Monday, October 31, 2011

31 Days of '81 Horror: Road Games (Richard Franklin)

Australian director Richard Franklin was an ardent admirer of Alfred Hitchcock, so much so that as a USC film student he was able to get the master of suspense to speak to his class. Franklin, who would go on to direct Psycho II in 1983 (my review) was definitely an alert student, and his dedication shines through in the wonderful suspense yarn, Road Game, where he takes the basic premise of Rear Window and molds it into something his own. Pat Quid (Stacey Keach), an educated American hauling pork across the highways of Australia, witnesses suspicious behavior and letting his imagination run wild, suspects a traveller of murder. Pat picks up a beautiful American hitch-hiker (Jamie Lee Curtis) who he names, ahem, Hitch, and together the duo gets wrapped up in these “road games” of proving their theories correct. But in a classic turning of the screws, the voyeur is finding himself an unwilling participant in a deadly game with the murderer who has been carefully, with the help of Pat’s sometimes erratic behavior, casting all the evidence of foul play towards the American driver.

Provided a clever script by Everret DeRoche, solid acting by the entire ensemble, and great location scouting, Franklin skillfully plays with expectations and churns out suspense masterfully. The writer and director create a community amongst the drivers and passengers on the highway, and Franklin is able to balance the suspense with some humor, as the film is essentially a character study with a murder mystery as a backdrop. With the exception of a final jump out scare, the film is light on gore, making it stand out from the other brethren of 1981 horror films. But don’t let the lack of splatter fool you; Franklin proves a deft hand at a major shock midway through the film. Like Hitchcock, Franklin flexes some major stylistic flourishes, especially in three scenes: the opening murder set at a motel which uses heavy stark white lighting from the bathroom as illumination and giallo like close-up on gloves and body parts; an impressive 360 degree shot that starts with Stacey Keach in the driver’s seat of his rig out to the road he drives and back to him; and a prolonged suspenseful scene where Pat is inspecting his load after discovering the latch open, and he walks through the eerily hung bodies of pigs (or "tomorrow’s bacon" as Hitch writes on the back of the truck), his air visible through the cold of the refrigeration.

And now we must praise Stacey Keach. Not blessed with matinee idol looks and sporting a visible hair lip when not covered by a moustache, Keach nonetheless was lucky enough to come to prominence in the 1970s, where a man of his unique physical looks and abundant talent was in demand. In films as disparate as Fat City, The Killer Inside Me, The Gravy Train, The Ninth Configuration, The Long Riders and this, Keach was able to show his versatile ability to hone thoughtful dramatic performance with a touch of humorous self-weariness. While it’s difficult to select only one from his career, I feel like Pat Quid may be Keach’s most essential role. Acting for most of the film by himself or talking to his dingo, Keach is able to project a history of the character. His character’s simultaneous boredom and joie de vivre is apparent as he has mapped out various ways to keep himself occupied and entertained by such tactics as creating identities and history for the fellow road travelers. Sure, this is aided by a well written character, but even with a good script, we have to spend a lot of time with Pat, and Keach’s laconic pleasantness is a joy. Even the love angle with Jamie Lee Curtis (making one of her final six horror appearances between the years 1978 and 1981) is tender and the duo has instant chemistry, despite the large age difference.

An accomplishment for all involved, Road Games is one of the best horror/suspense films of 1981, and a great way to close out our 31 day celebration of the year’s crop.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

31 Days of '81 Horror: Deadly Blessing (Wes Craven)

There’s a reason that so many horror films are centered around religious iconography. Every religion, no matter how loose or strident, comes down to the basic tenant of using fear as a motivator. Do good and you will go to heaven to hang out with God and his hippie son Jesus with all your friends and loved ones; however be bad, or more appropriately, fail to fully follow the particular customs and rules of your particular sect, and go to hell where you will burn for eternity. More people are told these “facts” at a particularly young and impressionable age, far younger than an age when most start to watch horror films. A Mennonite community such as the Amish, with their rejection of modern technology, division from the rest of society and their uniform policy of dress (emphasis on black, with men sporting long beards) seems rife for exploiting by a horror filmmaker, but with the exception of this film, and Children of the Corn, I cannot think of another horror film set amongst the Mennonites. And after watching the amateurish, confused and mediocre Wes Craven directed film Deadly Blessing, I am still waiting for a good horror film set amongst the Mennonites.

John Schmidt (Jeff East) is a former member of an Amish like church called Hittites, led by Ernest Borgnine. Although he still lives on a property neighboring the Hittites’ camps and has a good relationship with much of his former flock, the elders are disgusted at John’s marriage to the secular hottie Martha (Maren Jensen), and believe the house is their rightful possession. The newlyweds also have to deal with Michael Berryman going around calling them “the incubus” all the time, but to be fair, Michael Berryman does that all the time anyway. Soon it becomes obvious that tactics are being taken to scare the Schmidts off the land, primarily the suspicious death of John. When two equally attractive friends of Martha (including a very young Sharon Stone) move in to console the mourning widow, efforts seem ramped up to get them out as the young women teach some Hittites’ males an unexpected lesson in sexuality.

