Thursday, August 31, 2017

Top Secret!

With Top Secret! (1984), the creative team of Zucker Abrahams and Zucker do to World War 2 spy films and Elvis movies what they did to disaster movies in Airplane! and what they would end up doing to cop movies with The Naked Gun: they lampoon the Hell out of the cliches, pack in as many corny gags as humanly possible, and throw at the audience a million gags a minute.

Val Kilmer plays Nick Rivers, a rock-n-roll star who crosses the Iron Curtain for a show in East Germany. Once there, he stumbles on a plot involving the German secret police, a missing scientist (Michael Gough), and a beautiful resistance member (Lucy Gutteridge), and before he knows it, Nick's on the run, at least when he doesn't stop for a song and dance number.

Who cares about the plot? It's as silly as you can imagine, and really, it's almost pointless to review a movie like this. You either laugh or you don't. I laughed quite a bit. Maybe not as much as I did during Airplane! or The Naked Gun, but in a post-Austin Powers world, in which the spy movie has been spoofed to death and this type of parody film is not new anymore, maybe Top Secret! isn't as fresh as it was 1980s, but it's still pretty funny.

If the movie lacks anything, it's probably Leslie Nielsen or maybe Robert Stack, actors capable of going overly serious and stone-faced as all the wacky hijinks go on around them. That's not to say Kilmer et al. aren't fun, but I do get the sense they're in on the joke, winking at the audience as if they know just how ridiculous everyone and everything is. These spoof movies work better when the actors don't seem to realize they're being funny.

At one point, Nick says to his beloved, "Listen to me, Hillary. I'm not the first guy who fell in love with a woman that he met at a restaurant who turned out to be the daughter of a kidnapped scientist, only to lose her to her childhood lover who she last saw on a deserted island, who then turned out fifteen years later to be the leader of the French underground."

"I know," she replies. "It all sounds like some bad movie."

Awkward silence. Both of them look at the camera before continuing the scene, and to be fair, that exchange generates a laugh.

The movie's too good-natured and irreverent to dislike. It's filled to the brim with sight gags, one-liners, and pot shots at other movies. This is the kind of movie that finds time to parody The Wizard of Oz and The Blue Lagoon. The French Resistance members have names such as Deja Vu ("Have we met before?"), Chocolate Mousse (the black member), and Latrine (who is always stumbling in wounded with the latest news).

There's plenty of lowbrow humor. A couple of resistance members sneak into a German base disguised as a cow, and it gets awkward when a bull turns up. When Hillary is reunited with her childhood lover, she measures both his bulging biceps and ... um... something else below the waist and off camera.

Top Secret! also has a couple of song and dance numbers. Early on, Nick gets the old, classical German musicians to start a-rockin' and a-rollin', and during another song at an out-of-the-way diner, some of the men dancing on tables are spinning their dates in the air. The dates are clearly rag-doll dummies, but that kind of hokiness is part of the charm.

It's hard to add more without giving away the best lines and gags. It's a dumb movie, but Top Secret! passes the important test: it's funny, and it doesn't overstay its welcome. Plenty of times, you'll have a perfect idea where a joke is heading, but you'll still laugh.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Eraserhead

?

...

?

...

Those question marks and ellipses are the typed equivalent of me opening my mouth, whilst raising my index finger decisively, to say something before realizing I have nothing to say and closing my mouth.

I have no idea where to begin with Eraserhead (1977), the debut of director David Lynch. It's managed to attract some big name fans; Mel Brooks hired Lynch to direct The Elephant Man after seeing it, and George Lucas offered him Return of the Jedi. Plus, the black-and-white image of star Jack Nance, with his poofed-up hair and blank expression, has entered the pop culture lexicon and is a fairly recognized image, even among those who have never seen the movie.

Eraserhead doesn't feel like a "real" movie but an abstract collage of scenes and imagery that leave me baffled. I can't say I like it, but I can't dismiss it. It plays like a strange dream where the bizarre is accepted as normal, perspectives and characters are skewed, and there are no boundaries between reality and fantasy.

The movie is ... about (kind of, sort of, not really, I don't know) Henry Spencer (Nance), a printer on vacation who is told his girlfriend Mary X. (Charlotte Stewart) has given birth to a baby. The baby might not be human, and its endless crying drives Mary away, leaving Henry alone to take care of it.

That's the simplest summary I can come up with. That doesn't begin to cover it.

Henry lives in this strange, industrial nightmare of a setting. Is this a contemporary place? A post-apocalyptic future? Lynch shows us very little of it. It might very well be its one self-contained, little world. It's stark and bleak, and against this background, Henry looks small and weak.

Meanwhile, the baby looks freaky, bird-like and reptilian. It doesn't do much except lay their and cry, a rather pathetic creature all things considered, but why is it like that? Mary's mother says it was premature, but that wouldn't explain anything. Is it a mutant? Is it human? Is it real? Is any of the movie real or is just Henry's dream? Someone else's dream?

Uncomfortable. That's the second best adjective for Eraserhead. Between the long, unbroken takes, the endless bleating of the baby (and its deformity), the jarring transitions, the use of noise on the soundtrack, the weirdly sexual imagery, the bizarre behavior of the characters, and the black and white photography, Lynch denies us anything warm or comfortable.

Then, there are the sequences that don't seem to fit in the narrative at all except on an abstract, symbolic level: the man at the machine levers, the woman (whose face is ravaged by tumors) in the radiator singing on stage, Henry's head floating in the cosmos with sperm-like shapes superimposed over him, to speak nothing of the ending. I don't know if anything is resolved, nothing is resolved, or if there was anything to resolve in the first place. Are these dreams, hallucinations, or something else entirely? I don't know if anything in the movie can be taken literally.

The images are hard to forget. They repulsive and nightmarish, but in their own way, kind of beautiful in their starkness and bleakness. At times, the movie provokes a laugh. The level of discomfort generated gets raised so far that it crosses the line into humorous.

More than anything else, Eraserhead is a demonstration, a demonstration of who Lynch is and what his talents are. He shows he can craft eerie imagery and manipulate the emotions of an audience with a variety of film techniques. At times, I think he finds reactions to his debut to be funny, so maybe he's just pulling our leg by being as obtuse and confusing as possible. The movie moves incredibly slow; not much happens from a narrative perspective, and it's easy to lose patience.

Eraserhead is like the most accomplished and disturbing student film of all time.

The Texas Chainsaw Tribute

As I'm wont to do, I search the internet about directors I like, including Tobe Hooper. One article keeps popping up: "The failed career of Tobe Hooper" at Idlermag.com from 2010. The article is not uninteresting, but the title always took me aback.

Really, "failed career?" The director of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, one of the most influential horror films of all time? The director of Salem's Lot, the first Stephen King miniseries? The man Steven Spielberg recruited to helm to PoltergeistThe filmmaker responsible for so many gonzo, enjoyable, and downright batshit insane cult horror and science fiction movies? Sure, he never reached the heights of a Spielberg, but who said we wanted him to?

I'm afraid these types of posts are becoming a habit. Various news outlets are reporting Hooper died on August 26 at the age of 74. Another master of horror has left us.

Most conversations about Hooper begin and end with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and I don't blame anyone for that. It's justifiably one of the most famous, controversial, taboo-shattering, and imitated movies of all time, horror genre or otherwise.

