Monday, December 15, 2008

#119: Horror Business


Horror Business
Written and Directed by Christopher P. Garetano
Released 2005

For some of my friends, this is all they'll need to know about the 2005 documentary Horror Business: as it opens, we join American Movie's Mark Borchardt as he begins filming a new movie, Scare Me. In case you're worried that Borchardt may not be the same well of hilarity that he was years ago, he immediately reminds you of his awesomeness by saying into the telephone, "Dan, dude, it's Mark. Thanks for being in my movie tomorrow. Are you down for that, or is your life in another direction?"

For those who need a little more description, the subject matter of Horror Business is quite literally about the business of making horror movies, and more specifically, independent horror movies. When I say "independent" here, I'm not even talking about lower budget stuff put out by studios like Miramax or those Rob Zombie movies... I'm talking about people making homemade flicks in the same way that George Romero or Herschell Gordon Lewis did when they began. I'm talking about the kind of movies that run the risk of emptying someone's bank account and destroying someone's life, yet they still get made.

I've mentioned before that I thought the most interesting layer of American Movie is the underlying element where, if you're paying attention, you go beyond laughing at Borchardt and his wacky cast of characters and realize that no matter how comical all of this shit seems, this guy really is pursuing a dream. Whether you think it's successful or garbage is beside the point.

If you go see some opening band at some club in your town and you think they suck, that's fine. But at least they tried, you know? Laugh as derisively as you want, but have you really put forth the effort into the things you wanted to do? Maybe you wanted to be an astronaut when you grew up... but did you at least try going to Space Camp, for fuck's sake? There are millions of people out there who might say, "Mark Borchardt? Dude is no Steven Spielberg." You know what? Fuck Steven Spielberg.

Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of crap among the good discussed in Horror Business. I may never want to sit through a movie like the ones Ron Atkins makes in Horror Business (they actually look quite terrible), but he's not hurting me one bit by continuing to do what he does. Plus, there's something awesome about scenes like the one from his Dark Night of the Soul where a man in a skull mask attacks his victim and calls him a "dick-lickin' punk."

For every bit of junk documented in Chris Garetano's movie, there are hints of real talent that Hollywood should look into, like David Stagnari, who seems to make the most of his tiny budgets in films like Catharsis. Maybe, however, Hollywood doesn't even deserve a fresh voice when they keep remaking classics like The Omen or Texas Chain Saw Massacre. One of the interview subjects in Horror Business puts things into perspective as he complains about the studio system and celebrity, saying he hates, "How they complain, how they gotta have a certain kind of water, they gotta have this in their trailer.... shut the fuck up and be in a movie!"

Ultimately, I think I was hoping that Horror Business would be a little more informative about the industry and about how the people in this film maintain a living. Instead, it's more of a "power of positive thinking" piece for the independent filmmaker looking for a reason to keep going.

For more on Horror Business:
- Movie information at IMDB.
- Buy the DVD from the doc's official site.

The Horror Business trailer:

Thursday, December 11, 2008

#118: Dead Man's Shoes


Dead Man's Shoes
Directed by Shane Meadows
Written by Paddy Considine, Shane Meadows and Paul Fraser
Released October 1, 2004

"God will forgive them. He'll forgive them and allow them into Heaven. I can't live with that."

And so begins Dead Man's Shoes, a dark, dour and pretty bad ass revenge flick that combines Death Wish with just a hint each of Friday the 13th and The Sixth Sense. None of this comparison will make sense until you've seen the entire movie, but it's all pretty apt.

Paddy Considine (whose biggest role prior to this was probably as Joy Division's manager in 24 Hour Party People, though he has appeared in a handful of recognizable films) absolutely owns in a story he co-wrote with director Shane Meadows about a soldier named Richard who has returned home to avenge the abuse of his mentally disabled brother at the hands of a gang of drug dealers and thugs.

As Richard methodically doles out his revenge, we gradually learn details - via black & white flashbacks - of his brother's ordeal. As we learn more about the teasings and beatings, Richard's punishments gradually become more righteous.

Meadows makes great use of an offbeat soundtrack that features Smog, Calexico, Danger Mouse, Will Oldham, Aphex Twin, M. Ward and more. It's one of those rare movies that uses well-chosen popular music seamlessly, rather than being cut to look like a music video that has been crammed into the middle of a story.

The only thing a bit off for me was the melodramatic ending, where a major character makes a major decision that I'm just not sure I completely believe. Perhaps if I understood more about the sadness or pain going on inside this person, I could understand this choice, but from where I was sitting, it definitely seemed like a convenient way to end the film rather than a believable choice that a real human would make.

Regardless, I was immediately taken in by Dead Man's Shoes, a pretty basic film with a simple plot that was easily elevated above genre dreck like the Death Sentence by the acting and the craft put into it. I will be disappointed if Considine doesn't get more large roles like this in the future. Sure, he might have to keep writing them for himself, but a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.

For more on Dead Man's Shoes:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The Dead Man's Shoes trailer:

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

#117: The Grand


The Grand
Directed by Zak Penn
Written by Matt Bierman and Zak Penn
Released April 4, 2008

To sum up The Grand is simple: think Best in Show or This is Spinal Tap or A Mighty Wind but replace their subject matter (dog shows, heavy metal or folk music, respectively) with a championship poker tournament. If you know those other movies, then you know you're in for some improvisational comedy with an ensemble cast.

While actors like Hank Azaria, Dennis Farina, Jason Alexander, Chris Parnell, Michael McKean and Woody Harrelson (in full Roy Munson mode) are all likely to put a smile on your face, the inclusion of Gabe Kaplan (the one and only Mr. Kotter) as the father of "identical twins" David Cross and Cheryl Hines really sealed the deal for me. Plus, in a truly inspired and oddball casting choice, you've got directer Werner Herzog as The German.

A number of small stories intertwine throughout this mockumentary, but the story revolves around casino heir Jack Faro (Harrelson) trying to win the $10 million tournament to save his family's casino.

Some of the gags don't work (like the fake instructional Werbe home video), but other material, like the Hines/Cross relationship and Parnell's borderline autistic character Harold, are fun to watch.

The Grand isn't great by any stretch of the definition, but it's a good time, especially if you're into poker or have caught yourself watching one of those late night Texas Hold 'Em shows. Actually, if you're not a fan or player of the game, you'll probably be out of the movie by the second half, when the players make it to the last table in the tournament. I won't tell you who makes it to the table, but it falls on these actors to keep the movie amusing and entertaining... not an easy feat for a game of cards.

In an interesting twist, director Zak Penn decided to make the final table of this fictional tournament a real game, so the winner of the game -- and the end of the movie -- was truly up for grabs.

For more on The Grand:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- The official site.
- Buy the DVD.

The trailer for The Grand:

#116: Solaris


Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Written by Fridrikh Gorenshtein and Andrei Tarkovsky (based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem)
Released March 20, 1972

In this blog's tradition of wildly swinging the door in the opposite direction, today we're going from the blatant stupidity of Jake Speed to a three hour Russian-directed and iceberg-slow meditation on loss, memory and psychosis.

I was drawn to this film after stumbling onto the 2002 remake, directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney, on cable one night. While Soderbergh is definitely one of my favorite directors, he has had a few missteps. Therefore, I was unsurprised when I read reviews of his Solaris that found the movie boring and disappointing. Seeing it for myself, I was drawn in by the very things that reviewers were complaining about, most notably its lull-inducing, dreamlike pace.

In Tarkovsky's Solaris, a psychologist named Chris Kelvin is sent to a space station that has been observing a strange planet, the titular Solaris. Upon his arrival, the station (which has been observing the planet for decades but has been unable to make much scientific progress) is in disarray, with the few scientists who have remained in various states of paranoia or confusion. Kelvin also begins to catch glimpses of other inhabitants on the station, people who shouldn't be there -- and who would have had no way of getting there.

Is the station haunted? Is Solaris more than a planet?