Though by this point director Wes Craven had already created the influential duo of Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, and was a few years away from creating one of the two films he is now most associated with amongst the general public (A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1996’s Scream being the other), the amateurish and poor craftsmanship displayed in Deadly Blessing is a microcosm for his overall inconsistent career. It’s amazing to compare Craven to John Carpenter who steadily improved from a technical standpoint and cultivated his own cinematic identity in the same era. Sure, you could say Last House was never a technical feat, but at least he was able to churn suspense and turn stomach. But here there’s no suspense, and the indifferent style seems TV movie-ish (actually Dark Night of the Scarecrow, which did premiere on television is far more cinematic). There’s no tone or rhythm, and when things get supernatural, well, they just kind of happen, in fairness the confusing piecemeal script (credited to Glenn Benest, Matthew Barr and Craven) pays the director no assistance. Interestingly though, there are at least three shot compositions that feel like beta testing for scenes that Craven would later recycle for Elm Street, I guess he figured no one was watching or would remember Deadly Blessing. The most obvious of which is a bathtub sequence that is pretty much a frame for frame precursor to the famous scene with Heather Lagenkamp in Elm Street, only with a giant python in the place of Freddy Krueger’s knife glove.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

31 Days of '81 Horror: Dead & Buried (Gary Sherman)

Welcome to the small fog enshrouded beach town of Potter’s Bluff, where things are the way they used to be, even if the citizens have to kill for it. Sheriff Dan Gillis (James Farentino) who has returned with his wife (Flash Gordon’s Melody Anderson) to his childhood hometown is in charge of investigating a rash of suspicious fatal accidents befalling tourists. Gillis seems to continually hit dead end after dead end as most of the residents deny ever seeing the deceased persons and he just can’t get proper assistance from the town kooky perfectionist mortician William Dobbs (Jack Albertson), a nattily attired elderly man who still drives a model T. The further Gillis investigates, the closer he comes to unraveling the town’s morbid secret, and the more he puts himself at risk.

Director Gary Sherman, and a team of four writers including Alien scripter Dan O’Bannon provide a light horror tone reminiscent of a different era (apropos for the film’s theme) yet when things need to get to a dark or gory place, Dead and Buried is able to navigate those waters with ease, reminiscent of the tonal shifts in a future O’Bannon film, Return of the Living Dead. The central mystery is pretty easy to deduce (I won’t spoil it here though) but leads to a great “the protagonist is fucked” endgame, and I got a kick out of the theme of the ironic extremes that a small town would go to keep itself distant from the modern “element”. The film features early work by special effects wizard Stan Winston (The Terminator, Jurassic Park), which though effective from afar, reveal the small budget and greenness of Winston’s experience in close-up shots. Dead and Buried is a small gem worth checking out, just don’t make any vacation plans in Potter’s Bluff.

Friday, October 28, 2011

31 Days of '81 Horror: Galaxy of Terror (Bruce D. Clark)

A few years ago I noticed that MAD magazine was still around, and that they were skewering the big release of the summer, The Dark Knight (I am assuming their parody was entitled “The Fart Knight”). The thing that got to me was this particular issue was coming out pretty much the same week as Christopher Nolan’s film. Knowing how deadlines work and how long it takes to write, ink and edit the piece, it occurred to me that this MAD piece was probably generated based on previews and other marketing tactics, whereas I know that in 1989, because I bought the issue, that their parody of Tim Burton’s film Batman (which I seem to recall was entitled “Blecchman”) came out in September, meaning, it was more likely the writers and artists actually had the opportunity to see the finish product that were satirizing beforehand, thus making their work more a response to the product than to the marketing. Now obviously the way information is disseminated these days requires a quick turnaround, and even a monster hit like The Dark Knight is probably gone from most cinemas three months’ after its release date, and is far enough removed from public consciousness that a MAD parody will feel stale, well more stale than usual for a MAD parody. Another example, and one that actually relates to the film being discussed today (yes, I’ll eventually provide some reviewing in this review) is the modern churner of direct to DVD rip-off releases of big blockbusters, Asylum Pictures. I should mention that I’ve never actually have seen one of their works in its entirety, but knowing what I know of their quality, I am going to take a stab that things like the Transmorphers series, and their hope that illiterate people grab this thinking that somehow they found a DVD of a film just released theatrically, aren’t exactly grand artistic achievements, or even try to be.

From the 1960’s to the 1980’s producer Roger Corman was the king of capitalizing on successful films of the day. Of course, back then successful films were not the manifest destinies they are today, so Corman and the filmmakers that worked for him had to wait to see which film audiences enjoyed. Thus, his “rip-offs” (for better lack of a word) were a response to their actual content and entailed a study of the film to see what made them work, a process that would take a few years generally. So Bonnie and Clyde (1967) begat Bloody Mama (1970), Jaws (1975) begat Piranha (1979), Star Wars (1977) begat Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), and yes, Alien (1979) begat Galaxy of Terror (1981).

Galaxy of Terror is basically Alien for those without an attention span, in fact the deliberate pacing of Ridley Scott’s film seem to be practically mocked when our captain Trantor (Grace Zabriskie) kicks off their crews mission to discover the whereabouts of a missing ship by kicking their shuttle into speeds so fast, it can only be visually implied with the actual film speeding up. The film packs as much disgusting space horrors: tentacles ripping off faces, body parts being torn off, faces exploding, even death via rape from a giant worm, as it can in its brief 81 minute running time, perhaps enough to equal the entire Alien series.

That’s of course not to say it’s anywhere in the class of Scott’s film, but unlike the previously mentioned Asylum production films, there was care put into making it a quality film. Even though it’s low budget surfaces during certain special effect sequences, a lot of attention was paid to the fine set design and matte paintings. The world created by the designers, which interestingly enough included future director of Aliens, James Cameron (another in the long tradition of Corman protégés that went on to bigger things), is a fog enshrouded, cavernous one, with a pyramid as the central force, and a very MC Escher vibe to the style. The practical effects of the tentacles can be very effectively skin crawling, especially when provided a good angle and darkness to hide the relative cheapness of them.