But I'd argue it's inaccurate to label Hooper a one-hit wonder who never lived up to his first success. True, he put out his fair share of stinkers, and some will credit Spielberg more for Poltergeist, but I'll defend The Funhouse, Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Toolbox Murders, and even Djinn. I also like his television output, from Salem's Lot to his episodes of Masters of Horror.

Hell, while I can't defend the likes of The Mangler, Night Terrors, or Spontaneous Combustion as good movies, they are stamped with Hooper's touch and style, and they linger in my memory and occasionally contain a moment or element worth lauding. Who else would be crazy enough to make a film about a demonically possessed industrial laundry press or cast Robert Englund as the Marquis de Sade?

I maintain Hooper's problem, in terms of evaluating his output, wasn't that his work was all good, all bad, or split; it was so widely varied. If you were to grade his movies on a scale from 1-10 - 1 being the worst and 10 being the best - he hit every point! Many filmmakers snuggle into a much smaller, more consistent range, either good or bad, but not Hooper. He danced all over the map, which makes him harder to categorize but easier to dismiss.

Hooper took chances and tried different things. It would have been easy, and possibly more profitable, to duplicate the tone of the original Texas Chainsaw by creating a sequel that was raw, gritty, and frightening. Instead, he gave us a wildly over-the-top, gory, funny, and comic-book style movie that undercut and contradicted its predecessor. He made a TV miniseries about traditional vampires in a small Maine town, but his next vampire flick involved a nude Mathilda May destroying London with an army of shriveled, soul-sucking zombies.

Hooper's work was subversive and surreal. He took shots at conformity, suburbia, the American Dream, family values, capitalism, and ideas of morality. Like David Lynch, he examined the deep-seated rot hidden beneath the veneer of success, profitability, and comfort.

Beneath supposed normalcy, he found absurd and sometimes perverse lunacy, a place where rules didn't exist and nothing made sense. In his wonderful book, Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre, author John Kenneth Muir called Hooper the "Lewis Carroll of horror," and when Hunter Carson encounters the grotesque aliens of Invaders from Mars, it's not hard to see the comparison is apt. Would those giant alien pac-men be out of place in Alice in Wonderland? Or the titular mangler?

In interviews, Hooper struck me as a quiet, soft-spoken individual but also as an artist operating on some all together different planet. He clashed frequently with producers and money men, a common conflict for idiosyncratic filmmakers working in Hollywood but especially so for one whose work contained streaks of black comedy, indulged anarchic glee in tearing down conventions, and celebrated glimpses of madness. In an industry built on formula and predictability, Hooper was anything but safe or predictable.

Hollywood never quite understood Hooper or gave him a fair shake, but he managed to leave his mark. As sad as his passing is, I'm hopeful people will start to come around and appreciate his larger body of work and understand his contributions to cinema.

Thank you, Tobe. Dog will hunt.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Dunkirk

Dunkirk (2017) is the first war movie of director Christopher Nolan, best known for Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy.

It's based on a real military operation. In 1940, after Nazi Germany had swept across Europe, 400,00 troops from the British Expeditionary Force, plus some Allied troops who had not surrendered, remained pinned down on the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France. The evacuation of those troops by the British navy, coordinated with an armada of civilian boats, was nothing short of a military miracle, saving the army so it could fight another day and giving the Allies a needed morale boost.

It's an interesting story and certainly one worth telling, and Nolan captures the massive scale of the operation. This is an ensemble piece. There are recurring characters, but they only play small roles in the overarching drama. This is about the event.

Nolan also makes two unorthodox decisions in portraying the events of Dunkirk, one that I think works tremendously, and another that I don't think works very well at all.

The first: except for a handful Stuka airplanes, Nolan does not show us any Germans. Strange, this is a war movie, and we don't see any enemy combatants. Instead, Nolan suggests them. They're ever present, all around, and in a position of strength. Stick your head out, and you'll be shot. An enemy you can't see is almost impossible to fight, and this perfectly captures the superiority and overwhelming might of the German military and illustrates just how vulnerable and precarious the Allied position is.

The second decision: Nolan does not tell his story chronologically. He jumps around the timeframe. Sometimes, we witness the same event from multiple angles, but we don't realize this until after the fact. Sometimes, we witness different events but think they're the same incident, and we don't realize this until afterward.

It can be confusing in parts, which may have been Nolan's intent. It overwhelms and disorients us, giving us a sense of what those trapped soldiers are feeling, but I wonder if the movie would play better with a streamlined timeline.

I suspect Dunkirk will play better on subsequent viewings. There are a handful of recognizable actors in key parts (Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance), but the rest I'm not too familiar with, although I imagine I'll start seeing them everywhere. Many look alike - both in facially, hair color, and based on their uniforms - and I sometimes lost track of who was who.

Still, I have to consider the movie a success. Without going into Saving Private Ryan levels of gore, Nolan immerses the viewer into the maelstrom of combat. Watching it, you will feel every bullet almost as if they are bouncing around you, you'll feel cold and wet alongside the men floating in the English Channel, and you will feel claustrophobic inside the confines of sinking ships as the lights go out, trapping the panicked men in darkness as water rushes in. Nolan knows when to give us a grand epic shot and when to bury the camera amid the men, noise, and confusion.

Hans Zimmer contributes a most unconventional musical score. Instead of patriotic drum melodies or orchestral stirrings that raise the spirit, the music is more avant-garde, almost unnoticeable by conscious minds, but it's having an impact, helping to build the tension to unbearable levels.

Dunkirk resembles Full Metal Jacket. Like Stanley Kubrick, Nolan drops us in without warning, context, or exposition, and the result is a cold, disorienting experience. But unlike Kubrick, Nolan gives us some hope at the end, letting us know everything the men went through has inspired and galvanized a nation on the brink of defeat. The fighting may just be beginning, but their resolve will not falter.

Fly on the Wall

Fly on the Wall (1985) should have been called rough stuff.

Angus and Malcolm Young decided to produce this album themselves, aiming to re-capture the raw simplicity of their earlier albums, and they do something I can't say I've ever heard a band do on a mainstream rock release: they bury their vocalist in the mix. Brian Johnson sounds like he's singing in another room through thick walls, making it harder than usual to understand what he's saying.

Throw in a few forgettable tracks ("Danger," "Playing With Girls," "First Blood"), and it's easy to see why plenty of critics and fans have pegged this AC/DC's worst album. I wouldn't go that far. In fact, I'd say Fly on the Wall has its share of hidden gems, and the rough and raw (how is there not an AC/DC song called "Rough and Raw?") style gives it a nice and dirty flavor. The band sounds like nasty neighborhood boys playing in the garage next door.

How is there not an AC/DC song called "Nice and Dirty?"

The two songs to take away from the album (which AC/DC themselves did with the subsequent Who Made Who soundtrack album) are "Shake Your Foundations" and "Sink the Pink." The former is a fast, rocking tune that captures the rambunctiousness energy of the band, and the latter is a shuffling, dirty, suggestive tongue-in-cheek track that would make a wonderful setlist with the likes of "Big Balls" and "Go Down."

Some of the other songs are fun, too, without being great. "Fly on the Wall" is a solid opener, and "Back in Business" is suitably brash and aggressive. The Youngs give us the loud, chunky guitar riffs we expect from AC/DC, and it's the straightforward, unpretentious rock we love.

"Fly on the Wall" holds no surprises, and even its best tracks pale next to the band's earlier masterpieces. Still, I have a soft spot for it and find myself re-visiting more often than some of their better work. Maybe I'm a sucker for the unloved, but it never pretends to be anything more than what it is. Like AC/DC!