There is a sequence about 35 minutes into the movie that is the kind of thing that will separate fans of traditional movie storytelling from those who have a little more patience with putting more thought into the images they are processing. It's essentially just a wordless segment of a character's car ride through streets and tunnels, but set to the sound effects of a space launch. Most viewers would watch this and think "Why is this in the movie?" Really, though, it's there to show how much this particular character's journey is still affecting him, so many years after he has returned to Earth. He's haunted, permanently scarred even, and this sequence is basically laying the groundwork for what we're about to see another character experience. In Hollywood, this sequence would have been hacked out, and probably wouldn't even end up on the DVD as bonus footage.

In the film, a psychologist named Kris Kelvin is sent to a space station that has been observing a strange planet, the titular Solaris. Upon his arrival, the station (which has been observing the planet for decades but has been unable to make much scientific progress) is in disarray, with the few scientists who have remained in various states of paranoia or confusion. Kelvin also begins to catch glimpses of other inhabitants on the station, people who shouldn't be there -- and who would have had no way of getting there. It's not long before Kelvin himself is experiencing visions.

Is he hallucinating? Is the station haunted? Is Solaris more than a planet?

Solaris is, in a strange way, a spiritual offspring of 2001. Rather than comment on man's progress, it's more about how mankind cannot cope with the things it cannot understand. There's also a sense that the further into the unknown mankind goes, the further into itself and its own mysteries it gazes. I'm tempted to go further, but I'm worried that my pontification will spoil the movie for anyone who might want to give it a shot.

It's unfortunate that Tarkovsky felt that Solaris was his least successful film, because it's a beautiful and unique thing to behold... one of those works of art that could really have made people feel different about the Soviets at its time of release and in the Cold War that followed.

For more on :
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The Solaris trailer:

Saturday, December 6, 2008

#115: Jake Speed


Jake Speed
Directed by Andrew Lane
Written by Andrew Lane and Wayne Crawford
Released May 30, 1986

This evening's choice was based on another recommendation, but not really a ringing endorsement so much as one of those, "This movie is so bad you're going to love it" movies.

If you know me at all, you know I love a good bad movie. Don't get me wrong: despite the fact that I write a blog about movies and truly appreciate cinema as a form of art, I am no snob. As I was growing up, my existence was basically Mystery Science Theater 3000. My older brother and I turned making fun of movies into a pastime, so much so that when we went to church with my family, my mother would have to separate us because we would crack up through the entire service. I couldn't even tell you how many times I've seen crap like Gotcha! or The North Shore. This tradition has continued on with some of my closest friends (I remember seeing The Firm with my friends Brian and Matt, and that night of yelling at the screen could possibly go down as one of the funniest nights since man learned to speak).

I could tell only 5 minutes into Jake Speed that I was missing out by not watching this movie with my brother or those friends. The movie starts with some young people being abducted during a trip to Europe, one of them being chased in one of those ridiculous movie chases where people run for miles from a criminal, never once going into a store, using a phone or even turning to any other person on the street and saying, "Hey, can you help me here?"

Then, we cut to a family dinner, where the family of the kidnapped girl are speaking with "government nitwits" about how to get her back. Enter crazy ol' grandpa, who suggests contacting fictional characters, including the titular pulp novel star, "Jake Speed." Turns out that crazy ol' grandpa isn't so crazy, because an associate of Mr. Speed, played by Dennis Christopher from one of my all time favorites, Breaking Away, has convinced the man to take on their case.

Mr. Speed's entrance is pretty much incredible. He rolls in looking like a drunken 1980s college professor and doesn't utter a meaningful line of dialogue for a few minutes. When he does, it's a howler: "Sometimes you gotta do things the hard way." "Why?" "It reads better."

My co-worker was right: this movie IS so bad it's good. It features all the great hallmarks of stupid movies that are worth watching, namely bad dialogue, good actors making bizarre choices (John Hurt is the main bad guy!), and absolutely retarded characters making idiotic choices (the female lead decides to hire Jake to rescue her sister based on the fact that she sees the word "speed" on a few signs as she stands on a street corner). Sometimes you can watch three or four actors on the screen an it looks like each one of them things they are in a different movie.

I lost count of how many times I said, "What the fuck?" watching this thing. The scene in the African bar when a dude danced to a bizarre 80s-meets-tribal African version of "Maniac" from Flashdance... the scene where Speed hits the brakes on his jeep and says, for no reason, "Damn. We're runnin' out of time" and then drives right into the front of a barbershop... lines like "Hey sweet meat, how are they hangin', hey baby!"

The best exchange comes as the female protagonist is calling Speed out as a fraud:

Margaret Winston: If you're such a big deal, why haven't they ever made a movie?
Jake Speed: Ever try to deal with those people?

Bad music, stupid characters, hilarious dialogue and absurdly random explosions. Jake Speed, you glorious turd.

For more on Jake Speed:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD? I'd say this one is more of a rental.

A dissection of the movie from The VHS Show:

Friday, December 5, 2008

#114: The Final Countdown


The Final Countdown
Directed by Don Taylor
Written by Gerry Davis, Thomas Hunter, Peter Powell, and David Ambrose
Released August 1, 1980

Here is a movie begging for a remake, and I'm not saying that because the movie is bad. On the contrary, The Final Countdown is a fun little sci-fi/action movie with a very interesting premise.

I guess I'll drop a SPOILER WARNING right here, even though any description of this movie pretty much gives this bit away from the beginning: The Final Countdown is about a modern day aircraft carrier that gets sucked into a time warp and deposited near Pearl Harbor in Hawaii hours before the infamous Japanese attack that sparked the United States' involvement in World War II.

Starring Kirk Douglas and Martin Sheen, The Final Countdown presents the viewer with a great moral argument: with this insane firepower and modern technology at their hands, should the Navy intervene and easily defeat the Japanese, or should they hang back and avoid disrupting the course of history?

It's a great nail to hang a story from, but there's so much there to ponder that you almost feel shortchanged when the movie is over in less than two hours. I have no complaints about the movie, and Douglas and Sheen both do great work and seem like they're having a good time together. I'd say it's a pretty high compliment that I wanted so much more.

My proposition, I think, is a fairly clever one that could possibly work on a network like Showtime or HBO: make a 3 or 4 hour mini-series re-make of this flick, and use Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen (or hell, Emilio Estevez) in place of their fathers. It's a nice gimmick to work from, and the two guys are pretty much the exact ages their fathers were when making The Final Countdown.

With the extended running time, you could really flesh out the time travel aspect of the story (it is barely dealt with in the original movie, beyond a little "Hey man, I'm just sayin', we might have just travelled through time"). Have some fun with that, and while you're at it, go into a little more detail with the Navy crew's secretive observations of the events leading up to the bombings.

I have my friend Eric to thank for mentioning this movie to me years ago when I lived in Chicago. It kept popping in and out of my mind until I finally found it on Netflix, and I was glad I finally followed through with the suggestion. It's not one of the greatest films of all time, but there's nothing wrong with enjoying a fun, somewhat thought provoking little action movie. Plus, how can you go wrong with a Japanese bomber repeatedly attacking Charles Durning?

For more on The Final Countdown:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the 2 disc special edition DVD.

A portion of the "splash the zeros" scene:

Friday, November 28, 2008

#112: Zach and Miri Make a Porno vs. #113: Quantum of Solace


Zach and Miri Make a Porno
Directed by Kevin Smith
Written by Kevin Smith
Released October 31, 2008

Quantum of Solace
Directed by Marc Forster
Written by Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade
Released November 14, 2008

I know, I know: what the hell am I doing pitting these two movies against each other? Really, the main reason for this is the fact that I saw the two movies back to back a few nights ago with a couple of friends.

But I guess if there's a motif to my pairing these two movies, it's the simple fact that one surprisingly exceeded my expectations, and the other disappointingly failed them in a miserable way.