While the direction can be a little stiff at time, Bruce D. Clark is able to move things along at the breakneck pace clearly. The screenplay by Clark and Marc Siegler is a little heady and full of big announcements and platitudes for what is essentially a body count in space film, but I did love this one exchange: “Aren’t you afraid?” “No, I’m too scared to be” which enters the pantheon for ridiculous lines delivered with conviction along with such favorites as Road House’s “Pain don’t hurt”. A game cast includes Happy Days’ Joanie, Erin Moran, whose passing resemblance to Sigourney Weaver is actually subverted with her character’s fate, genre favorite Sid Haig, future Freddy Krueger Robert England, future softcore director Zalman King, and as the cook, Ray Walston, whose career would get a shot in the arm one year later, as Mr. Hand in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Galaxy of Terror is not a great film, but it’s a fun and obviously lovingly made B-movie, something that’s becoming more and more of a rarity these days.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

31 Days of '81 Horror: The Nesting (Armand Weston)

Horror novelist Laura Cochran (Robin Groves) is facing writer’s block and emotional instability in her New York neighborhood. She can’t leave the apartment without having nervous convulsion that her psychiatrist diagnoses as a case of agoraphobia. His recommendation is for her to get away from the big city (though that would seem a difficult task for an agoraphobic, but blah, logic) and she finds an old large abandoned and house in a small isolated lakeside town that she rents with the intention of fixing up. Shortly though, as is apt to happen in old large abandoned houses, especially one that we learn in the first sequence was the site of a post-World War II slaughter (the second 1981 horror film to open with murders involving homecoming WWII soldiers discussed here, the first being The Prowler), strange occurrences plague the writer. She has even more intense dreams, flashbacks of the houses past incarnation as a brothel, and visions of a faceless woman. What does the history of the house have to do with Laura? And why does it seem to manifest itself into terror to the ones that attempt to do her harm?

A case of decent parts adding up to a meh sum, The Nesting never really capitalizes on its potential. A haunted house story always leads to the inevitable suspension of disbelief in the viewer of why the person or persons doesn’t just leave (see Eddie Murphy’s routine about Amityville Horror in Delirious), however, with an agoraphobic lead character, the possibility for torment not only is more intense, but creates a self-writing character arc. Unfortunately, once she’s arrived in the new place, the agoraphobia issue is never again mentioned. The central resolution of the mystery is compelling, but that too is botched by just being revealed via an exposition heavy monologue (albeit by the awesome John Carradine) and a flashback that just serves as an addendum to the story instead of part of it. Director Armand Weston does a decent job, and there’s a good scythe to the face murder, but he mainly relies on old genre generic scare tactics like old phonographs playing themselves, windows shuttering and creaking hardwood floors. The central location is a scouting location coup though, and has great ambience, it would well serve a better film.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

31 Days of '81 Horror: Dark Night of the Scarecrow (Frank DeFellitta)

Pity to the simple minded giants in a horror movie for death or injury at the hands of a bloodthirsty mob is never far behind. Frankenstein’s monster just wanted some human companionship, but unable to process his full strength, he unexpectedly tossed a poor little girl to her death. In the made for TV, but surprisingly suspenseful and bloody, movie, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, slow witted child’s mind-in-a-man’s body, Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake), actually saves his young friend’s life, but is not sparred from the wrath of a small town gaggle of men, spurred on by voyeuristic, and possibly perverted minded, postal worker Otis Hazelrigg (Charles Durning).

Bubba’s best friend, a ten year old flower obsessed girl named Mary Lee decides to take a peak over the fence of a neighbor’s yard, but before we can cutaway to ominous looking gnomes, a German Shepard pounces on her. Bubba brings the unconscious child to her mother, but wires are crossed, and Otis, thinking that there’s no other explanation than Bubba must have finally snapped, gathers a posse to implement a little small town justice. Scared, Bubba, at the insistence of his mother, hides from the men, in their field, disguised as a scarecrow. But the posse discovers the ruse and kills Bubba, shooting first and asking questions later. Planting a pitchfork on Bubba, the men get off of murder charges by claiming a self-defense plea. Shortly after, the men responsible for Bubba’s death have scarecrows mysteriously appear in their own yards and are systemically killed. Is this the work of Bubba’s mother? The D.A. who swears for justice? Or has Bubba returned from the dead?

While a little padded for the simple nature of the film (probably to fit a 2 hour block of time with commercials), and prone to the occasional disinterested shot composition and technical aspects that one generally associates with the made for television films of the era, Dark Night also is very effective, both emotionally and suspense wise. The film was originally conceived to be made independently and then sold for theatrical release, so while some scenes of gore may have been edited for broadcast, it still has its share of bloodshed, and is more suspense than gore based either way. The scene where Bubba’s disguise is revealed is particularly harrowing and well executed. I would have liked one of the members of the posse to have misgivings about their participation, but really appreciated Durning’s, reveling in playing the villain, Otis becoming more power hungry and obsessive after getting away with murder. The film serves as a prototype for the Final Destination series, as it keeps the source of the mystery ambiguous, and each person dies in a Rube Goldberg-inspired method that could be explained away easily via circumstances.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

31 Days of '81 Horror: Ghost Story (John Irvin)

The premise of Ghost Story, four elderly men with a macabre secret from their past who meet weekly as the Chowder Society, where they tell one another scary stories is rife with potential for evocative subtext leaden spectral vengeance. Does this fifty year old practice really serve as a sort of coping mechanism for their guilty consciousness? Or is it possible subconscious self-punishment? And what happens when the spirits set their sights on the offspring of the Chowder Society members? Perhaps Peter Straub’s bestselling 560 page novel delves into these aspects…or at least is a compelling narrative, because unfortunately, the film adaptation bungles the promising premise and is a tonal mess and a bit of a dirge.