Standout Tracks
"Shake Your Foundations" - Celebrate chaos and mayhem with this tune.
"Sink the Pink" - Gee, I wonder what this song's about.

Favorite Moment

"Aye, aye, oh, shake your foundations
Aye, aye, oh, shake it to the floor."


Album Cover
A cartoon fly and Angus peep through the holes of a fence, presumably at something they shouldn't be looking at. Very naughty.

Track Order
1) Fly on the Wall
2) Shake Your Foundations
3) First Blood
4) Danger
5) Sink the Pink
6) Playing With Girls
7) Stand Up
8) Hell or High Water
9) Back in Business
10) Send for the Man

Personnel
Brian Johnson - Vocals
Angus Young - Lead Guitar
Malcolm Young - Rhythm Guitar
Cliff Williams - Bass
Simon Wright - Drums

Hellzapoppin'

I can only wonder what audiences in 1941 thought of Hellzapoppin'. It doesn't just break the fourth wall; it blows it up with dynamite and scatters the debris on the audience.

The film opens with a projectionist played by Shemp Howard playing a film of chorus girls coming down a flight of stage stairs. Out of nowhere, the stairs become a slide, sending all the dancers straight to Hell. Literally. Devils torture them and everything. I didn't expect that.

Then we get a disclaimer: "...any similarity between Hellzapoppin' and a motion picture is purely coincidental."

Hellzapoppin' could have been a conventional movie. There's a plotline in it that sounds like dozens of other screwball comedy musicals from the 1930s and 1940s. At a high-society party, there's a love triangle between two best friends and the girl they both want to marry, and meanwhile, let's put on a show and impress the big-shot Hollywood producer.

But the movie plays unconventionally. For its time, it's very radical, and it reminded me of the zany, rapid-fire works of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, the irreverence of Mel Brooks, and the cat-calling of Mysterious Science Theater 3000. The movie pokes fun at itself for how silly it is and jumps around different levels of reality, and all the characters are aware of it.

Based on the musical of the same name, Hellzapoppin' begins in Hell with a song and dance number and then comics Chic Johnson and Ole Olsen turn up (playing themselves) in a taxi. After some more hijinks and getting the projectionist to rewind some of the film for review, Hell becomes a movie set where Miracle Pictures ("If it's a good picture, it's a Miracle!") is adapting Chic and Ole's show Hellzapoppin' into a movie.

They review the script with the screenwriter and director and even begin watching it play out on a screen, which is where the bulk of the movie takes place.

These meta-levels of narrative are easier to watch and follow than to describe. The "main" storyline - the aforementioned love triangle - plays out with Chic and Ole trying to help a friend get the girl while sowing chaos and disorder everywhere they go. There are comic misunderstandings, lines with suggestive double meanings, slapstick pratfalls, and the occasional song and dance routine.

But outside the story, things continue to go wrong in the projection booth, interrupting the movie, and on screen, Chic and Ole have to yell at Shemp (who is supposedly a cousin to one of them, which is how he got the job) to pay attention. Sometimes, he likes to keep the frame on pretty girls and they have to yell at him to follow them.

That's not all. During one sappy love song, a boy in the audience (as in a boy watching the movie with us) is summoned from the theater by his mother. The characters stop in mid-song until the boy leaves because his mother won't stop asking for him.

The movie has fun playing with the conventions of cinema to create a joke. In no other medium would these gags be possible. Gags such as the frame being turned upside down and the characters complain about it and the private detective who keeps leaning out from behind a lamp post, each time appearing in a different costume, despite the fact he shouldn't be able to hide behind that spot in the first place. He tells us he won't explain how he does it.

The style of Hellzapoppin' can be described as "Just go with it." No opportunity for humor, no matter how ridiculous or irrelevant to the plot, is passed over if it means a laugh. It's complete comic anarchy, the Rule-of-Funny writ-large, and even more than 70 years after its release, much of the humor still holds up. Just hold on tight because you won't have time to question any of it.

A Million to Juan

Arriving in 1994, A Million to Juan (that title is unfortunate) has its heart in the right place. Starring and directed by stand-up comic Paul Rodriguez, the movie positions its somewhere between family comedy and social parable (with a touch of fantasy) while showcasing some of the Chicano experience in Los Angeles. It's not as sharp or as funny as it could have been, and I can't say I love it, but in its own, innocuous way, it has its charms.

Loosely based on a story by Mark Twain, A Million to Juan tells the story of Juan Lopez, an undocumented worker (he was born in LA but lived for a time in Mexico) struggling to get by. He has a young son he adores (Jonathan Hernandez) but is widowed, and steady work is hard to come by. He's also facing deportation, despite the best efforts of his case worker Ms. Smith (Polly Draper).

That all changes one day when Juan, selling oranges on the street, receives a check by a mysterious man (Edward James Olmos) in a limousine. The check is good for $1 million. A note tells Juan it's an interest-free loan, but he must return it in 30 days. As news spreads of Juan's newfound fortune, he finds everyone friendlier toward him, businesses more accommodating, and even though he doesn't spend the money, Juan is able to open all sorts of new credit lines.

A Million to Juan raises a good point: we as a society treat people with money differently from people without money. If money is a measure of an individual's success, then a person with a lot of it must be successful, and who doesn't want a piece of that action? Contrarily, someone without much money must be a loser and should be avoided like the plague.

I can imagine someone like Rod Serling creating something searing with this premise, but while Rodriguez doesn't necessarily pull his punches, he doesn't take the premise as far as he could have. Even with his newfound wealth and fame, Juan remains a nice guy who wants to do the right thing, and thus, he never does anything we as the audience can really disapprove of. Juan is a likable guy and we want to see him pull through, and except for the resolution of a subplot involving a neighbor's sick daughter, the movie's execution plays it safe.

The movie has its share of giggles and smiles but very few belly laughs. A lot of its fairly predictable, like when Juan and his roommates use their newfound credit to buy fancy suits and cars, and at first the snobby store clerk treats them badly, not realizing their check is genuine. Larry Linville turns up as a bank president, playing the part exactly like Frank Burns, and of course, Juan's ex-girlfriend tries crawling back once she learns he's loaded.

A couple of scenes made me wince. Cheech Marin cameos as a panhandler who pulls the same scam Eddie Murphy tried in Trading Places (pretending to a veteran), and it's just not funny. There's an Indian convenience store clerk who is comprised of just about every Indian stereotype possible. Ms. Smith, who inevitably falls in love with Juan, is sweet, but her current boyfriend is such an insufferably douchebag (and a casual racist to boot), he stops the movie every time he's on screen.

For some reason, the boyfriend escapes a comeuppance (except his girlfriend dumps him off-screen), but the sleazy landlord does not. Played by Paul Williams, the landlord happily accepts and threatens to raise rent but breaks promises to make repairs or maintain the building, threatening to report his tenants to the INS if they report him. He ends up getting forced to make the repairs and gets toilet water sprayed in his face.

A Million to Juan tries to balance silly comedy, sweet romance, and social drama, working in spurts but not for any sustained length, causing some of those tones to clash. Still, the performances are charming enough to carry the movie through, and I can't bring myself to dislike a movie I would describe at least partially as tender.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Flick of the Switch

If Flick of the Switch arrived five years earlier, it might have been received better.