First, let's discuss the redemption of Kevin Smith. Zach and Miri Make a Porno is easily his funniest, best movie since Clerks. Granted, leaping over such a low bar is no amazing feat, but this most recent film taps into the same mixture of profanity and sentimentality that made his debut movie so charming.

Sure, Zach and Miri is nothing you'd want to watch with your mother. EVER. It's about as filthy as an R rated move can get these days, with one particularly unfortunate scatological scene that really stands out as probably taking things too far. It continues the Kevin Smith tradition of juvenile fascination with sex and absurd use of bad language, but unlike with Clerks 2, it actually works to serve a story rather than appease the dick & pussy joke crowd.

The lion's share of the credit should probably go to the cast of the movie. Smith wisely steps outside his comfort zone, combining a few of his own "stars" like Jason Mewes while undeniably snatching from the Judd Apatow casting pool with actors like Seth Rogen and Craig Robinson. The actress who absolutely makes the movie work, however, is Elizabeth Banks as Miriam Linky. If her take on Miri didn't work, the entire premise -- including the potential for a believable love store -- would collapse.

There's one brief moment in particular, with Banks shot from above as she lies on her back in the backroom of a coffee shop, where her facial expression in reaction to something that has just happened absolutely seals the deal on making the audience believe in the romantic aspect of the movie. It's a little piece of acting that is so sincere and believable, you might literally blush because it feels like you're watching something you're not supposed to be seeing. Banks's Miri is the first realistic female character to ever appear in a Kevin Smith movie.

I also applaud Smith for adding a little variety to his directing. He's still no auteur and his camera still remains relatively still, but he does a good job here of using varying angles that show that he's putting thought into his shot composition. If you turned the volume off, you might not even know that you were watching a Kevin Smith movie.

In the same vein, I think if no one in Quantum of Solace uttered the name "James Bond," you also wouldn't know you were watching a Bond movie. Sure, there's the beautiful women and breathtaking locales, but the main thing this chapter in the Bond saga lacks is the simple element of fun. Its exclusion is almost criminal.

I'm not asking for anything that would ruin the more serious, and true to the novel, characterization of Bond as performed by Daniel Craig. I'm not asking for the campy Roger Moore raising of the eyebrows, or to put Bond in space ala Moonraker. I'm just asking that maybe the new Bond movie not need to take itself so goddamned seriously. Give us a bad guy who is actually shown doing bad things (or at least worse things than stockpiling water, for God's sake). Give us a stand-alone movie with its own plot, like all previous Bonds before this one, so I don't have to sit in my seat and think, "What the fuck is going on here?". And I saw Casino Royale!

I wouldn't say Quantum, on its own merits, is a bad movie. It looks and feels like a decent Bourne knock-off. The problem is, as a part of this massive franchise, it's easily one of the most punishing, least fun entries in the series. I've always thought that an action movie that you can watch more than once is a true sign that it's a damn good movie. I've probably seen Die Hard at least 20 times; I can't imagine wanting to watch Quantum of Solace again.

The best thing about Quantum of Solace is unquestionably the hypnotic post-car chase opening credits sequence, designed by MK12, a fantastic design company based out of Kansas City, MO. I would rather have watched another 90 minutes of their work than the movie that followed.

One of the biggest sins in the creation of Quantum is the insane use of quick-cut editing. There is virtually no camera shot in the film that lasts over 4 seconds. Seriously, watch a few minutes of the movie and count "one one thousand, two one thousand" every time there is an edit. You'll go insane. Even some scenes of dialogue and exposition (which you will find yourself longing for) are cut like a fight scene.

If you're going to film in a half dozen exotic locations, give the audience a moment to take in the scenery. That doesn't just go for the locations, though. Seduce us! We're supposed to want to be James Bond, or at the very least, want to be one of his conquests. With Quantum of Solace, the dude is just a damn bummer.

For more on Zach and Miri Make a Porno:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- The official movie site.

For more on Quantum of Solace:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- The official movie site.

The Zach and Miri Make a Porno trailer:

The Quantum of Solace trailer:

Sunday, November 2, 2008

#111: 2001: A Space Odyssey


2001: A Space Odyssey
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke (based on Clarke's writings, especially "The Sentinel")
Released April 6, 1968

Someone once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. In other words, how can you use one form of art to describe another?

I've always felt that saying was a bit silly, but when I think about writing anything about Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, it starts to make a lot of sense.

How do I sum up one of the greatest cinematic experiences you could possibly have, made by a director who had so much faith in his audience (or so much confidence in his film) that he entirely eschewed conventional storytelling and narrative with this movie? I suppose there's a first, second and third act here, but the first contains no dialogue and the third - still with very little dialogue - will just trip you the fuck out completely.

2001 requires participation on the viewer's part. It requires that you take it in, that you think about what it means or what it means to you. If I were to write about the movie tonight, I'd pretty much just be standing in your way. Why don't more movies let you do that?

To honor Kubrick, I'm just going to take a moment to laud the technical brilliance of his film. Before humans had even landed on the moon, Kubrick took viewers on a realistic voyage into the universe and, by film's end, eternity. Every single detail, the haunting and frightening music, the groundbreaking effects, the perfectly composed shots and beautiful lighting, amounts to an absolute masterpiece.

While I've watched 2001 dozens of times, I finally had the opportunity tonight to see it in a theater. I never usually sit as close to the screen as I did tonight, but I just wanted to feel like I was surrounded by this movie. Though the print wasn't of the best quality and the screen was by no means massive, it was an intense, immersive experience. I highly recommend seeing it in a theater if you have the means.

Regardless of how you manage to take it in, the movie is like nothing else you may ever see, one of the most intellectually and philosophically interesting pieces of art ever put to film. In its own vernacular, it is the Monolith: the touchstone for cinematic progress that helped move the medium forward.

For more on 2001: A Space Odyssey:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- The Wikipedia entry for the 2001 novel, written by Clark during production of the movie.
- A very interesting and lovingly crafted explanation of the movie.
- Buy the DVD or Blu-Ray.

The 2001: A Space Odyssey trailer:

#110: Cinemania


Directed by Angela Christlieb and Stephen Kijak
Released June 13, 2002

Anyone who thinks I'm even remotely strange for doing this project will seriously need to recalibrate their judgement scale after seeing the five characters profiled in Cinemania, a documentary about true cinephiles in New York City who watch up to 1,000 movies a year in city theaters. They make databases for the movies they want to see, and then map out the train schedules they'll need to follow, while factoring in theaters with worthy projectors and the ones that are showing good prints, etc...

I think if I lived in a city like New York, with so many theaters and movie options, I could see myself turning into one of these people if the right combination of pathos and sadness entered my life. I can totally understand how people will view this documentary and think that these people lead a sad existence, but there's a part of me that is very jealous of what they do.

There's Jack (the "star" of the movie), who seems the most sane of the bunch because he is also the most reflective personality, able to stand outside himself and discuss in detail the hows and whys of his mania. He defines the line between loving movies and cinephilia is "the point where you pay a price, where there's pain involved." He's incredibly interesting to listen to and probably the one person in this "cast" whom I'd enjoy seeing a film with.

Then, we're introduced to Bill, who claims to have moved to New York initially because the city was showing a retrospective of the work of German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Bill states, "Film is a substitute for life. Film is a form of living." Bill talks about how he has avoided a real career because the work and preparation involved would impede on his ability to see films. His daily preparation for heading to the cinema, which looks like someone preparing for a camping trip, is meticulous, extensive and almost maddening.

Harvey, who appears to be autistic, memorizes the running times of each movie he has seen and must sit in the front row. He has a collection of promotional film stills, along with hundreds of LP soundtracks that he can't listen to because he owns no record player. Jack derides Harvey as fascinating because "will see almost anything you put before him... no matter how trashy or bad."

Eric, an unkempt grey haired man getting by on disability payments, is probably the least socially appealing person in the cast. "Film buffs do not socialize," he says. "Film buffs get together to see movies. They do not get together to have parties, they do not get together to know each other."