Director John Irvin, who did a fine job with the exciting mercenary film Dogs of War (my review) which was released in February of 1981, and screenwriter Lawrence Cohen (not too be confused with It’s Alive b-movie auteur Larry Cohen), certainly have some high ambitions for the film: dream sequences, long flashback sequences and no strict leading characters, that give it a more novelistic approach than a straight three act structure, but it feels like too much was condensed from the novel to fit a just under two hour running time, resulting in a film that feels too short for its ambitions, but too long for what it actually is. The film opens with an effective sequence showing the four elderly leads (Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, and Melvyn Douglas) being shaken from their sleep, set to an effectively eerie score by composer Phillipe Sarde. The film has nice snowy atmosphere, but Irvin has no feel for manufacturing thrills or working with special effects, diminishing what should be the film’s strongest moments. From there on, most of the scare tactics are juvenile jump scares and ineffective.

The other major flaw is the film’s schizophrenic tone. A major marketing of the film was the assembled cast from Hollywood’s past, but what’s not accounted for is that with the exception of Douglas none of the foursome is exactly known for their horror chops (though Houseman appeared in 1980’s The Fog and Douglas in The Changeling), and only Houseman actually seems particularly interested in the genre at this point. And sexuality is a major component for a movie starring several elderly people; hopefully the audience who grew up watching Astaire films appreciated their glimpses at a full frontal Craig Wasson!

Monday, October 24, 2011

31 Days of '81 Horror: Blood Beach (Jeffrey Bloom)

Thirty years later and that poster and its tagline (“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, you can’t get to it!”—a riff on the famous Jaws 2 marketing) is still indelible for genre fans. Unfortunately, it appears the poster was conceived first, probably by legendary exploitation market producer Jerry Gross (Teenage Mother, I Drink Your Blood), and the film second, since both that image as well as the tagline are recreated on screen (John Saxon gets the pleasure of reciting that line!)

Blood Beach combines elements from both the burgeoning slasher genre as well as the more classic 1950s era monster movie tropes and transplants them to a beach setting. A quiet community (played by Santa Monica) is shocked as residents seemingly vanish in thin air while on the beach. The effect of sand sucking people into it is pretty good considering the low budget of the film, though each victim seems to have a completely different injuries resulting via the sand monster that range from disappearing entirely, getting decapitated, the rapist who gets his dick torn off, and most heinous of all, the teenage girl whose legs get all scratched up!!!

The problem is that the set pieces are either very short or we just witness the aftermath, and for the rest of the running time we are stuck with long stretches comprised solely of the lame “witty banter” of cops Saxon, Otis Young and Burt Young and the budding rekindled romance of the bland lifeguard lead (David Huffman) and his old flame (Marianna Hill). When the “exciting” moments do occur on screen, they are over quickly and sans any sense of suspense or atmosphere from director Jeffrey Bloom (Flowers in the Attic). Spoiler alert: the monster perpetrating these acts looks like an artichoke.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

31 Days of '81 Horror: The Funhouse (Tobe Hooper)

I’ve gathered from some of my perusal of reviews online that The Funhouse is not the most highly regarded horror film of 1981, which is probably due to the fact that the film is pretty back loaded; there’s not a killing until about the fifty-five minute mark, and even the titular funhouse is not visited until ten minutes prior to that. Additionally, save for the enchanting Elizabeth Berridge (probably best known for her role as Mozart’s wife in Amadeus) as the virginal (though frequently topless) suburban girl next door, the other three lead characters and performers are obnoxious and indistinct, which come to think of it are issues one could raise with Hooper’s seminal Texas Chain Saw Massacre, to which this film resembles the closest out of all in the director’s oeuvre (I’d argue even more so than Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2.)

What enjoyment I did garner from the film in the non-horror sections were Hooper’s keen eye for the suburban milieu of the early 1980’s (something he would exploit to even further lengths in his next film, Poltergeist) and the loving care and detail given to the ramshackle carnival and the societal outcasts that operate it (including DePalma favorite William Finley as a possibly demented magician). The rickety well-trodden yet temporal nature of the structures, the slightly askew and older faces of the carnies (and freak show animals!) and the sinister sheen of the rides’ animatronics give the film an eerie atmosphere, that frankly I found more effective than any suspense Hooper is able to churn once the film becomes a routine, yet oddly blood and goreless (the MPAA’s work?) body count slasher picture.

Hooper subtly and slyly comments on the changing landscape of fear and entertainment, and how something quaint like a hand built funhouse seem to youths such as the protagonists when compared to modern horror films. Like Massacre, there’s also a twisted display of family, and Hooper contrasts the killer with the “normal kids” of whom he shares a sexual immaturity and penchant for wearing Frankenstein monster masks.

31 Days of '81 Horror: Scary Places

Tonight, we kick off the final week of our celebration of horror films from 1981 with the last category of the month, this time our focus will be on films centered around spooky locations.

