Thursday, October 31, 2013

Shocktober Revisited: Day, Land, Diary, and Survival of the Dead

*2013 Note: This was originally the conclusion of Cap'n Howdy's "March of the Dead" from a few years ago. I've chopped out some bits that aren't terribly important to move ahead with the conclusion of the series If you're looking for other entries to "March of the Dead," here's the entry for the many versions of Dawn of the Dead, and here are my thoughts on the 30th Anniversary travesty, erm, "Special Edition"*

I don't know how much more I could say about Diary and Survival of the Dead, my history with Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead don't have much in the way of anecdotal stories, which leaves me with one story to tell about Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake*.

I suppose I saw Day of the Dead on VHS, shortly after renting Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, although my earliest impressions of the film are scant: the opening - that desolate street somewhere in Florida (?) that flooded with zombies (and a crocodile), the hands through the wall gag that Romero uses to both call back to Dawn of the Dead, but also to twist around our expectations of "reality." I also remember the machete to the arm, Bub, the zombie torso reduced to almost nothing but a brain, the holding pen, and the even more upbeat ending on a tropical island.

Subsequent visits to the film, on DVD and Blu-Ray reminded me how much the military vs. science debate plays into the film, but also how less simplistic I remembered the film being - I always seemed to wander into Day of the Dead thinking that Joe Pilato's Rhodes is a cartoon cut-out villain, only to discover that Rhodes is at his wit's end in the film. His soldiers have been assigned to protect the scientists, who assured the government (or what existed of it before Day of the Dead begins) that they would find a cure. Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) is more interested in rehabilitating the dead one by one, and when he starts pilfering military corpses, the soldiers reach the breaking point.

I understand that Day of the Dead is the least "imminently watchable" of Romero's first zombie trilogy, and it's not rewarding or packed with goofy moments like Dawn of the Dead, but with time I've found that I like the film more and more. Oh, I never saw the remake. Sorry.

Land of the Dead was long awaited, and the Cap'n was not the only person excited to see Romero return to his stomping grounds, and while the excitement was palpable, I still had nagging doubts while I continued telling others how "awesome" the film was. It wasn't the setting, or even most of the story, which I really like: a world where the dead have completely taken over, where humanity is rebuilding but not on their terms, and the film was a glimpse of how people would adapt once they lost the proverbial "zombie war."

I liked the extension of Bub's evolution, crossed with the reason the dead wandered into the Monroeville Mall, into a slowly developing sentience among some of the living dead. Was Big Daddy a little silly? Yeah, maybe it does sound like he's saying "Duuuuude!" when he growls, but there was something to him teaching the butcher zombie to cut down that wall, or the way he organized the dead to avoid simply being slaughtered. Romero hit the reboot button after Land of the Dead, so we never saw where that evolution would head, but not even that is the sticking point for why I have trouble sitting down watching Land of the Dead from beginning to end.

The problem, as I can surmise, is the cast: everyone seems to be giving the film a "B" movie effort when Romero is clearly trying to make the most of major studio backing. Simon Baker seems to be trying, so does Asia Argento, but I can't get past John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper play variations of characters they play all the time. Robert Joy's Charlie is another matter entirely, a character I only hate slightly less than Scott Wentworth's professor in Diary of the Dead.

When Professor Murder and I went to see Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead, we ran into some mutual friends who were there to see the other movie we considered seeing, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Perhaps our allegiance to zombies sent us to Dawn of the Dead first, then later to Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman's memory-wiping romantic drama; either way, we swapped our reasons for seeing the respective releases, then went to see the subtext-free, fast-zombies, not-afraid-to-be-nihilistic-ending remake of one of the most admired horror films in the last fifty years.

If that quick succession of descriptors makes it sound like I didn't enjoy Dawn of the Dead, I'm afraid I'll be disappointing you. Of the remakes made starting with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and, well, yet to end but one can hope with how awful the A Nightmare on Elm Street butchering, I put Dawn of the Dead up there with The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha as one of the better re-visiting's of horror films. Yes, it essentially lacks substance, but Snyder does manage to create momentum, slow it down and drain out hope, re-instate it, and then send everything to hell again during the closing credits. It remains the only film by Zack Snyder that I like, let alone enjoy, and while it may be Dawn of the Dead lite, I'll take it over what Platinum Dunes vomits into theatres every spring.

Honestly, I've said all I can say about Diary and Survival of the Dead in my reviews: I haven't watched either film since, and I did honestly try to take the films on their own terms instead of pre-judging the films. They're both terrible, obvious, and at times thunderingly stupid, all the while failing to generate the slightest amount of tension, scares, or decent performances. Is it possible I'll come back to them down the line, as I did with Day of the Dead, and appreciate more? It would be nice, but somehow I don't see that happening.

Sorry to end Shocktober on such a dour note, but Romero's second trilogy is almost uniformly underwhelming, a pale reflection of his first three "dead" films. Romero is currently working on another "dead" film, and while I've burned my hand two-and-a-half times, hope wins out over being jaded. There's always the chance of recapturing the old "magic." In the meantime, that's the history the Cap'n has with Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead ('05), Diary of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead.