Roberta, along with Jack, refuses to watch movies on video or DVD. She is an obsessive collector of everything from programs from theaters where she attends movies, collectible soda cups, and even the train cards she used to get to the theater. She's overly emotional and is said to often be rude to people who work at the theaters. At one point in the movie, a woman whom Roberta attacked at the Museum of Modern Art is interviewed about the incident, and she talks about how Roberta lunged at her and choked her because of how she tore her ticket stub.

The documentary examines the lives of these people and their social intersections at various points, but still only seems to be scratching at the surface of its subjects. By that I do not only mean the five filmgoers, but also the psychological implications of this cinephilia, or how their family or friends perceive what they do or how they spend their time. As for how these people got started down this path, there is only a minor examination by a few of the subjects.

I agree with Jack when he says at one point, "this should be a mini-series." As a document of obsession, Cinemania would have benefited from some deeper digging. If they managed to contact the MoMA employee who was choked by Roberta, why not track down a few of Jack's ex-girlfriends, or Eric's former employer, or talk to Harvey's parents? I suppose the fact that the movie left me wanting much more, even after viewing the extra scenes on the DVD, is a credit to the film makers.

One of the most ingenious parts of the documentary comes at the end, as the subjects of the film watch themselves in the movie about them. As they hilariously deconstruct everything they see, you can't help but wonder if the fact that the movie was made using video and not actual celluloid is the ultimate slap in the face to them.

For more on Cinemania:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The Cinemania trailer:

#109: The Call of Cthulhu


The Call of Cthulhu
Directed by Andrew Leman
Written by Sean Branney (based on H.P. Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu")
Released 2005

Aside from the obvious drawback of having virtually no audience interest (and therefore no box office draw), I've often wondered why no one attempts to make a "silent" movie anymore.

It's the disregard for the financial/box office slavery that bogs down most movies that proves that Andrew Leman's dialogue-free homage to silent movies of the 1920s, the black and white 2005 adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu," is an obvious labor of love for both the director and the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

In watching The Call of Cthulhu, I realized one of the major problems in trying to duplicate or mimic a style of film that has been gone for many decades: technology. One of the biggest problems with the movie is that it just doesn't look old. The charm of watching a movie like Vampyr partially lies in seeing how people back then made due with the limitations of their technology. Even though many of the special effects shots may be obviously faked, it's that element of trickery that makes it appealing.

The best example I can think of is comparing the original Star Wars trilogy with the films George Lucas has made in the past decade. While the digital effects and in his newer movies may be more seamless and less man-made, they wind up reducing the impact of what's onscreen. The collapse of one of the walkers in the Hoth battle sequence in The Empire Strikes Back is far more memorable than any of the countless flashy space battles in the newer trilogy.

A similar problem inhabits Cthulhu, in that you can tell it must have been shot digitally and then made to look aged after filming was complete. While this technique can sometimes work with films like Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror, he was only trying to reach back to the 1970s and '80s. To make Cthulhu seem almost a century old, you'd almost need to dig up some ancient cameras and film stock to really duplicate that kind of film making. I realize that making such a decision would be economically unfeasible. It's ironic: it would cost you far more money to make this movie with shitty old equipment. There is admirable use of things like models, stop motion animation and miniatures, but there are little obvious digital intrusions that can't be ignored.

It's not that I don't respect The Call of Cthulhu for being a low budget tribute to both H.P. Lovecraft and those classic old silent films. For fans of the writer, this movie is probably a must-see. For the casual viewer, it's a curiosity and a fairly successful Film School type of exercise. Unfortunately, it's that limitation that will turn away most viewers.

For more on The Call of Cthulhu:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- More on the Lovecraft story on Wikipedia
- The official movie site
- Buy the DVD.

The trailer for The Call of Cthulhu trailer:

Saturday, November 1, 2008

#108: Psychomania


Directed by Don Sharp
Written by Julian Zimet and Arnaud d'Usseau
Released March 1973 (U.K.)

I had to work on Halloween night, so my tradition of sitting on my ass and watching bloody, gory, scary movies was cancelled. So, this weekend I'm tying up the loose ends and getting a few more Horror flicks in before I settle into November.

From the grainy, washed out footage during the opening credits of the 1973 British cult classic Psychomania, which features a motorcycle gang called The Living Dead driving around through foggy, Stoneheng-ian surroundings before causing an accident which kills a motorist, I could tell this was going to be the kind of '70s "grindhouse" horror movie I'd been searching for all month.

Tom (Nicky Henson), the leader of the biker gang, wants to commit suicide with his gang and return "even better" to cause trouble and raise hell. He believes that frogs - and his mother - are somehow linked to some sort of bizarre witchcraft that can bring him back from the dead. You know, the kind of insane logic that only a cult flick from the '70s can pull off.

It doesn't take long to figure out that Psychomania is batshit craziness that is both mindboggling and yet hilariously enjoyable. There's a funeral scene about a third of the way through that is pure, laugh out loud comedy, with a hippie singing under a tree and Tom's body propped up on his motorcycle in a grave not even deep enough to cover his head. I'm not giving anything away by telling you that Tom's faith in frogs turns out to work to his benefit, and he rises from the dead looking exactly as he did before. Soon, the members of his gang are dying to join him.

Get it? See what I did there? DYING to join him! Is this thing on?

Don't let my enthusiasm fool you into thinking Psychomania is a great movie, because it is decidedly not good. It is, however, bad in a great way. It's comically anti-establishment (the gang wants to become immortal so they can start murdering cops, judges and teachers... though the gang spends most of its time attacking grocery store carts), and it makes me wonder if "authorities" felt honestly threatened by this movie back in the day.

This should have been prime material for "Mystery Science Theater 3000," or at least for a great time yelling at the screen in a midnight movie, especially once you see the "special" effects at the film's climax.

For more on Psychomania:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD (there is currently only 1 used copy listed).

Footage from Psychomania:

Thursday, October 30, 2008

#107: Bay of Blood


Bay of Blood
Directed by Mario Bava
Written by Mario Bava, Filippo Ottoni, Dardano Sacchetti and Giuseppe Zaccariello (from a story by Franco Barberi)
Released September 8, 1971 (Italy)

While I've already covered legendary Italian directors Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento this month, I would be remiss not to mention the work of Mario Bava. Hell, the guy made the movie from which Black Sabbath took their name! Sadly, my education on Bava is pretty limited, so this probably won't be the last time you see me reviewing one of his movies in the next 8 or 9 months.

Also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve, The Ecology of Murder, Carnage and even marketed at one point as Last House on the Left 2 (even though it has nothing to do with that movie, and was made a year before it), seems to have been one of the biggest influences on the Friday the 13th. This is not only because it features a faceless slasher making short work of teenagers who party by a lake, but more specifically in a couple of the murder scenes which wind up surfacing years later in at least one of the 13th flicks.

I'm really not giving too much away by telling you that the teenagers who show up in this movie are in trouble. Anyone who knows anything about Horror movies knows that when Hippies show up, they're gonna die. Bay of Blood also employs what would become a convention of Horror movies: the old Killer's-P.O.V. cam that puts us behind the eyes of a stalking murderer.

Thank god for those Hippies, because some of them get some truly great hack n' slash deaths. As a matter of fact, these murders are pretty much the main draw, since Bava makes so many strange twists and scene changes that you'll find yourself confused at more than one point. Unlike those redundant Jason Vorhees movies, Bay of Blood has a plot that is far more convoluted, with an entire cast of characters -- from the Tarot card obsessed woman who looks like Marc Bolan of T.Rex to the insect collector or the guy who takes bites out of squid as he fishes them out of the water -- who may or may not be the murderer. Or, maybe there's more than one. . .

Look, maybe it's just best to not pay that close of attention. Put this on at a party as some great background footage, something that will constantly grab attention. You might as well play some music over it as well, since people aren't going to be able to follow it in any sort of linear fashion.