Throughout the course of the next days we will visit haunted houses, carnivals, cornfields, and the highways of Australia. Please read from the safety of your own home.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

31 Days of '81 Horror: The Hand (Oliver Stone)

Jon Lansdale (Michael Caine) appears to have it all: a successful comic strip, a beautiful wife, a devoted child, a beautiful home in Vermont, all of his appendages. Jon’s comic strip is a Robert E. Howard Conan like barbarian, with a very maculine world view, which is obviously how Jon views himself. However, the cracks in that veneer are quickly exposed when his wife reveals she wants to move back to New York, to you know, find herself. Jon’s not having any of it, and in a tense car ride home in a swerving one lane highway, a heated argument leads to an auto accident that finds him quickly separated from his “drawing” hand. The hand is never actually found, and immediately, his life begins to fall apart, despite getting a cool new robotic hand. He can no longer produce his beloved strip and his agent wants to replace him with an arty intellectual (Charles Fleischer, Roger Rabbit himself) who wants to make his hero more introspective and weak, his wife is having an affair with her yoga instructor and the only job he can procure is at a City college in a small mountain town in California where not one of his students can name a comic strip they actually read.

He also begins to have visions of his missing hand-shot in eerie black and white which has a gothic Universal horror look, a Grand Guignol style that is a nice contrast to the more basic visual style of the rest of the film, haunting his dreams, and making him lose control of his emotions. Soon his enemies: a homeless man (played by director Oliver Stone) who assaults him, the cute co-ed who is having an non-exclusive affair with him and a psychology professor at the school who is on to him, are dispersed one by one in gorier and gorier fashion. Has his haunted appendage taken a life of his own that manifest itself into action at the darker impulses of Jon? Or is Jon really off his rocker?

Michael Caine, his hair curly and long, which causes him to resemble Gene Wilder when his character gets more ragged, is an interesting choice as the modern man with a more Neanderthal view of himself which is nowhere close to the reality. One would think someone like Burt Reynolds or Clint Eastwood would have been the obvious choice over the more cerebral Brit actor, but the choice of Caine is intriguing because it takes little convincing that he’s really cuckolded. This was filmed during a streak of two other horror films for the actor (1980’s The Island and Dressed to Kill) and at a point where Caine was freely admitting to doing work for the pay (and additions to his house) more than for their quality, although Dressed to Kill is awesome (and my 4th favorite film of 1980). Caine seems a bit bored during the more melodramatic moments, but fully embraces Jon’s descent into madness.

Never one to be fond of subtlety, even when he became the premier director of hot button issue dramas that were Academy Award fodder in the latter half of the decade (Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July) director Oliver Stone feels a bit constrained here. Sure just reading the plot synopsis gives you a sense that everything is pretty off-the-wall, and Stone is not afraid to embrace some of the more fantastic elements of the script, it’s just missing an extra oomph, as if Stone struggled whether to explore the project from a serious minded or exploitative vantage point. The result is in someone in the middle, making for an enjoyable, if overlong, film with some salient thematic depth, but one that had the making of something more insane, and intriguing, lurking in its, pardon the pun, grasp.

Friday, October 21, 2011

31 Days of '81 Horror: Scanners (David Cronenberg)

When you think of the expression “body horror” in relation to cinema, one man’s name probably comes to the forefront of your mind, Canadian writer-director David Cronenberg. With the exception of his funny car racing film Fast Company, Cronenberg specialized exclusively from his feature debut, Shivers, in 1975 to 1988’s Dead Ringers in brainy horror films that dealt with the effects of altered, modified or mutated human bodies as the source of the terror. Unlike his first three horror films (Shivers, Rabid and The Brood), the horror in the human structure in Scanners is not transmitted or manifested sexually, but via the mind.

Mixing action, suspense, some gallows humor, technology and yes, a great head explosion, Cronenberg crafts a world, not so different than ours, where a select few people carry a genetic imprint that grants them telepathic capabilities and the ability to control minds. The more advanced of these scanners can communicate with computers and alter infrastructure or even transmit enough energy to cause the aforementioned head explosion. Taking an approach that would be applied in the X-Men films, the scanners seem to see the burden of their mutation as something of a crutch that leads them to sever ties to the human race, often times after causing harm to themselves in a vain attempt to be “normal’, with the exception of one evil renegade scanner mastermind, who we know is evil because he’s played by Michael fucking Ironside, who is assassinating scanners and injecting newborns with the drug that causes the abnormality in an attempt to create an army of scanners at his beck and call for eventual world domination. The only hope for salvation rests in the hands of a troubled mysterious homeless man, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) who learns how to harness his powers from a scientist that spearheaded the scanner program (Patrick McGoohan) who shares a secret past relationship with Cameron.

With aplomb, director David Cronenberg makes Scanners his most ambitious film to date. He creates a futuristic world that is large in scope (if limited in geography) with a naturally lived in quality. While his budget may have been small, he makes the limited resources work in his favor by having many of the major moments set in offices and board rooms, aiding the corporate infested vision of the future. And when there is a big chase scene, he proves a deft director of action sequences. Dick Smith’s make up effects team does a tremendous job throughout, but especially in the final body melting confrontation between Ironside and Lack; and frequent Cronenberg collaborator Howard Shore provides a synthesizer based score that is eerie and matches the coldness of the characters and the locations.