The 1983 album finds AC/DC stripping their sound and production down to a back-to-the-basics approach after the titanic productions on Highway to Hell, Back in Black, and For Those About to Rock. After working with Mutt Lange on those three albums, the band decided to self-produce, but arriving after the massive of success of those three albums, Flick of the Switch, while not a bad album, feels like a step down in quality.

Flick of the Switch has the expected AC/DC style: straightforward, hard-rocking tunes. Coming away from the polished, almost pop-like production of Mutt Lange, the music has a rougher edge. The sound is not as clean, but for a group like, AC/DC, that's part of the charm.

At the same time, the album sounds big and loud. The Youngs' guitar work dominates with loud, chunky rhythms, whether doing mid-tempo chuggers like the opening "Rising Power" or the faster-paced "Guns for Hire." Angus also finds time to play some bluesy slide guitar, resulting in at least one unsung classic, "This House is on Fire," and the slower but still enjoyable "Badlands."

Another standout song is "Nervous Shakedown." AC/DC are better known for their rock anthems, but this song tells a story, about a young punk railroaded by the police. It ain't Warren Zevon or Pink Floyd in terms of narrative or a ballad, but it's nice to find the boys stepping out of their formula on occasion.

"Take a dime, said the man, you can make one call
You got a one-way ticket to the County Hall

Well, the judge looked high and I looked low
And when he smiled at me it was a one-man show
He said, Two to five, the jury decides
Double parole if you survive"


Flick of the Switch has its share of strong songs but also its share of forgettable tunes. There is a feeling the band is coasting. Some of the songs are so straightforward, they could be described as simple and one-dimensional. AC/DC always played catchy songs, but on occasion, it sounds like they're repeating themselves and not coming up with as many memorable riffs.

Brian Johnson is in good voice, but bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd (who was fired mid-recording and wouldn't return until the mid-90s) are left on the sidelines, almost forgotten about with standard backup roles.

The album lacks an urgency, a sense of importance or a statement of purpose. We get the bad boy songs and naughty school boy humor, but now, it feels like the band is trying to live up to a brand of expectations.

Standout Songs
"Rising Power" - A solid, chugging opener
"This House in on Fire" - A lost classic by a band that already has many great songs.
"Guns for Hire" - The one you'll want to sing along with the most.

Favorite Moment
I like this pre-chorus line Johnson sings during "Rising Power:" "Need no excuse to let it all hang loose. My body's for abuse." Smash into the chorus, and it's gold.

Album Cover
A pencil drawing of Angus flips a giant electrical switch. It's nice but disappointingly colorless. Like the album itself, it would be better filled in.

Track Order
1) Rising Power
2) This House is on Fire
3) Flick of the Switch
4) Nervous Shakedown
5) Landslide
6) Guns for Hire
7) Deep in the Hole
8) Bedlam in Belgium
9) Badlands
10) Brainshake

Personnel
Brian Johnson - Vocals
Angus Young - Lead Guitar
Malcolm Young - Rhythm Guitar
Cliff Williams - Bass
Phil Rudd - Drums

Samurai Cop

The late Robert Z'Dar played a vengeful, zombified police officer in the Maniac Cop trilogy, and while he does not play the titular character in Samurai Cop (1991), he is the villain's main henchman and uses a katana. As a bonus, we get to see more of him since the filmmakers aren't hiding him in the shadows and hear him speak dialogue. He's surprisingly soft spoken (assuming he isn't dubbed). The roles of a B-movie actor.

Z'Dar is right at home in Samurai Cop, a B-movie through and through. It's schlock, and it makes you appreciate the skills of schlockmeisters like Larry Cohen and William Lustig, directors who had a way of elevating this kind of material or at least delivering the goods on their chosen level.

Samurai Cop is bad schlock but not unenjoyable schlock. Good schlock impresses you for what it is; bad schlock, well, you hope you can laugh, which fortunately Samurai Cop succeeds at. I don't know how deliberate it all was, but it's an enjoyably bad movie.

The plot's packed to the gills with cliches. A cop aims to take down a dangerous gang and romances a pretty lady who gets too close to the action. The cop in this case is Joe Marshall (Mathew Hannon), who is nicknamed Samurai because he knows martial arts, trained in Japan, and speaks fluent Japanese (which he never does). The gang is a group of rogue (multicultural) Yakuzas who have taken over the drug trade in L.A. The pretty lady is Jennifer (Janis Farley), a restaurant owner the Yakuza leader has eyes for.

Yeeaahh... For a movie called Samurai Cop, I expected more Samurai action. Joe just looks silly, someone the filmmakers are trying to pass off as cool and tough, but he comes off as a poser. Between his denim and aviator jacket wardrobe (except when he trapes about in a black speedo more times than expected) and fighting skills that make me question whether Mathew Hannon had any instruction in martial arts, I don't buy it.

Nor does any of his personality reflect any Samurai code, whether real-life or from the movies. He's a standard, loose-cannon cop. Plus, he spends more time trying to romance Jennifer when he should be more concerned about the case or whether the armed hitmen are coming after him. If he wasn't so dully played by Karedas, I'd consider him a creep; he harasses Jennifer until she sleeps with him. OK, he is a creep.

And his hair. No two ways about it, it looks terrible. Sometimes it looks like a wig. Sometimes it looks real. Either way, it's bad.

Yet the movie treats Joe like he's some sort of super stud. He has almost every attractive woman in the cast hit on him and charmed by his weird, aggressive flirting. He boasts about a sexual conquest in front of the woman he's currently sleeping with, but she doesn't mind that much, nor does she seem to mind or care when he immediately moves in on Jennifer.

The movie's craft could politely be described as amateurish. The action scenes are ineptly staged and filled with weird jump cuts that make it almost impossible to determine where characters are supposed to be in relation to each other and their surroundings. Scenes meant to take place in one setting are clearly comprised of multiple locations that don't match.

Most of the actors sound dubbed (poorly I might add), and the dialogue is filled with howlers. To any female police officers who might be reading this, would you, during a stakeout just before striking a criminal hideout, turn to your married partner and ask, "We got some time, wanna fuck?" I can't tell if she's just messing with him or serious.

What else? There's the flamboyantly gay Costa Rican waiter who promises to inform to Joe but is never mentioned again after his one scene. I'm not sure if he's more offensive to gays or Costa Ricans. Joe and a female cop converse while he's on the ground and she's in a helicopter without any radio or other communications equipment. Gun wounds look like paintball rounds, and most henchmen who fall over dead look like they're trying not to hurt themselves as they do so. There's a lot of sex and female nudity but nothing especially erotic.

Nothing about this movie is objectively good. But, if you're a connoisseur of bad cinema, there's much to enjoy about Samurai Cop.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Tales from the Darkside: The Movie

Tales from the Darkside gets a feature-length spin-off. Appropriately an anthology in the tradition of Creepshow, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990) arrives directed by John Harrison, who directed several episodes of the show and composed the music for Creepshow.

There are three tales plus a wraparound. In the framing device, a young boy (Matthew Lawrence) tries to stall a suburban witch (Debbie Harry) from cooking him by reading her favorite childhood book:

"Lot 249," based off the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story and adapted by Michael McDowell, involves a university student (Steve Buscemi) using a mummy to get revenge against those who cheated him (among them, Christian Slater and Julianne Moore).

George Romero scripts "Cat from Hell" based off a Stephen King story. A rich man (William Hickey) hires a hitman (David Johansen) to eliminate a black cat he thinks is out to get him.