Honestly, I'm going to have to give Bava another shot on another day. Bay of Blood just wasn't doing it for me. Between the teenage hippies, the flashbaks and the land/estate dispute, I didn't know what the fuck was going on by the end of the first hour.

(Halloween fans: go check out my music blog, Pimps of Gore for a big old chunk of spooky mp3's...)

For more on Reazione a catena:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- The Wikipedia entry on Mario Bava
- Buy the DVD, or check out the alternate version, Twitch of the Death Nerve.

The stylish Bay of Blood trailer:

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

#106: El Espinazo del diablo (The Devil's Backbone)


The Devil's Backbone
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Guillermo del Toro, Antonio Trashorras and David Muñoz
Released April 20, 2001 (Spain)

Honest to God, there is more passion, style and substance in the opening 5 minutes of Guillermo del Toro's El Espinazo del diablo than in most of the movies on this October slate (don't worry, Dario Argento, I ain't lookin' at you!). When you watch over 100 movies virtually in a row, you start to really be able to tell who is putting their heart into it and who is half-assing it (or just doesn't even have the skills to be able to record a memorable image to film).

When I sit down to a movie with Guillermo del Toro's name on it, I at least know I'm getting something that the dude put some thought into -- and yes, that even includes Blade II. After drudging through the almost frozen-in-place Tales from the Crypt, I looked forward to some sort of fresh vision. Or, at the very least, some mood lighting or a creatively composed shot.

Well, I got all of that and a lot more.

The Devil's Backbone is a ghost story that is on par with del Toro's heartbreaking masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth. It shares a similar tone, along with some parallel story elements (like the use of bookending narration that becomes far more enlightening at the climax). In the case of the latter movie, a child was escaping her terrible predicament through her own sense of fantasy. Unfortunately for the characters in The Devil's Backbone, both their predicaments and the spectres that haunt them are very, very real.

The man must have a knack for coaxing believable, natural performances out of children, because del Toro once again tells his story predominantly through the eyes of a group of orphans, and most specifically through the eyes of Carlos (Fernando Tielve), an innocent but brave young boy who is left at the doorstep of the orphanage, still unaware that his father has been killed in the Spanish Civil War.

Not long after Carlos arrives at the home, the ghost of another boy begins to reveal himself in the shadows of the secluded basement. Who is he? What does he want? What happened in that basement?

Labeling The Devil's Backbone as simply a Horror movie, or as a ghost story, isn't really giving the film the credit it is due. While there are elements of both, much like in Pan's Labyrinth, it's also a moral tale, a suspenseful yarn and a bit of a mystery.

Best of all, it's incredibly well made. From the cinematography, the lighting, the striking art direction (especially the creation of the ghost), the use of music, the almost palpable atmosphere and setting, it's about as perfect as an independently produced film can get. Kudos to del Toro, along with producer Pedro Almodovar, a visionary director in his own right who helped bring to prominence the vivid and seemingly bottomless creativity in the Spanish film industry.

As we near the end of this month of Horror filmmaking, I can say without a doubt this is one of the best films I've watched so far.

For more on The Devil's Backbone:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- The movie's Sony Classics site
- Buy the DVD.

The trailer for The Devil's Backbone:

#105: Tales from the Crypt


Tales from the Crypt
Directed by Freddie Francis
Written by Johnny Craig, Al Feldstein, William M. Gaines and Milton Subotsky (stories from The Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt
Released March 9, 1972

One of the discoveries I made when watching the Tales from the Crypt documentary a few nights back was that there was actually a anthology movie made in England that predated the HBO series by almost 17 years and featured stories from those old EC comics. Here I was thinking Creepshow was one of the first of its kind...

While that movie was a little more faithful to the style and tone of the comic books, Tales from the Crypt still does a fair job of sticking to the ideas of those books, especially in keeping the character of The Crypt Keeper. In this movie, unlike the TV show, he isn't a rotting corpse puppet but rather a hooded, monk-like soothsayer who confronts a group of guests (including Joan Collins) and tells each one of them their ultimate fate.

Collins is given a premonition about herself as a murderous wife who kills her husband on Christmas Eve night as a mass murderer dressed as Santa Claus wanders the streets by her home. This same story, titled "And All Through the House," would eventually wind up being used (to better effect) in the very first episode of the HBO Tales from the Crypt series.

One of the drawbacks of this movie is that the vignettes look even more like they've been made for television than the actual TV show. Granted, special effects had come a long way in those years, but there's just something about the staging and the lighting that makes the film look less like a Horror movie and more like a bland episode of Masterpiece Theater.

By the second story in the movie, we begin to see cracks in the premise and its effectiveness (or lack of) in being terrifying. Because these vignettes are being foretold to the people in them, we know that none of them is actually taking place. There was a terrible suspense movie released a few years back starring John Cusack where, about 3/4 of the way through the movie, we the audience discover that all of the movie's events are happening inside the mind of a fat crazy man. Once this was revealed, I absolutely could not care about anything I was seeing because it held no weight at all. And yet the filmmakers dove back into the fat guy's imagination so we could see the outcome. Who gives a shit? We're still, at the end of all this, just in a fat guy's mind, right?

The third story is not just a take on the old "Monkey's Paw" story: they literally reference it within the story! When the characters know exactly what you know, there is no dramatic tension to be had. If this one had been played a little differently, it would have made for great comedy. When the story ends and they cut back to the group of people gathered around the Crypt Keeper, you half expect the lead in this story to say, "Come on now, that one was just bad."

I must admit that the fourth story (while a little slow), plus a twist at the end, both helped put to rest my annoyances with what came before as for as the "in a fat guy's head" complaint, but they didn't make up for how slight the movie seemed as a whole. It definitely put the TV series and aforementioned movies like Creepshow (but not that awful Creepshow 2) into a new and better light.

I honestly would have rather read the comics tonight.

For more on Tales from the Crypt:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The Tales from the Crypt trailer:

Sunday, October 26, 2008

#104: Tales from the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television


Tales from the Crypt: From Comic Books to Movies
Directed by Chip Selby
Released 2004

I believe I mentioned, way back in my review of The Blob, that I used to write and draw my own comic books, most of which were based on Horror films, short stories by Stephen King or Horror comics. Naturally, almost all of these loves were done behind the backs of my parents, who were unaware that I had a hidden stash of comics like reprints of The Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt.

When I was growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a massive resurgence of all things Horror related, especially in the world of comic books, where characters like Swamp Thing and even Dracula were the stars of their own series. What I didn't fully appreciate was history that existed behind the reprints of those old Horror comics, which began with a publishing company called EC Comics.

Started by a man named Maxwell Gaines and driven to prominence by his son William M. Gaines (whom you may remember as the man behind Mad magazine), the "EC" in EC Comics originally stood for "Educational Comics." The elder Gaines had been one of the comic book format's earliest pioneers, originally using his company to publish educational stories from history and the Bible.

Naturally, kids didn't want to read about shit like that in a comic book. What kind of escape can you find in the pages of a picture book that tells you the same stuff that kid is already being pummelled with in school and church?

The documentary Tales from the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television essentially tells the story of the younger Gaines inheriting his father's company and turning it into the highly successful, and eventually controversial, "Entertainment Comics," which published several lines of comics that dealt with Horror, Science Fiction, True Crime and war stories.

Obviously, this is a niche movie and a far step away from the Horror movies I've been reviewing this month. If you were a never a fan of Horror comics, the Tales from the Crypt TV show or anthology Horror movies like Creepshow or Tales from the Darkside, you might as well forget about reading the rest of this entry. For those who might be interested in the history of comics, this documentary, while cheaply made and featuring mostly "talking head" footage of interviews interspersed between archival photos and art from the comic books.

The talking heads include an impressive array of Horror legends, including George A. Romero, John Carpenter, Stephen King, and R.L. Stine, along with many of books' most famous artists. Seeing the links between these old horror comics and some of the most classic Horror movies in the past few decades is enlightening, especially when you see the obvious influence on directors like John Carpenter and zombie-king Romero (whose collaboration with King on Creepshow is also examined as an homage to the EC books).