Until his next film, Videodrome, David Cronenberg never was gifted with, let’s say an "accomplished", actor in the leading protagonist role. That is certainly the case here with Stephen Lack. Wooden and emotionless to the extreme, his performance was always the sticking point keeping myself from fully embracing the film. I am not sure if it took multiple viewings to get this, or if I am just a fool, but this time around I saw Lack’s awkward inhuman performance as being conceived as such, he is a character who knows little about himself or the human race after all. Lack’s distant nature also serves as a nice complimentary extreme separation between his paternal doctor (McGoohan chewing scenery left and right) and his main advisory, the gleefully sadistic and fatalistic Michael Ironside.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

31 Days of '81 Horror: Strange Behavior (Michael Laughlin)

A curio that lives up to the adjective in its title, Strange Behavior is a New Zealand shot film, though set in an American Midwestern suburb, that combines the slasher genre craze of the late 1970s/early 1980s with a 50’s sci-fi B-movie structure and a slight comic edge. The resulting film doesn’t always meld together perfectly, and its large ambition is hampered by the small budget and relative inexperience of director Michael Laughlin, making his directing debut, but it’s usually interesting.

John Brady (Michael Murphy) is a widowed detective in a small college town who begins investigating the death of his son’s classmates, which leads him to a fantastical laboratory performing experiments on humans turning them into killing machines. Starting off rather slowly, the film begins to take some unique and unexpected turns as the plot thickens.

The script was written by director Laughlin and future Academy Award nominee Bill Condon. Condon who would spend a good decade and a half toiling in genre fare before eventually became an Oscar favorite with 1998’s Gods and Monsters, a biopic covering the life and death of eccentric Frankenstein director James Whale, which he followed up with the biopic Kinsey and the Broadway adaptation, Dreamgirls (he’s also directing the final Twilight films). I’m guessing Condon is responsible for some of Strange Behavior’s more off-kilter, and endearing, touches, such as the homoerotic nature of some of the killings (all the victims are male), mad scientist characters that recollect the heyday of Universal Horror (such as Bride of Frankenstein’s Dr. Pretorius, directed by Whale) and a house party that at one point busts out in a fully choreographed dance routine! Tangerine Dream, who also provided the soundtrack for another 1981 film, Michael Mann’s Thief, provides the dreamy, but not quite as memorable as some of the other’s score.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

31 Days of '81 Horror: Looker (Michael Crichton)

Like Westworld before and Jurassic Park after, Looker is a Michael Crichton conceived (he wrote and directed the film) adventure thriller concerning the price one pays for the pursuit of perfection. But instead of focus on recreating the Wild West with robots or splicing DNA to resurrect dinosaurs, the focus here is the prescient study of modifying one’s appearance to the vague concept of flawlessness.

Dr. Larry Roberts (Albert Finney) is a playboy Beverly Hills plastic surgeon who discovers a conspiracy when investigating the death of several of his patients, all actresses and models, that leads him to a shadowy organization (aren’t they all?) lead by John Reston (James Coburn), whose next target is commercial actress and potential Dr. Roberts’ love interest Cindy Fairmont (Susan Dey).

While the investigation of the themes surrounding the possible horrific ramifications of perfecting one’s body Looker offers are only skin deep (har har) and never as probing or reaching as David Cronenberg’s work, it still has its share of ridiculous fun moments. Chiefly amongst these are a ray gun that enables the target unconscious, and waking in another time and space, which is liberally (and quite frankly inconsistently) used to great effect, especially in a car chase between Finney and 80’s henchman favorite Tim Rossovich (succinctly and appropriately credited as “Moustache Man”). The conclusion also is a blast, with an almost Looney Tunes level of inspired zaniness involving a chase through videos of commercials. Crichton employed actual television commercial directors of the era to craft realistic reproductions of their work.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

31 Days of '81 Horror: Tattoo (Bob Brooks)

In the opening of Tattoo, Karl Kinsky, a soldier on vacation in Japan (Bruce Dern) witnesses a ceremonial ritual featuring full body tattooed men in sumo loincloths and is instantly transfixed. Upon returning to the United States, specifically Hoboken, New Jersey, Kinksy, an obsessive personality, has replicated the tattoos on his body and has become an in demand tattoo artist. The permanence of the art form leaves an indelible mark on Kinsky, whose relationships with other people, including his family, are fleeting and shallow. That is until his infatuation with a model, Maddy (Maude Adams), comes to fruition when he’s hired to paint tattoos on her for a photo shoot. But then his obsessiveness takes hold.

First and only time director Bob Brooks probably envisioned this as a similar take on obsessive psychosis to Taxi Driver, and character actor extraordinaire Bruce Dern is definitely capable of such a performance; however it is just a rote variation of the fill-in-the-blank from hell thriller that Play Misty for Me made famous. While I appreciate a film that doesn’t provide all the details, I still wonder what specifically about the Maude Adams character Dern found so fascinating other than her beauty, which seems like the exact superficiality that he rejects. Consequently, after a disastrous dinner at the restaurant I also struggled to accept that Adams’ strung him along for as long as she did before finally severing ties with him, other than the plot called for it.

With all that said, things do pick up in the final act when Kinsky’s possessive instincts lead to a kidnapping. The film finally reaches the uncomfortable tension that had been building up as Kinsky rapes his infatuation’s skin not through sexual penetration but through the act of tattooing her entire body against her will. The film hints at a surprising turn of events until ultimately returning to the familiar generic thriller beats.