The final story, also scripted by McDowell, is "Lover's Vow." A struggling artist (James Remar) witnesses a gargoyle murder a man, but the creature spares his life if he agrees to keep what he saw a secret. Soon after, the artist meets and falls in love with a charming woman (Rae Dawn Chong) and his fortunes in life improve.

Since we're off network TV, the movie brings out some of the blood, grue, and gore that would have been implied on the TV show. A few heads are lopped off, things that should not be swallowed find their way down a poor bastard's gullet, and the mummy has fun with a coat hanger. The effects by KNB also appear to have a substantially larger budget, and the various creature creations work in a comic-book styled way.

The narratives are predictable. The first two stories work as just dessert tales: the wicked commit a transgression and are punished for it by supernatural means, whether it means a reanimated mummy or a demonic feline. These would have been perfect fits on Creepshow (in fact. "Cat from Hell" was originally scripted for Creepshow 2). Meanwhile, "Lover's Vow" is more of a tragedy. Yes, there's a monster, but no one in the story is really evil, just flawed, including the gargoyle.

Stylistically, Harrison gives each segment its own flavor. "Lot 249" resembles an old-fashioned serial, all wide angle lenses and transition swipes (like in Star Wars). "Cat from Hell" feels like a film noir: deep shadows, stark angles, dream-like flashbacks, and the color is mostly bled out until the screen is almost black and white. "Lover's Vow" feels like more urban and modern than the others, more contemporary.

Tales from the Darkside the TV show has its share of chilling moments, but the movie not so much, but I can't bring myself to condemn it. It's fun and stylish in the tradition of those horror anthologies, and the cast of familiar and soon-to-be familiar faces is clearly having fun. It won't keep you up night, but as a piece of polished horror, it's a solid effort.

Blow Up Your Video

The attitude and energy are there, but the songs aren't.

AC/DC was in a creative rut in the mid and late 80s with albums Fly on the Wall and Flick of the Switch not making much of an impression with fans or critics. Blow Up Your Video arrived in 1988 and finds the boys playing with more fire than they had in some time, but the album is never more than OK, lacking strong or even memorable material.

Blow Up Your Video opens with two solid, driving tracks, "Heatseeker" and "That's the Way I Wanna Rock 'n' Roll," the latter of which contains a lyric that inspired the album title. AC/DC are as rambunctious and rebellious as ever, and at least while they're playing, they'll get you fired up.


"I'm gonna blow up my video
Shut down by radio
Tell boss man where to go
Turn off my brain control
That's the way I wanna rock 'n' roll"

The guitar duo of brothers Angus and Malcom Young play as we expect them to: simple, catchy, and loud. It's straightforward, unpretentious hard rock built on three chords and the boisterous gang vocals of the chorus you want to sing along with.

Occasionally, the Youngs throw in an unexpected touch; on "Two's Up," an ode to three-way sex with two groupies, Angus taps on the guitar solo. Maybe it's not as elaborate or technical as Eddie Van Halen, but for Angus, it's pretty left field yet doesn't feel out of place.

Brian Johnson is in fine voice, but his lyrics leave something to be desired. Bon Scott was a master of the delicious turn of phrase; he had a filthy mind, but the way he sang, he sounded funny and almost poetic. Johnson sings well enough - he can shriek and shout almost as well as Bon - but again, little stands out, except maybe "Ruff Stuff."

"I like 'em big
And I like 'em small
And if I had to take the oath,
I would take them all."

Production by George Young and Henry Vanda (their first time producing AC/DC in a decade) is clean and polished, lacking the grit of the band's earlier work with them. Johnson's vocals are somewhat buried in the mix (though not as badly as they were on Fly on the Wall). Elsewhere, bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Simon Wright (who left the band shortly afterward to join Dio) contribute a dependable, workman rhythm section that plays backseat to the Young's riffing.

Few songs are enjoyable throughout their runtime. Some like "Kissin' Dynamite" and "Ruff Stuff" have a great buildup, but falter with a generic main riff. Others, such as "Nick of Time" and "This Means War," are complete throwaways you can skip.

There are some fun moments on Blow Up Your Video, but the album as a whole feels like filler, like the boys are just killing time until they do something more interesting. The best moments don't equal the lesser moments on the likes of Highway to Hell or Back in Black. It never explodes as well as Angus on the cover.

Standout Songs
"Heatseeker" - A fun, energetic opener. I tried to convince my sister to make this her college batting song.
"That's the Way I Wanna Rock 'n' Roll" - Few groups celebrate rock as well as AC/DC.
"Some Sin for Nuthin'" - I have soft spot for this slower, bluesy riff.

Favorite Moment
Angus taps on "Two's Up." He (and Malcom) is a much better player than he gets credit for.

Album Cover
Angus explodes out of a TV screen as if to say, this music is so cool, when you see the video on MTV, your television won't be able to contain it.

Track Order
1) Heatseeker
2) That's the Way I Wanna Rock 'n' Roll
3) Mean Streak
4) Go Zone
5) Kissin' Dynamite
6) Nick of Time
7) Some Sin for Nuthin'
8) Ruff Stuff
9) Two's Up
10) This Mean's War 

Personnel
Brian Johnson - Vocals
Angus Young - Lead Guitar
Malcolm Young - Rhythm Guitar
Cliff Williams - Bass Guitar
Simon Wright - Drums

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Tales from the Darkside: My Ghostwriter - The Vampire

You know Tales from the Darkside, not every every vampire has to dress like Dracula. I know it's an iconic look and all, but not even new adaptations of Dracula put him in the cape and collar anymore.

Outdated look of the vampire aside, "My Ghostwriter - The Vampire" proves to be a fun episode. A hack horror writer enters a Faustian pact with a real-live bloodsucker: the writer will let the vampire use his home for shelter, and in return, the vampire will share 900 years worth of stories with him. Needless to say, this partnership sours.

"My Ghostwriter - The Vampire" asks who is the real monster. Count Draco, nicely played Roy Dotrice, only kills to feed. Prentice, the sleazy writer, uses and discards people, including his assistant Jayne, nor does he have any qualms about leaching off other people's work and claiming it as his own. Not all vampirism involves blood apparently.

The premise and execution function as black comedy, but I appreciated that Draco is presented seriously. He's allowed his dignity and not treated as a foppish goof. When he gets angry, he means it, and we take him seriously.

I also liked the secret room where the vampire stores his coffin, accessed by pulling an ax in a prop head on the wall. It's the kind of touch I'd expect any horror writer, good or bad, would want to have in his home.

Tales from the Darkside: The Milkman Cometh

The message of "The Milkman Cometh" seems to be less "Be careful you wish for" and more "Be careful how you wish." Of course, you should be careful when the company your milkman works for is called "While You Sleep Dairy" and its logo is a wolf howling at the moon.

Robert Forster plays a family man on the ropes. He badly needs money, he and his wife lost a baby girl some time ago, and while they would like to eventually have another child, they've been told by doctors it's not possible anymore. That's when he learns about the neighborhood milkman. The milkman will apparently grant anyone any wish if they leave him a note, and before you know it, Forster's luck has turned around. Money's rolling in, and his wife is pregnant.

Come on. You know this can't end well. It's Tales from the Darkside. Forster's newfound success changes him for the worse, making him act nasty toward his wife and son, and by the end, we learn a sliver of the milkman's true nature.

We never see the milkman. We see his outline through a window curtain, and at the end, we see his hand. The episode generates unease by keeping him so hidden. What is his agenda? Who is he? Why does he grant wishes? How does he grant wishes? The uncertainty creates dread. We know something is wrong with this arrangement, but we can't be sure what.