The real dramatic meat of the documentary comes with the discussion of Dr. Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent, which blamed the comics industry for causing juvenile denliquency in America's youth. A massive Congressional inquiry occurred, followed by federal investigations which lead to the dissolution of many of the comic book publishing companies and eventually Gaines' most popular books. The film also deals with the redemption of Gaines via his success with Mad and the eventual resurgence of Tales via the HBO series.

Clocking it at just under an hour, Tales from the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television seems a little slight. A more all-encompassing documentary about how the anti-comics culture war affected the entire industry (like the story told in David Hadju's book The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America) is definitely something I'd love to see.

For more on Tales from the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television:
- Movie information at IMDB
- For more on EC Comics, check out Wikipedia.
- EC Comics online
- Buy the DVD from the official site.

The intro for the Tales from the Crypt TV show:

#103: The Fearless Vampire Killers


The Fearless Vampire Killers
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Gérard Brach and Roman Polanski
Released February 1967 (U.K.)

Another Horror touchstone which I must touch on is director Roman Polanski, who directed Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby one of the most chilling and disturbing (especially to pregnant mothers) films of the genre.

Just one year before he made that classic, Polanski directed a Horror movie that was much different: The Fearless Vampire Killers (or, known in every country but the U.S. as Dance of the Vampires) is a sort of satirical vampire spoof, the kind of fright flick made for people who'd rather not take this fare so seriously. Clearly, Polanski was taking his biggest shots at the Hammer Studios films I've mentioned before.

The movie stars Jack MacGowran as Professor Abronsious, a wacky and esteemed ex-professor who has donated his life to searching Europe for signs of the existence of vampires. Polanski plays his somewhat dim and quiet assistant, Alfred, while Polanski's wife -- and future victim of Charles Manson's clan -- Sharon Tate, plays the daughter of a strange innkeeper in the small town where the professor and his assistant finally find possible signs of bloodsuckers.

After the abduction of the innkeeper's daughter, Abronsious and Alfred track down the castle of Count von Krolock, played by Ferdy Mayne as a much more convincing vampire than the man who played Dracula in the Hammer kung-fu Dracula movie I reviewed a while back.

The tone, which feels like a combination of fairy tale with hints of Mel Brooks and The Beatles' Help!, is fairly slapstick-y. If you're the kind of person who loves classic old Blake Edwards movies like The Party or some of his Pink Panther stuff, you'll enjoy this, but if you're the kind of person who believes that Horror flicks are capable of generating their own intentional or unintentional laughs, you'll probably be unamused.

I difnitely enjoyed the change of pace that The Fearless Vampire Killers allowed me, a welcome break from the dark evils of movies like Cannibal Holocaust or I Spit on Your Grave. There's a great scene near the end with a ballroom full of vampires that really shows off Polanski's skill at staging a complex scene with dialogue and dancing. I was most impressed with the attention to detail in the movie's art direction and set design, along with the off kilter and effective music score provided by Polanski collaborator Krzysztof Komeda.

For more on The Fearless Vampire Killers:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The trailer for The Fearless Vampire Killers:

Friday, October 24, 2008

#102: The Last Man on Earth


The Last Man on Earth
Directed by Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow
Written by William F. Leicester, Furio M. Monetti, Ubaldo Ragona and Richard Matheson (from Matheson's story "I Am Legend")
Released March 8, 1964

"Another day to live through. Better get started."

While clearly it would be impossible to hit every important figure in the Horror genre this month, I think I've done a fairly good job. However, failing to include Vincent Price in any October feature would be a tragic mistake.

With Price, there's so much to choose from that it's ridiculous. You could practically do an entire year of daily reports on his career as a Horror icon. In most of them, he plays the bad guy. But not in the 1964 adaptation of Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend." In this, Price plays Dr. Robert Morgan, seemingly the only survivor of a plague that has turned the world's population into one of two things: a pile of corpses or a surviving - and starving - group of vampires.

Morgan spends his days in a depressed funk, amassing his collection of garlic and wooden stakes, and then going out into the world to burn bodies and slay the vampires in their sleep. At night, he comes home, drinks and listens to records as the zombie-esque (George Romero apparently got his idea of the slowly creeping, flesh eating zombie from this movie) vampires bang on his windows and doors, howling out his name.

I'm pretty sure once a giant crew of vampire zombies knows me by name and hangs outside my apartment at night, I'm going to be spending my days finding a new apartment.

The constant narration at the beginning of the movie is almost maddening. I know I complain about narration a lot on these pages, and I should especially cut a movie like this, where there are virtually no other speaking roles, some slack. If there's one thing I will give the Will Smith version of I Am Legend credit for, it's in the way they got the story across without having Smith's voiceover explain his every move.

Luckily, that irritating device is abandoned for a lengthy flashback that tells us the story of how the virus started and how it overtook the world. Here, we learn about the tragic fate of Morgan's wife and daughter, and just who that vampire is that knows the Doctor's name.

Much like Romero's Night of the Living Dead, this movie putts along at a very slow pace. While I have to respect it as the inspirational material for Romero's flick, I just found it so much more boring. Unfortunately for Price, he was typecast as the personification of evil in most of his films for a reason: he just makes a better bad guy.

For more on The Last Man on Earth:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD, paired as a double feature with Ray Milland's Panic in Year Zero.
- Download the movie, which is public doman, for free here.

The trailer for The Last Man on Earth:

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

#101: The Shining


The Shining
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson (based on the novel by Stephen King)
Released May 23, 1980

Having crossed the century mark with Something Wicked This Way Comes, I wanted to celebrate with one of my all time favorite films, the absolutely unnerving Stanley Kubrick classic The Shining. If you were constructing a short list of movies to watch on Halloween night, this one has got to make that list. Hell, if you just upgraded to a high-definition TV set, there are few movies I could imagine that would be better to break in your new system.

The Shining, possibly even more than the original The Haunting, is the ultimate "haunted house" movie. It's just that in this case, the "house" is a massive hotel. The opening shots, which have the audience soaring like a vulture over massive Imax-style landscapes, immediately set the tone for the entire movie. I've seen this flick dozens of times and still watched these opening shots three times tonight before moving on.

When it comes to stunning imagery that is going to stick with you for years, The Shining is pretty much the high water mark. They way Kubrick composes his shots... the incredible steadicam work, revolutionary for its time, by Garrett Brown... the patience the film makers take it lingering on shots to make them unsettling as possible... this movie is a fucking masterpiece before you even consider other important elements like story, acting, editing or music. Just keep your eyes peeled for scenes like the elevator doors, or the sequence where Danny Torrance (played by Danny Lloyd) rides his Big Wheel through the halls of the hotel.

Speaking of Danny, I suppose we should get to the story. You know all those modern Horror movies where they use the weirdo kid who may or may not have supernatural abilities (like The Ring) as a creepy kind of protagonist? The Shining's Danny is like the template of that whole character idea. We find out early on that Danny has a strange psychic sense, along with an invisible friend who "lives in his mouth" who speaks to, and through, him.

This power really begins to manifest itself when Danny, joined by his mother Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and father Jack (Jack Nicholson, in a role that would come to define the rest of his career), move into a Colorado hotel to help with maintenance during the hotel's 5 month off-season. What seems like a simple job to Nicholson's Jack Torrance becomes slowly complicated by what goes on within the confines of the not-so-empty hotel. Unfortunately for Jack, who initially spends his days trying to write the book he intended to complete during the snowy winter, he soon becomes consumed by the strange draw of the hotel and its "inhabitants."

Unfortunately for Danny, he can see what the rest of his family can't. Unfortunately for us, we can see it, too. There's a particular scene with a woman in a bathtub that has been in my head since I saw it as a child. When I saw that I was nearing the scene during this viewing, I pondered skipping it or even stopping the film completely.