Monday, October 17, 2011

31 Days of '81 Horror: Possession (Andrez Zuwalski)

Perhaps the most atypical movie to be discussed this month (but we’ll see), this is one film where the madness and insanity contained within it extends outwardly and affects the viewer. Employing frequent use of hypnotic roaming long shots and disorienting compositions and editing that moves time and space without any forewarning, Andrez Zuwalski’s Possession uses the form of cinema to put us in its character’s state of mind as they crumble to psychotic results.

Combining horror/science fiction tropes and the confines of Germany under Communist rule with the looming Berlin Wall as a key visual metaphor, Zulawski’s singular vision explores the emotional violence and visceral effects of divorce, ultimately positing the question: could an alien species be any worse than us humans? Or at least that’s one interpretation I deduced, it’s an ambiguous and sometimes impenetrable (though always intriguing) film.

Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill give performance turned up to eleven that would probably make Nicolas Cage blush and say “that’s maybe a skooch too much guys” but work perfectly within the film’s parameters. They are, pardon the pun, truly possessed.

31 Days of '81 Horror: Body Horror

Our bodies are our temples. But our temples are pretty gross. Feces, spit, vomit, urine, mucus, phlegm, and blood are just a small sample of the disgusting excretion we all perform on a daily basis. We like to keep our bodies in shape, healthy and free from germs, so when a movie can effectively exploit the possible lack of control over our physical being, it can cause an instinctive discomfort that we feel internally.

Over the next few days, we will be spending some time exploring body horror. Vomit bags sold separately.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

31 Days of '81 Horror: Halloween II (Rick Rosenthal)

Look guys, life is sometimes too short to rewatch a movie you’ve seen several times before and think is merely “okay”, especially when you are reviewing 30 other horror film from one particular year, so today’s entry is a bit of a cheat, as I reprint my thoughts on Rick Rosenthal’s sequel, Halloween II from October 30th, 2009. I feel it’s too big of a title to ignore in this celebration of all that was horror cinema in 1981, especially since so many of my reviews reference the influence (and high quality) of Carpenter’s original. I also figured most readers didn’t see this the first time I posted it, and if they did, it’s been two years; why not give it another read?

Two points of interest: 1.) This was conceived as a bulletin point post where I listed the Good, the Bad and the Ugly aspects of the film instead of a cohesive review, that method is restored here. 2.) I make a lot of references to the then newly released Rob Zombie film of the same name, which I had provided a similar breakdown of the day before this piece was originally posted. If you’d like to read that first to get all the references, then click here.

Spoilers, ye be warned

The Good:

-I think what appeals to most viewers, and me too, at least to the extent I had considered this a genuinely "good" film until recently, is that it takes place almost literally the second after the original ended. While the film ultimately doesn't work as a whole, the gimmick of making the first two films take place over the course of the entire day, or at least once Laurie Strode's character is introduced, plays into various what then? questions or theories viewers might have formulated after constant reviewing and analyzing of the first film.

-Most of the characters (and actors) from the first film return, which other than obviously Donald Pleasance and Jamie Lee Curtis, means that Charles Cyphers is back as Sheriff Brackett as is Nancy Loomis in a cameo as his deceased daughter, Annie. Brackett seeing his murdered daughter provides some weight to the proceedings and a scene we rarely see in slasher movies, the parent coping with the death of their teenage child. We also learn the fate of Laurie's crush Ben Tramer.

-This is the movie where Donald Pleasance lets his ham freak fly, he's great here and increases Loomis' obsessive relationship to his former patient. Plus he gets a wonderful line at the beginning where stewing over losing Myers, an awakened by the racket neighbor tells him to quiet down because "I've been Trick Or Treated to death tonight" to which he impudently replies "You don't know what death is!" Cue the famous Carpenter score and opening credits. This is the best moment of the film.

-While I find Dick Warlock's portrayal of "The Shape" severely lacking, there's a wonderful moment where he finally gets Laurie within his sights and he just walks through a glass door without pause. It's the only time Warlock approaches the conviction of Nick Castle's original performance.

-The final shots of the film: Laurie being taken from one hospital after surviving a night of horrors to god knows where with an expression of complete blankness on her face. She finally has a moment's pause to reflect on what just happened in the last 12 or so hours...CUT TO...Myers on fire, his mask in flames...FADE OUT...end of film. This is more unsettling than anything in either of the "trying too hard to be unsettling" Zombie films.

The Bad:

-While most of the surviving cast returns, what happened to the kids, Lindsay and Tommy? I realize that the actors would have looked the most different of all the cast in the three year gap between films, and thus would not be able to reprise their roles, but recast or at least a mention of them would be appreciated.

-Speaking of missing cast members, don't you think the Strodes would want to visit their daughter in the hospital, even if she is (and we'll get to this in the Ugly section) "adopted".

-The first film features a body count of five, but over the course of Halloween night, only three. The sequel really amps up the number of killings, a pardon the pun, stab at, ironically enough, keeping pace with the Halloween slasher film imitators that popped up with great frequency after the originals success. It seems like Myers goes out of his way to kill people here, with none of the watching or premeditation that the original film established.

-Speaking of killing, and again this was probably a response to the imitators, Myers uses a plethora of weapons in II whereas in the original he uses either a knife (a phallic extension) or his hands. I prefer the more primal Myers over the hot tub dunking one.

-The first Halloween has atmosphere and is scary, Friday the 13ths and other imitators ramped up the gore, Halloween II exists somewhere between, trying to emulate the originals suspense but without the assured pacing of Carpenter's film while trying to up the gore quotient. In that regards it fails to reach the heights of the work of someone like Tom Savini. The result is a film that's neither scary nor gory. According to IMDB, which is not all that reliable (at least two of the trivia bits they state for the film are false), Carpenter added the gore scenes after shooting, which makes sense as they feel like an afterthought.