The final, perverse yet darkly funny shot of the episode reveals just how much of a pun the title is.

Tales from the Darkside: Miss May Dusa

I can't believe I couldn't tell from the title this was about Medusa.

Of course, this Medusa is different from the Medusa we know and love from Greek mythology, so maybe I can be forgiven. She doesn't have snakes on her head, thankfully, she appears in the modern world, and while she turns people into stone (or in this case, mannequins), she's a reluctant monster who doesn't mean to kill others. It's why she always wears sunglasses.

"Miss May Dusa" is a romantic episode and a sad one at that. Medusa, or May Dusa, meets a saxophone player, Jimmy James, in a dark subway station one night, and he's nice to her, understanding to her, patient, and pretty good on the sax. Even better, he's blind, so her powers have no affect on his safety. They're perfect for each other.

Most of the episode is devoted to May and Jimmy just talking, getting to know each other, and I found it charming. It gives us a new perspective on Medusa (I always think of Clash of the Titans when I think of her), showing her as lonely, guilt-ridden, and desperate for some genuine affection. It's her human side the episode explores.

It all leads not to a shock ending but a sad one. This is one episode that can be described as heartbreaking. Right when it looks like things are looking up, May looks into the mirror.

Tales from the Darkside: Seasons of Belief

Feature-length horror films have their work cut out for them trying to sustain scares and tension for 90 minutes. The advantage of the anthology format is you really only need one good scare to be successful.

"Seasons of Belief," written and directed by Michael McDowell, benefits from the short running length. On Christmas Eve, two children ask their parents to tell them a story, and their father (E.G. Marshall) obliges with a scary tale about a creature known as the Grither. The children naturally get scared, but the Grither is just a story.

Right?

"Seasons of Belief" works by building anticipation. In a touch that hearkens to Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulu," saying the Grither's name summons it, we're told, and the more you say it, the stronger its pull toward you is. As it hears its name, its ears grow bigger until they're big enough to use as wings.

But we don't see this. It's all off screen, suggested by the story told by the parents, and the children's imaginations, and ours, run wild. Strange noise happen around the house. Is it the Grither or just the wind? Who did the dad talk to on the phone? Can the parents be trusted?

The conclusion happens more or less as expected, but the effect is quite strong, making "Seasons of Belief" one of the scarier episodes of the show.

Tales from the Darkside: Deliver Us from Goodness

To this point in the series, I've preferred the serious episodes of Tales from the Darksides to the larks. Maybe they don't always succeed at scaring, but they're trying, they fit better on the show, and they don't irritate me with unfunny schtick.

"Deliver Us from Goodness" is another mostly unfunny lighthearted episode, but it didn't get on my nerves the way some other episodes did. The central idea - deliberately committing sin to fall from grace - might have worked as horror, but here the execution is a farce that's more cute than anything else.

Housewife Valeria Cantrell has a problem. When she speaks, she glows, literally, as if lit by angels, and occasionally, she can make things appear by wishing for them. Her apparently blessed condition is undermining her husband Julian's mayoral campaign and freaking out their daughter Charlotte. Not wanting to be a burden, Valeria decides to sin, so she won't be a saint anymore.

Technically, she's not a saint anyway. I grew up in a Catholic household to know that, but the other characters, including a priest, refer to her as such, and I won't begrudge the episode for being theologically unsound.

Like I said, the episode is more cute than funny. Valeria's family make a poster-board checklist of the 10 Commandments, checking them off as she violates them. Valeria's idea of murder is killing houseflies. She also is rude to her mother over the phone. The worst thing she does is try to seduce the priest, which fails. She also tries worshiping false idols, include Buddha and Bruce Springsteen.

"Deliver Us from Goodness" is silly, but I can't bring myself to hate it. It could have been worse.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Tales from the Darkside: Baker's Dozen

The fourth and final episode scripted by series creator George Romero, "Baker's Dozen" concerns voodoo gingerbread cookies.

...

I'm giving you a moment to process that.

...

Ready? OK. Based on a story by Scott Edelman and directed by John Harrison (credited for some reason as John Sutherland), "Baker's Dozen" treats its goofy idea seriously and makes it fairly enjoyable. It's got an unscrupulous advertising man (are there any other kind of advertising men?) and a cackling, cooking witch who concocts sweet treats that pack a magical punch, and the episode builds to their appropriately karmic comeuppances.

That basic plot has been done dozens of times, but the cookie gimmick livens it up. I don't know of any other story that uses gingerbread men as voodoo dolls or in which said magical cookies are used by a greedy advertiser looking to climb the ladder to fame and fortune.

Either you buy the premise or you don't. "Baker's Dozens" isn't scary, but it's deliciously nasty.

One thing puzzles me. SPOILER Ms. Cuzzins, the witch, is undone when her father, whom she forced to work in her kitchen and turned into a rat, eats a voodoo cookies he had been saving. Her father gave away the cookies in the first place to try to beat her. I don't know why he didn't just eat the cookie in the first place.

Now we know what Romero did with that leftover voodoo magic when he took it out of his recipe for zombies.

Tales from the Darkside: A Serpent's Tooth

This plays like a female-centered version of "The Word Processor of the Gods" in which the main character obtains the power to reshape reality as they see fit. Unfortunately, while Bruce Davison was sympathetic in the earlier episode, Renee Taylor is an annoying nag.

The title comes from a line King Lear: "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!" That's how Pearl (Taylor) feels. Her daughter dresses like an 80s metal chick and hangs out with an unworthy boyfriend while her son has switched majors from dentistry to agriculture. Even a neighbor boy is mean to her. When a mystic friend gives her a literal serpent's tooth, she discovers everything she says comes true.

At least Bruce Davison used his reality-altering power to bring the dead back to life and make himself a best-selling writer. "A Serpent's Tooth" goes for broad, obvious comedy, and Pearl comes off as especially clueless to root for or against. We understand quickly why her children are annoyed by her.

What do I mean by broad and obvious? When the neighbor makes a face at her, she tells him it'll get stuck that way. Guess what happens. When she insists chicken soup (which she is always cooking) can cure anything, guess what it does. Of course, Pearl forgets about her powers and thoughtlessly says things the serpent's tooth takes literally, and that predictably causes trouble.

The episode also seemingly forgets the extent of her powers. When Pearl meets the boyfriend, she accidentally turns him into a slice of bread. Everyone panics and acts like it's permanent. Why can't she change him back into a human?

This idea is rather frightening. Someone who demands total obedience gains the power of a god. Alas, the episode tries to be cute and funny, and I found it lame.

Night of the Living Dead (1990)

Tom Savini graduates from special effects makeup and episodes of Tales from the Darkside to feature-length direction with this remake of Night of the Living Dead. And he has a script by George Romero. And a cast that includes Patricia Tallman, Tony Todd, Tom Towles, and Bill Moseley. And more than 20 years worth of advances in special effects. And a much higher budget than Romero et al. had back in 1968.

But an unnecessary remake remains an unnecessary remake. Night of the Living Dead (1990) fails to capture the impact and terror of the original, but that was a given. Disappointingly, it comes off as tame, a safe, slick product of the Hollywood machine. It's not all bad, but it's mostly mediocre.

The plot's mostly the same. The unburied dead rise to feast on the flesh of the living, and a group of people hide out in an isolated farmhouse. The group includes Ben (Todd), Barbara (Tallman), and Cooper (Towles), and things fall apart in a power struggle between Ben and Cooper.