If there's a small weakness to The Shining, it's in the fact that Jack's descent into madness doesn't take very long. Stephen King was never a fan of Kubrick's choice of Nicholson as the father because he felt there were more sympathetic actors who would make Jack's character arc more tragic. In this case, King was maybe half right: Nicholson's Jack never really shows any warmth toward his wife and son. Hell, it's Nicholson we're dealing with, so it's like he's gone insane weeks before we even join the events of the movie.

In another regard, Nicholson still delivers a hell of a fucked up, crazy performance. The scene where we find out what Jack has been writing is one of Horror cinema's greatest reveals, and Nicholson eats up the screen in every shot he's in. And really, if you were paying any attention to those opening shots I was talking about, you'd know that Kubrick isn't trying to sneak up on us; he was sharpening his knives before the title of the movie had hit the screen. Who am I to quibble about how Kubrick chooses to tell this story when he does it so unbelievably well?

Sorry Mr. King. I see your point (and I'm sure having Kubrick fuck you around during the screenwriting process didn't help matters), but complaining about this would be like Bob Dylan complaining about the foot pedals Jimi Hendrix used when recording his version of "All Along the Watchtower."

NOTE: If you buy the DVD, make sure you get a version that includes the "Making of The Shining" documentary, filmed by Kubrick's wife. It's incredible behind the scenes footage, including some great stuff where Danny talks about how he couldn't wait to see what his parents were going to buy him with the "5 or 600 dollars" he thinks he's making, and the scene of Scatman Crothers brought to tears talking about how happy he was to be involved with Danny and the other actors on the film.

Plus, watching it is a great way to come down after having the shit scared out of you by the actual film.

For more on The Shining:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- A pretty interesting FAQ about the movie and Kubrick.
- Buy the DVD, or the BluRay DVD. Both are insanely cheap.

The awesome alternate trailer for The Shining:

#100: Something Wicked This Way Comes


Something Wicked This Way Comes
Directed by Jack Clayton
Written by Ray Bradbury
Released April 29, 1983

So, when you're thinking of the Horror genre, pretty much the last name that comes to mind is Disney.

Granted, Something Wicked This Way Comes isn't full of the blood and gore that most of the genre has come to rely on. It's smarter than that, but that figures: it comes from the pen of Ray Bradbury.

At the film's opening, we meet Will and Jim, two mischievous small town friends and next door neighbors who seem to really have only each other. Jim's father has gone missing for years, while his mother barely notices him while she entertains strange men. Will's father, played by Jason Robards, wanders around haunted by an incident in Will's childhood, when he's not locked away in the town library feeling old and close to death.

We follow the boys and are introduced to an entire town full of regret and broken dreams. There's the ugly shrew of a teacher who used to be the town beauty, the cigar shop owner who is obsessed with money, and the crippled bartender who can't forget the days he spent as a college football star.

Then, a mysterious train comes to town in the night, bringing with it a surreal carnival owned by the shadowy (and aptly named) Mr. Dark, who employs a smoking hot fortune teller (Pam Grier). As the townsfolk begin to see their dreams realized (but not without a hefty price tag attached) by the carnival's attractions, the boys begin to witness its nefarious underbelly. One night they are discovered sneaking behind the scenes, and Mr. Dark knows he must destroy the boys before they bring his scheme to an end.

Story-wise, it's all a little thin, with no real explanation of where the carnival comes from or why it has returned to this small town. What is Mr. Dark looking for? Why must they travel at all, if what they offer is so enticing to any town where they set up shop? Of course, almost any movie falls apart under that kind of skeptical scrutiny, so I guess sometimes it's best just to let a premise be a premise.

If you're a parent looking for Halloween movies that aren't going to traumatize your children with violence, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a perfect alternative. Of course, there's still plenty of potential for psychological damage, like a late night spider attack, or Jonathan Price's dark, if unsubtle, work as baddie Mr. Dark. Price makes more out of a scene where he tears pages from a book than half of the antagonists in this month's movies.

There's a dramatic payoff on the carnival's carousel that would satisfy anyones taste for revenge, so I suppose if you do wind up watching this with the young'ns, you might want to be handy to cover their eyes.

For more on Something Wicked This Way Comes:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The trailer:

Monday, October 20, 2008

#99: Dead of Night (aka Deathdream)


Dead of Night (aka Deathdream)
Directed by Bob Clark
Written by Alan Ormsby
Released August 30, 1974

"Okay," I thought, "this is my third movie tonight. This one had better not suck."

The elements were all in place for a good time: Deathdream was directed by Bob Clark, whose Black Christmas I enjoyed last week (and whose A Christmas Story is one of my all time favorite comedies), and the make-up was done by zombie expert and Horror legend Tom Savini.

Dead of Night is an especially edgy horror movie if you consider the time period in which it came out, the early 1970s, not long after the U.S. had pulled out of Vietnam (it was actually made in 1972 but unreleased until '74). It must have been especially strange for Savini, who claims to have learned more about Horror make-up as a war photographer than he did in his years of playing around with stage make-up prior to his time in Vietnam.

The movie opens with two soldiers surrounded by explosions in the jungle. Before we really even learn their names, they are shot and presumably killed. The credits roll and then we sit down to dinner with the Brooks family. There is a rapping at their door, and we learn that one of the soldiers killed was their son Andy (played by Richard Backus).

Mrs. Brooks does not take the news well, and her husband finds her awake at nights, denying her son's death and praying for his safe return. As a twist on the classic story The Monkey's Paw, soon Mrs. Brooks' wish comes true: her son returns home, seemingly alive but behaving much differently than she or her family remembers. Andy is a shell of his former self, barely speaking and almost unable to act human.

As a metaphor for the effects of the horrors war on an individual, their family, and even their community, Dead of Night couldn't be more apt. Andy spends his days rocking silently back and forth in a chair, observing his family from afar and scaring the family dog.

Speaking of the family dog, there's a confrontation between Andy and the adorable mutt -- executed in front of a group of neighborhood kids who idolize the Brooks boy -- that really sets the tone for how dark and dramatic of a movie we're dealing with. Dead of Night is fucking DARK. This isn't the kind of scary movie where you cheer the violent death of a bad guy or await the next morbid set piece.

The acting in the movie carries the whole picture, with especially good performances from Lynn Carlin as Andy's mother Christine, and of course Richard Backus as Andy, in what could have been an embarassing one-note performance.

By the end of the movie, you might just be blown away: Dead of Night winds up being a poignant, sad and ultimately thought-provoking movie, "horror" or not. While Clark wound up in his later years filming dreck like Baby Geniuses and Karate Dog (are you kidding me? Karate fuckin' Dog?!), you have to give the guy credit for making something as brave as this movie so soon after America was still tending to its post-Vietnam wounds.

I can't say I've ever really seen a Horror film like this one. It wound up being so much more than I expected, and more than made up for the two disappointments that preceded it.

For more on Deathdream:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The Deathdream trailer:

#98: Fiend Without a Face


Fiend Without a Face
Directed by Arthur Crabtree
Written by Herbert J. Leder (based on Amelia Reynolds Long's "The Thought-Monster")
Released July 3, 1958

Tonight we're jumping back the the 1950s to check out another black and white oldie but goody: Arthur Crabtree's Fiend Without a Face, which struck me as a must-rent when I read that it was one of the first film's to employ bloody/gory special effects.

Fiend begins as yet another 50s Sci-Fi movie that plays on the world's fears of the Atomic Age, with a U.S. Air Force base sharing occupation in Canada coming under fire for mysterious deaths that have begun arising in the local population. While the deaths appear to be related at first to radiation, the town coroner and the Air Force soon discover that something is sucking the brains and spinal cords out of these victims. On top of all that, the damn thing appears to be invisible.

By the time the movie was half over, four people had died and I still hadn't seen a drop of blood (granted, with a 75 minute run time, I hadn't waited that long). Since this long lost B-movie had been released by Criterion, I had been expecting something much more subversive... maybe something from the 50s that really crossed the boundaries of good taste for the era.