-Too many fake jump scares, yeah the first film has it's share, but here it's a crutch that is relied on too much. Example: a cat jumps out from a previously closed dumpster, a minute or so after it's already been opened to provide a "shock"

-For the most part they recycle the original theme, which I am fine with, it's the same night, the theme is iconic, why not? But they add little flourishes (not sure if this was Alan Howarth's contribution, he's listed as a second composer in the credits) which are distracting for those like myself who are intimately familiar with the original score.

-Am I missing something, why is everyone constantly blaming Loomis for Myers' escape. Was he responsible for security at the Haddonfield Mental Hospital? Loomis was the only one who was prepared for his return and he did plug a chamber's worth of bullets into him. It's not his fault Myers escaped and is virtually unkillable. Lay off the guy.

The Ugly:

-Like I said before, Nick Castle had a deliberateness and grace in his portrayal of Myers that Dick Warlock just doesn't possess, we don't see the voyeuristic aspects of Myers here, he pops up, jumps from out of nowhere, it is what it ultimately is, a stunt man doing stunts, not an actor giving a performance.

-The direction. What better way to compare a visionary director to an anonymous one than watching Halloween and part II back to back, granted as a producer Carpenter probably oversaw a lot of the production (which would have been right smack between Escape From New York and The Thing), but there's no pacing, the deliberate nature of the first film is completely gone leaving us with a hurry up and get this done with tempo, the shot compositions are lazy (even with cinematographer Dean Cundey returning), the film suffers from bad editing and most of all, it just is not suspenseful. In Rosenthal's defense, the script, by original Halloween scribes Carpenter and Debra Hill is no great shakes.

-The Sister thing. The twist that effectively killed the mystery and much of thematic elements of the first film and gave Myers, who originally embodied unclassifiable evil, a lame and simple purpose. He was no longer "The Shape" or "The Boogeyman" he became "The dude who wants to kill his sisters". John Carpenter himself even dismisses this addition as a gimmick, put in to capitalize on the Luke Skywalker-Darth Vader paternal relationship in Empire Strikes Back. What's worse, is there's no thought put into it, and only 2 scenes that mention the sister-brother link, a fuzzy focus flashback that Laurie has in the midst of her hospital recuperation (because that's when I always randomly recall the one time my mother told me I was adopted and then took me to meet my mute murderous older brother) and when Loomis' doctor pal, Dr. Exposition, er, Marion, informs Loomis of the familial connection. I would appreciate someone doing a fan edit of the film and remove those scenes, even if it wouldn't completely redeem the film. What's most upsetting is that everyone takes Laurie and Michael's relationship to be canonical, Rob Zombie who claimed that he either hated or never saw the sequels made it a major factor of his two films and I even have friends who are convinced the baby sister is seen at some point in the first scenes of the original film. FYI: She's not.

In conclusion, if you must see a movie named Halloween II, definitely make it the 1981 Rick Rosenthal directed film. But your best bet is sticking with Carpenter's original or the Myers-less Halloween III: Season of the Witch.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

31 Days of '81 Horror: Happy Birthday to Me (J. Lee Thompson)

Though Happy Birthday to Me doesn’t quite live up to the poster’s hyperbolic promise of “six of the most bizarre murders you’ll ever seen”, mainly due to MPAA’s strident editing of violence from slasher movies in the decade, it does deserves some props for featuring murder scenes whose methodology is more inventive than your typical butcher knife or machete slaying. And yes, someone does get a shish kebab shoved through their mouth. And if you have ever experienced any scarf related trauma, this is definitely not the film for you.

While featuring the typical cast of co-eds as potential fodder, including the nerd, the shy girl, the smart ass, and a new favorite rarity, the French jock, as well as the typical Ten Little Indians mystery and giallo flashback structure so favored by the slasher genre of the era, it does differ in a few respects. Instead of some inexperienced but hungry young buck behind the camera, J. Lee Thompson (Guns of the Navarone, the original Cape Fear, several Charles Bronson’s 70’s/80 ‘s programmers), who was the ripe age of 67 when the film was released, directs. The film also gives a significant role to 50’s film noir mainstay and Pa Kent in the 1978 film, Superman, Glen Ford, was developed and released via a major studio (versus being merely distributed a la the first Friday the 13th film), and at an hour and fifty minutes, runs a good twenty minutes longer than its many counterparts.

Ultimately the extended running time is felt early, as it slogs along slowly. Part of the problem is that though we spend a longer amount of time with the murder fodder, they are still barely distinguishable from one another save for the main lead, Virginia (Melissa Sue Anderson) and future character actor Matt Craven. In an attempt to conceal the identity of the killer, Thompson and screenwriters John CW Saxton, Peter Jobin and Timothy Bond, go to unintentionally comic lengths to draw suspicion on everyone (including having a character have a life like severed head he crafted sitting on a dish with red paint below!). The flashbacks to a past traumatic event in Virginia’s life are handled very well, intriguing us just right with bits and pieces to keep us tantalized before the final reveal. The film really picks up in the last act, and blazes towards a twisted conclusion. Unfortunately, not knowing when to stop, a final twist was added late in the game, and seeing how it was probably conceived in the shooting stage, it feels tacked on and weakens some of the impact of the otherwise awesome conclusion

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