The big changes between this and the original: it's in color, it uses recognizable actors, and the ending is altered in a way not as bleak or iconic as the original but in its own way is fairly clever. The biggest change comes from the characterization of Ben, Cooper, and Barbara.

In the original, Ben was the level-headed hero; he always had it together. Barbara, meanwhile, after the opening scene, remains in shock for the most of the movie, never amounting to more than a puddle of jelly.

Here, Ben is more flawed. He means well, but he lets his temper get to him and proves himself to be almost as bad as Cooper. His idea of fortifying the house proves to be disastrous. All that hammering and pounding ends up attracting more zombies to their location than if they had just stayed quiet.

Like in the original, Cooper wants to hunker down in the basement, but he's an even bigger jerk. The original Cooper was no saint, but he had his moments of dignity and usefulness (he threw the Molotov cocktails at least). His conversations with his wife Helen contained arguments, but he seemed open to reason. Played by Towles here, he contributes nothing and has no redeeming qualities: he's always screaming and yelling, insisting that he's right and everyone else is an idiot, and he hits his wife. It's laughably bad characterization.

Between these two implacable forces, Barbara emerges as the strong hero. Early on, she's nebbish and afraid, but with everything falling apart around her, she steps up and cuts her own path. She also proves to be an admirable shot, taking down zombies left and right with that rifle.

The original came out during the heyday of the Civil Right Movement, hence the significance of a black actor in the lead role, but the 1990 remake reflects another social movement that occurred in the interim: feminism. Sure, there were Women's Right Movements before the 1970s, such as the suffrage movement, but the remake came out post-Women's Lib. Barbara doesn't need a man. She can take care of herself, and when the choice is between following Ben or Cooper, both wrong in their own ways, can you blame her for choosing independence?

That updated social subtext gives the remake some potency. Unfortunately as horror, it doesn't stand out. The original has this gritty, raw feeling of a nightmare as it broke taboos, and the black and white photography suited it perfectly. The world was shrouded in encroaching darkness, and the ghouls felt like the real thing.

There are several little changes along the way, small touches that show Savini is trying by playing off viewers' familiarity with the original such as when the first zombie attacks. The zombie makeup is good, but it's obvious it's makeup. In color, the dead aren't as threatening, and with the world more brightly lit, we can just how slow and spaced out they are.

When Barbara suggests they just walk by the zombies, it feels less like a sharp insight and more like common sense, making the other characters look stupid for dismissing it.

Deadtime Stories: Volume 2

What? Did you think the phrase "Volume 1" in the title of the original Deadtime Stories was a joke? Like Mel Brooks and History of the World: Part 1, there was never meant to be a part 2? You fools! Ba ha ha ha ha!

Truth be told, I'd much rather see a real History of the World: Part 2 than either film in this dead-on-arrival franchise, and again, seeing George Romero's name on this product is disheartening.

At least the first one had the decency to only run 76 minutes, so it was over relatively quickly, and Tom Savini directed an enjoyable segment. Deadtime Stories: Volume 2 (2011) runs over 100 minutes and does not have a good one.

Again, Romero is executive producer and plays host, introducing the three tales that comprise the movie. Again, they make no effort to try to make him scary or ghoulish. I know I'm harping on a small point, but remember "The Springfield Files," that Simpsons episode in which Homer sees an alien and Mulder and Scully investigate? Leonard Nimoy narrated that. He at least had a skull on a desk.

The setups for the stories aren't terrible. In "The Gorge," three cave explorers become trapped in a cave-in and descend into cannibalism. "On Sabbath Hill" follows a college professor haunted by the ghost of the student he knocked up and drove to suicide. The movie concludes with "Dust," about a security guard who steals Martian dust from a lab to cure his wife of cancer.

The execution is artless, barely above the level of a student production. Everything looks shot on digital: flat, static, and overly bright. I remember being surprised when I finally saw a different focal length for one shot. The movie as a whole looks cheap and hokey.

Performances are dull, sterile, and lifeless. I don't know whether to blame that on the writing, the directing, or the actors themselves. I'm more inclined to blame the first two items. Too often, the characters stand or sit around doing nothing, waiting for something to happen, and the actors just look lost, adrift without anything to work with.

Any why are there so many shots of cars on the road and people in cars? They add nothing, are total filler, and only waste time.

The tragedy? This is the last movie to have any involvement from George Romero. Oh, I'm sure we'll get plenty of remakes of his work in the future, and maybe some of his unfilmed screenplays will be produced by someone else. I can hope for the latter, but to see such a trailblazing and independent filmmaker going out like this, reduced to hawking this drek, is sad and infuriating.

Two movies. Six stories, one of which is any good. That's bad even by baseball standards. That's below the Mendoza Line.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Tales from the Darkside: Heretic

Does "Heretic" condone the methods of the Spanish Inquisition?

Like many anthology horrors, "Heretic" is a just desserts story in which the guilty are punished by supernatural means, and in this case, the method of punishment is torture by inquisitors. Am I supposed to cheer this on and feel good because the wicked character gets what he deserves?

I'm reading too much into it. "Heretic" tells the story of an immoral art dealer named Harte who comes into possession of a valuable painting from the 16th century stolen from a Spanish church. The painting depicts a heretic being tortured by the Inquisition. When Harte tries to sell it, the figures in the painting come to life and pull him into the painting where they offer him a chance of redemption, informing him he must return the stolen artwork.

For a low-budget TV show, "Heretic" crafts an impressive representation of an Inquisition dungeon. The Inquisitor is suitably gaunt and twisted (it's Old Man Marley from Home Alone!), and the prison bars and fires add a creepy, toiled atmosphere. I also liked how the outside sunlight streamed the windows. It reminded me of Hellraiser

The episode's problem is Harte himself. Early on, he's a smug, magnificent bastard who doesn't hide his cynicism or greed, so he's interesting, and the idea that he will be put on trial for his nature is a nice setup. Will he be defiant? Remorseful? Something else?

But his final actions don't make sense, and I'm not sure what he wanted to accomplish. If there were a scene in which he attributed his experience to a dream or hallucination, that would have been one thing, but there's no explanation for what he does. He goes from the Inquisition and repenting to trying to sell the painting and then attempting to burn it before his final fate plays out.

Ultimately, Harte proves to be the worst of both worlds: unsympathetic and stupid.

Tales from the Darkside: Black Widows

Michael McDowell wrote some of the best and scariest episodes of Tales from the Darkside. "Black Widows" is not one of them.

It's not bad, and it didn't get on my nerves like some of the others, but I just don't care for it. It plays like a darker, female-version of Teen Wolf: a young woman discovers she's the latest in a long family line of creatures and whose mother had hoped it might not happen to her, but now that it has, there's some explaining to do. From the title, you know they're a family of spider women.

Maybe the episode is too predictable and on the nose, and disappointingly, we never see the Webster women (Webster, get it?) transform into the monsters they're supposed to be. The most we get is a hokey-looking arachnid claw, so I'm wondering just what exactly is their physiology. Do they sprout eight legs and grow fangs? Do they always have extra limbs hiding beneath their human form? How do they change back?

The actual narrative and characterization isn't bad. The daughter discovers her true nature on her wedding night and has to learn to accept it, but this feels like another rushed episode trying to bring everything under a 20-minute running length. Plus, the mother's dialogue is so thick with the spider hints that I'm confused why none of the other characters find her weird or comment on it.