One lesson about making movies that Crabtree needed to take to heart is to give the audience a little taste early on of what they're going to get in the finale. The director saves all of the juicy stuff for the last fifteen minutes. In a way, these scenes of the creatures attacking are a kind of precursor to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, in that the menace is a mass of slow moving but persistent enemies which may be easily dispatched if not for their persistence.

I tried to put myself in the place of a viewer from the 50s, but I could only wonder how much longer I would have waited for a payoff among the stiff acting and silly script before putting the moves on my girlfriend at the drive-in theater. I wondered if my gal would have even lasted through the long-winded description of how the "fiends" were birthed, or if she would have slapped me and walked home in the night.

Now there's a set-up for a decent 50s Horror movie.

For more on Fiend Without a Face:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the Criterion DVD.

A scene from Fiend Without a Face:

#97: John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns


Cigarette Burns
Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan
First aired November 2005

In searching around this month for Horror movies I'd never seen, I stumbled upon a batch of really good reviews for an hour-long episode of the Showtime "Masters of Horror" TV series. This particular program, entitled Cigarette Burns was directed by one time Horror god John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing). Since I'd pretty much seen everything he had directed, good or bad, I figured it was worth a shot.

The plot was appealing, considering my own quest, for both this month and this project:

Udo "I Play Bad Guys" Kier plays Bellinger, a movie collector who specializes in horrifying images. Bellinger seeks the help of Kirby (the shitty Boondock Saints' Norman Reedus), a movie theater owner who helps collectors like Bellinger find high priced obscurities like movies, movie props, posters and more.

Bellinger's quest is to find the sole existing copy of a movie called La Fin Absolute du Monde, which had screened only one time and apparently had the power to drive the audience into a violent, murderous rage. Bellinger claims to be dying, and that his only wish is to view La Fin Absolute du Monde before he dies. For such a rare, infamous movie, it's kind of funny that Bellinger offers such a low price for its acquisition. By the time Kirby doubles the price, you'll be hard pressed to not think of Dr. Evil scheming for "One million dollars!"

Unfortunately, this is the least of the issues with this short film. I guess I should be fair, because for a television series with a low budget, Carpenter does manage to accomplish a lot here, especially considering that he shot Cigarette Burns in only 10 days. There's some great gore, especially a beheading, that will make even the most jaded Horror fan curl their toes.

One of the downfalls of the "movie" is the fact that the story is a bit too ambitious for how little time Carpenter is allowed to tell it. It takes place in three different countries and at least five cities (it all looks like Canada), as if this journey takes a bit of effort, and yet there's no time spent in any location. After making a few brief phone calls and a couple of visits, Kirby pinpoints the rather obvious location of the movie and walks away with it as if he was the only person to ever have the audacity to just ask for the thing. The ending also feels rushed, with characters making some idiotic choices even for people who may have supposedly "gone mad."

Carpenter does do a good job in showing only brief bits of the infamous movie, making it look effectively disturbing enough to have a power over those who watch it. For a short so heavy in exposition-via-dialogue, Cigarette Burns maintains an effective level of tension. As a Horror movie, it still winds up being a bit simplistic (Carpenter dissects the thing so brutally in the commentary that you almost wonder if he even likes the results).

For more on John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The Cigarette Burns trailer:

Friday, October 17, 2008

#96: Phenomena


Written and Directed by Dario Argento
Released August 2, 1985

The opening of Dario Argento's Phenomena is like a Greatest Hits tape of all of the director's trademarks: someone enters a room or house they were not supposed to enter, they get strangled, they get stabbed with scissors, and for some reason they go crashing through a window.

From there, it only gets better, with the introduction of Halloween's Donald Pleasance, thousands of insects and even a highly intelligent monkey wielding a straight razor. Did I mention that it also features the gorgeous young Jennifer Connelly, and the music of Goblin, Motorhead and Iron Maiden?

Did I just hear you say, "Fuckin' A?" Damn right.

Similar to Suspiria, Phenomena (which was released in the U.S. in a heavily edited version called Creepers) is about a girl who comes to a private school and immediately starts to interrupt the normal swing of things. In this case, Connelly is Jennifer Corvino, the daughter of a famous actor who has the strange ability to communicate with insects. As these insects start leading her to clues about the identity of a serial murderer, Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasance), an entomologist who uses his knowledge of insects to help the police solve crimes, tries to tap into her powers to find the killer before he/she finds Jennifer.

As Jennifer discovers the depths of her own powers, she is ostracized by her schoolmates and from the school itself. She immediately seeks help from McGregor, who (I'll skip the somewhat convoluted narrative here) pairs her with one of his insects, a fly that he believes will lead her to the missing victims' bodies and the killer. It, of course, does. Thanks for that bit of irresponsible decision making, Professor!

Once Phenomena gets to this point, with Corvino trapped in the killer's house, things get good and nasty (like that giant bowl of human soup that awaits our heroine). There's even a fantastic finale with not one but TWO murders you couldn't possibly see coming.

While a lot of 80s horror movies were busy making rehashes of Halloween like the Friday the 13th franchise, Dario Argento was still making skewed, original and creepy horror movies, some better than others, sure, but most of them seem to have elements of a real story and a real passion for the art of filmmaking. Bugs, blood and brilliant monkeys? Phenomena is scary fun.

For more on Phenomena:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD. While it is out of print and expensive to buy as "New," Amazon has several used copies for sale.

The Phenomena trailer:

Thursday, October 16, 2008

#95: The Brood


The Brood
Written and Directed by David Cronenberg
Released May 25, 1979

When you do a search on the Internet Movie Database for The Brood, the first thing that pops up in the search results is a link to The Brady Bunch. This would be like going to buy your niece a stuffed animal for her birthday and walking out of Toys R Us with a dead body. If you know anything about the work of director David Cronenberg (A History of Violence, Naked Lunch, Dead Ringers), you know he's about as far removed from The Brady Bunch as any director in the history of film.

The Brood is about family, and more specifically about the myriad of ways a family can pass along its scars and demons. . . in this case both literally and figuratively. It presents a few classic Cronenberg themes as well, including bad doctors, bad doctors and really bad parents. Oh yeah, and a good bit of physical deformity.

Oliver Reed plays creepy Dr. Hal Raglan, a psychiatrist who has invented some sort of new science called "Psychoplasmics." I'm not quite sure what is entailed in Psychoplasmics as it is never fully explained, but it appears to be the practice of fucking with a patient's head and making them confront their inner demons until their psychological symptoms begin to manifest themselves in physical form.

Raglan's star patient, the one with whom he has begun to focus most of his time, is the wife of Frank Carveth (Art Hindle), a dude who isn't exactly winning any Father of the Year awards by leaving his nearly mute, disturbed daughter with pretty much anyone within earshot who has an urge to babysit. That's because Frank is too busy trying to take his wife to court over custody.

In the meantime, Raglan is making some unfortunate breakthroughs with Mrs. Carveth and some of her enemies are beginning to wind up dead. What's more strange is just how the victims are being done in; let's just say that Nola Carveth has gone beyond scars and sores.

In other words, some of Frank's babysitters are winding up dead. While most of these deaths are relatively tame for the director who brought us the exploding heads of Scanners, Cronenberg gets real Cronenberg-y when he stages a murder in plain view of a classroom full of children. At first you think he's just using clever editing, so as to avoid traumatizing a bunch of kids, but no, there's a straight up murder and a bloody corpse laid out in front of these kids. Classy!

The Brood is a decent film that really picks up in the last 10 minutes, when Mr. and Mrs. Carveth confront each other and Mrs. Carveth reveals her latest, um... production. This is the one real point where it totally feels like you're watching a Cronenberg movie, and it's a hell of a payoff.

In the canon of Cronenberg horror, however, the movie is relatively tame and can't even hope to crack his top 10.

For more on The Brood:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The trailer for The Brood: