a children's movie, and in fact, it's downright twisted, almost perverse.

While in prison for stealing a car, "The Rev." Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a self-proclaimed preacher, learns from a condemned robber (Peter Graves) that he has hidden $10,000 with his wife Willa (Shelley Winters) and two young children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). When he's released, Powell works in his way in to the lives of the family, charming his way in and even marrying Willa to learn where the money is hidden. After murdering Willa and threatening the children, he learns the money is tucked inside Willa's doll, but John, who promised his father to protect Willa, leads her away, and they flee downriver, where they eventually fall in with Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a devout old woman with a flock of children under her care.

The Night of the Hunter has a lot of elements. It's a crime story and a mystery; it's about religious shame and hypocrisy and personal guilt; it has the visual trappings of a film noir; the two children's trials and tribulations are reminiscent of Hansel and Gretal's; and the salvation and hope provided by Rachel Cooper feels like something out of a Depression-era drama. It's hard to categorize because it's all of these things.

The tone of the picture is dark, even today when looking back on a movie from the 1950s. Children are orphaned and threatened with murder themselves. The black-and-white photography is stark, drawing on the German Expression evident in other film noir, so there are a lot of dark shadows, deep blacks, and harsh lights. When Powell prepares to murder Willa in their bedroom and threatens the children in the basement, the film pulls back the frame, showing the entire rooms surrounded by all encompassing black, do we can appreciate how trapped Powell's victims are. Even his first encounter with the children - a massive shadow of his hat-covered head falling across John through the window - tells us how dark his intentions for the family are.

This "reverend" is a piece of work all right. With "Love" and "Hate" tattooed on his knuckles, he knows enough religious talk to charm the people who can't see through his lies, and his charming exterior hides a real monster and brute. Just before he's arrested for the car theft, he's watching a dancer on stage, and he flips his switchblade knife out through his pocket (Freud would have something interesting to say about that compulsion). Other hints suggest he's murdered many other women, and when he thinks no one's around, he threatens the children.

The film is loaded with unforgettable images: Willa, dead, tied to her car, and underwater;  Powell standing above Willa, knife out, ready to do the deed; John waking up in the barn and looking out to see a small but familiar black figure on horseback riding across the horizon. That last item suggests nightmare logic; John and Pearl have been floating endlessly down river while Powell merely has his horse move at an ambling trot. No matter how fast they go, he's always right behind them, a real boogeyman in sheep's clothing.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Rosemary's Baby

What an ironic title for Rosemary's Baby (1968), even if it is accurate. Yes, it is Rosemary's baby at the center of everything, and she most definitely is it's mother, but what's astounding is how little say she has in the matter. From her husband to her doctor to her nosy neighbors, everyone has got an opinion about what's best for Rosemary's baby (what's best for her is never really considered, whether it be physical pain or the emotional wringer she goes through) and what she must do during her pregnancy; they all act like it's theirs. That almost all these people are part of a Satan-worshiping coven that using Rosemary to breed the Antichrist is almost beside the point.

Rosemary's Baby, or as I like to think of it, the movie one should never show a pregnant woman (along with Inside or It's Alive), is based on a novel by Ira Levin and directed by Roman Polanski (and produced by schlockmeister showman William Castle), and it's a horror movie that for the longest time doesn't feel like one. It begins as a story about a young couple who move into a new apartment, deal with some kooky new neighbors, and decide to have a baby. The horror elements creep in gradually, slowly. The movie takes its time establishing a believable, realistic setting and characters, so that when the screws begin to turn, they feel that much tighter, and when the ending is reached, it feels like a nightmare come true.

The young couple are Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes), and the overly friendly neighbors are Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer). Guy is a struggling actor, but after the person who got a big role ahead of him mysteriously goes blind, Guy gets the part. Soon, he and Rosemary decide to have a baby, although the conception is not as romantic as Rosemary had in mind, what with the blacking out, freaky dreams of begin raped by a demon-like man in front of a group of naked people, and Guy's revelation the morning after that he ... took certain advantages.

But Rosemary is pregnant and excited and nervous and all the other states one associates with the impending role of motherhood. The Castevets take a keen interest in her pregnancy, making her special vitamin drinks, setting her up with a doctor friend of theirs, and generally butting into her life. After a while, Rosemary becomes convinced a group of warlocks and witches are plotting to take her baby when he/she is born and that Guy might be complicit, but the truth is far worse. Guy's not the father; Satan is.

I just gave away the entire plot of the movie, but I don't feel too bad about it. I mean it is nearly fifty years old, and the surprise twists and revelations are widely known, even among people who haven't seen the movie. But Rosemary's Baby is not one of those movies ruined by the foreknowledge of what's going to happen; like the sense of impending doom, knowing what horrible things are going to occur makes them all the more horrible because we, like Rosemary herself, are helpless to stop them.

Recently, I watched The Devil's Due, a found-footage take on this sub-genre I've seen it referred to semi-affectionatley as "The Devil, Your Child, and You," and it was pretty weak. A boring couple goes through a pregnancy, and occasionally something grotesque or ominous happens (always front and center for the camera via splattery, in-your-face special effects). The success of Rosemary's Baby is how it manages to take all those emotions and experiences of being pregnant - the excitement, the nervousness, the fear, the people who mean well and are always offering advice for what they think is best for you, trips to the doctor, questions about diet and routine - and turns them on their head, and the result is a paranoid, foreboding, and disorienting narrative in which you're not entirely sure whether something evil really is afoot as Rosemary suspects or if she's just imagining things because she's tired, confused, and hysterical.

Rosemary's Baby is a horror thriller, but there are no slashers stalking in the shadows, zombies rising from their graves to eat people, or even for that matter many jump scares. Even the witches and warlocks, far from dawning cloaks and cackling madly from broomsticks, are presented as fairly ordinary people, neighbors you recognize and like. The horror stems from Rosemary's dawning realization of how trapped she is; everywhere she turns, someone she thought could help her ends up but in league with the coven.

The real horror is not being in control of your life. Rosemary is denied choice in just about every decision about her pregnancy, from when and how to conceive to what doctor she sees (when she tells Guy she wants a second opinion, he tells her it wouldn't be fair to the current doc), what she drinks, and where she goes. Attempts to take control back or assert herself are met with mockery (the reactions to her new haircut), condescending responses (doctor knows best), and threats (locking her away in an insane asylum is mentioned as a possibility).

Performances are uniformly great. Farrow is appropriately fragile and vulnerable, and Cassevetes, well in a movie featuring Satan and his followers, he plays arguably the most loathsome character, a man who sells out his wife to the ultimate evil for his career; buried beneath the surface, though, you can sense he has some guilt about what he's done. The best performances are by Gordon and Blackmer, so convincing as both the friendly next-door neighbors who are annoying (her) and charming (him) and yet sinister when revealed as agents of the devil.