There are some nice touches. The makeup on the daughter's first victim is pretty cool, and the characterization of the mother - a large woman who lives in a trailer home and who doesn't venture out, insisting she "lets the world come to me" - fits the spider theme as a plausible human cover.

"Black Widows" tries to be funny without being shrill, but I'm still not laughing.

Tales from the Darkside: The Geezenstacks

In revisiting Tales from the Darkside, I was most interested in checking out "The Geezenstacks" for two reasons: 1) I have no memory of ever seeing it before and 2) various writeups described it as one of the more frightening episodes in the series.

Craig Wasson plays Sam Hummel, whose daughter Audrey receives an antique dollhouse from her Uncle Frank that contains four dolls. Audrey says they are the Geezenstacks, and they share the same first names of the Hummels.

Sam grows worried when events that happen to the Geezenstacks soon afterward happen to the corresponding family member of the Hummels. For example, Audrey says Mrs. Geezenstack bought a new coat with a specific design, and minutes later, Audrey's mother Edith arrives home and shows off the coat she just bought on a whim, exactly as described by Audrey. And when Audrey says something bad happens to Mr. Geezenstack...

I liked "The Geezenstacks." The dolls themselves are creepy without being over the top, and the episode wisely takes it's time developing Sam's suspicions without beating us over the head with them, so it doesn't feel rushed or incomplete. It builds an ominous atmosphere of paranoia and uncertainty while balancing childish innocence with adult fear, and thankfully, it eschews the usual one-dimensional stereotypes that usually define the series' characters.

The episode's conclusion, I admit, has a chilling effect. I won't spoil it, but it's very effective and resolves the story on an appropriately nightmarish tone. I thought for sure the dolls would come alive and start chasing people, but the final development is much more original and memorable.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Tales from the Darkside: Florence Bravo

Hey, it's Lori Cardille from Day of the Dead! It's nice seeing her.

"Florence Bravo" isn't too shabby of an episode. It feels less like a horror show and more like a soap opera that happens to have a ghost. Cardille plays Emily, who moves into a new house with her husband David (David Hayward) and becomes convinced by the eponymous ghost that David is again cheating on her.

No real surprises here, but the performances carry the day. Cardille is sympathetic as the woman who slowly grows more paranoid while Hayward gives more complexity than usual to this role. David is not a one-dimensional jerk. Even though we find out he committed adultery before, he seems to genuinely want to atone for it and be a good husband, and the episode wisely shows how his words and actions could be interpreted as innocent or nefarious.

The ghost, aka Florence Bravo, is a bit of a letdown. Apparently, she really existed. At 26, the Victorian heiress became a widow when her husband was fatally poisoned. He was apparently very controlling and a bully. She was much wealthier than him, but he took over her finances when they married. No one was ever ever arrested or charged in his death, but Florence was a suspect and the case became quite a scandal at the time.

As a ghost, Florence speaks with a disembodied voice that could have been creepier. Occasionally, she's represented as a chair rocking by itself, but she eventually turns up in the form of an older woman. I would have liked it more if director John Lewis and writer Edithe Swensen (who wrote more episodes than I realized) had made her more ghoulish and macabre. It feels like a missed opportunity to push "Florence Bravo" over the edge.

Tales from the Darkside: The Bitterest Pill

For a show called Tales from the Darkside, it has way too many farces that try to be funny but only succeed at being irritating. Sadly, "The Bitterest Pill" falls into that category, making it a touch swallow (Sorry about that. I'll show myself out.).

A family of three - father, mother, young son - win the lottery and become inundated with solicitations and other sales offers when inventor Tinker (Mark Blankfield aka Blinkin from Robin Hood Men in Tights) shows up with a pill he claims can grant unlimited intellectual prowess. Considering he tried to seduce the wife on her wedding night, the husband is understandably dubious.

Like the other farces on this show, "The Bitterest Pill" features a lot of yelling, a lot of noise, and a lot of overacting. The kid is annoying, the dad's a jerk, and the mom's a moron. That leaves Tinker, who never shuts up. Am I supposed to think the father is a fool for not accepting this loony at his word and taking some pill he's offering?

I can tell I'm supposed to laugh, but nothing was funny. Most of the episode is devoted to Tinker's madcap sales pitch as he sweats, tumbles over furniture, and speaks a mile-a-minute. A pill that makes you a super genius has strong story potential, but this episode only uses it as a MacGuffin, saving it for the final twist when we learn it works.

Too bad I wished the character who took it choked on it.

Tales from the Darkside: I Can't Help Saying Goodbye

Sometimes, the limitations of a given format inspire greatness, but not in the case of "I Can't Help Saying Goodbye."

Here's a story with an interesting setup, but right when it looks like it's about to be good, it has to wrap everything up in a hurry and rush through important plot developments and characterization to fit under 20 minutes. Maybe as an expanded short or even at feature length, the episode might have worked, but alas, it disappoints.

This episode is about a girl named Karen (Alison Sweeney) who when she says goodbye to people, she means it because soon after they die. Understandably, this concerns the people around her.

You know those "Creepiest things my child has said to me" articles? Do a quick search you'll find a lot online (some are quite eerie). This episode fits on one of those lists.

That's a spooky thing to tap into: what children know that adults don't. Unfortunately, the 20-minute format doesn't allow time for this episode to fully ferment. Karen's sister Libby (Loren Cedar) and the sister's fiance Max (Brian Benben) too quickly conclude and accept Karen's power for it to be believable, and certain facets of the story that could have been interesting to explore - guilt, grief, regret, etc. - are glossed over.

Karen doesn't seem too bothered that people she loves die after she says goodbye to them. True, she threatens to say goodbye to Max when he and Libby upset her, suggesting she's evil or at least she doesn't fully comprehend death, but again, it's rushed through and we don't get the full impact.

The final image is nice and appropriately sad, but I didn't buy the character actions leading up to it. If the episode focused more on Karen and how isolated she felt with her foreknowledge, maybe this could have worked better.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Tales from the Darkside: The Circus

George Romero scripts (from a story by Sydney J. Bounds) and his longtime cinematographer Michael Gornick directs "The Circus," an episode heavy on atmosphere and filled with creepy monsters despite the predictable arc of its narrative.

Kevin O'Connor plays Bragg, a cynical newspaper columnist who enjoys exposing charlatans "to keep from going crazy." He stumbles upon a notorious circus run by the bizarre Dr. Nis (William Hickey), who promises a real-life vampire, werewolf, and mummy in his show. Bragg remains skeptical but agrees to a private showing of the circus "talent."

The monsters look cool, especially the vampire, which is more Orlock than Dracula. The circus itself is suitably gloomy and dark. It's obligatory, given this setup, that Bragg will discover his skepticism is misplaced and the horrors he's witnessing are real, but Gornick does an admirable job building a sense of dread and curiosity without resorting to creatures stalking the night and killing people. Being close to them, secured by the thinnest veneer of control, is enough.

The suspense stems not from being in danger but from creepy fascination. What will we see next? How will Bragg try to rationalize the latest horror? How can he keep rationalizing what he's seeing?

Near the end, Romero gives Nis a rather eloquent justification for why he showcases these depravities, and it's not hard to hear his words as a defense of the horror genre. Nis does not seek to titillate or disgust but to inspire wonder, to open the hearts and minds of people and to "keep alive the faith in the mystery of nature."

"If a man who believes sees a ghost, he's merely frightened. A man who disbelieves and comes face to face with what he denies may well die of shock."