* For Tom Savini's Night of the Living Dead remake, please go here. For the wretched 3D remake, go here.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Shocktober Revisited: Halloween H20 and Halloween Resurrection

 Originally, I had planned a Retro Review for Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, but  after doing some cursory research on the film I realized that I don't remember Halloween 6 at all. I saw it once, in the fall of 1995, and was surprised to discover Paul Rudd played Tommy Doyle in the film. Until I watch The Curse of Michael Myers again (or can locate the "Producer's Cut" mentioned online), there's really no point in revisiting a film I can't recall.

 Which brings me to Halloween: H20 and Halloween Resurrection, two movies I've barely seen again since the first time I watched them. They did, however, leave a greater impression on my mind than Donald Pleasance's final film appearance, and since I enjoy one of them more than anyone else seems to and really hate the other one, it's fitting to comment on the close of the pre-remake sequels to John Carpenter's Halloween. This one-two punch will leave the Cap'n with only Halloween 3, 5, and 6 to cover in the Blogorium*.

For those of you looking for a series recap, here's one in 60 words or less: Michael Myers kills his family, goes to a sanitarium under the care of Doctor Loomis, escapes, tries to kill Laurie Strode, fails, tries again, is replaced by an evil toy mask manufacturer, returns, tries to kill Laurie's niece Jamie, fails, tries again, fails, tries again, succeeds, but is then foiled by Loomis and a grown up Tommy Doyle**.

 Then there was a three year break, leading us to 1998, twenty years after the first Halloween. We move from Haddonfield, Illinois to somewhere in Northern California, where Keri Tate (Jamie Lee Curtis) is the dean of a private school with her son John (Josh Hartnett) and boyfriend Will (Adam Arkin). The funniest thing is that Keri Tate is a dead-ringer for Laurie Strode, and we discover that (SPOILER ALERT) she IS Laurie Strode. Laurie faked her death to keep Michael from chasing her (which is good, because Michael instead decided to wipe out the rest of her blood relations), and she'd been pretty successful avoiding (SPOILER ALERT AGAIN) her brother for the last twenty years. That is, until Doctor Loomis (the late Donald Pleasance, heard in narration) dies and Michael just happens to find his house and discover exactly where Laurie is. He also kills some kid (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) with an ice skate.

 Anyway, school's out for fall break(?) and Laurie's colleague Norma Watson (Janet Leigh, who is Jamie Lee Curtis' mother, which is technically a SPOILER for family tree detectives. I won't spoil that her father is Tony Curtis. Oh, crap) drives off in a car that looks a lot like Marion Crane (Janet Leigh)'s car from Psycho***. Michael begins stalking the campus, killing off students dumb enough to watch Scream 2 (gee, I wonder why? We'll get to that in a second...), and John and Molly (Michelle Williams) find the bodies and become "next" on the kill list. Unless Laurie, Will, and security guard Ronny (L.L. Cool J) can stop Michael.

 Why am I being so glib about H20? Well, the more I think about the film - based on a treatment by Scream co-creator Kevin Williamson - the stupider it seems. It's funny, because I guess I overlooked how stupid and obvious these references were when I was 19 (something the people who saw it with me did not), and the Cap'n instead focused on the Laurie Strode / Michael Myers story line. To be fair, that is the only thing H20 has going for it: the film decides to pretend that Halloween 4, 5, and 6 never happened****, which you can debate the relative merits of, I guess, in order to focus on the lethal sibling rivalry. The ending, where (SPOILER ALERT) Laurie decapitates an ambulance driver Michael's head is still a satisfying close to their story, one that the following film manages to ruin in the first five minutes.

 It's worth noting that even at the time we were impressed that L.L. Cool J took five or six rounds to the chest from a revolver and walked away at the end of the film. I don't remember if they said he was wearing a vest, but why would a prep school security officer need to?

Anyway, back to the way that Resurrection mangles everything, even making people who didn't like H20 say "well, at least that one didn't kill Laurie Strode." Oh, (SPOILER ALERT). Yeah, in addition to retrofitting H20 so that Michael somehow does a switcheroo with an ambulance driver before Laurie can lop his head off with an axe, they leap forward in time to an asylum where Laurie's been locked up, waiting for Michael to wander in unabated. Sure enough, they tangle, she tries to kill him (hanging? maybe?) but he stabs her or something and she falls from the roof of the asylum in what is the least effective death of a Final Girl since Jason Vorhees followed Alice Hardy back to town for some apartment complex murderin'.

But wait! That's the BEGINNING of Halloween: Resurrection, a movie that gets EVEN WORSE before Busta Rhymes drops some Kung Fu on Michael Myers. That does happen, by the way, and you don't need a SPOILER ALERT because we both know you don't have to watch this film.

So what, pray tell, could the plot of the 8th Halloween film be if the villain kills the Final Girl in the opening of the film? How about a webcam reality show about some stupid contestants wandering around the Myers house? Sound good? Freddie Harris (Busta Rhymes) and Nora Winston (Tyra Banks) sure thought so, and their web company, DangerTainment, is sponsoring this MTV's Fear knock-off. A group of college students (including Katee Sackhoff, Sean Patrick Thomas, and Thomas Ian Nichols) who "won" the chance to be on this show, wander around the house looking for clues about Michael Myers. Want to guess who has nowhere else to go after he killed his sister? Want to guess who isn't happy to find people in his childhood home? Want to place bets on whether a charred Michael Myers opens his eye for the final stinger in this turdstorm of a sequel?

The 19 year-old Cap'n may have been kind to H20, but the 23 year-old knew he hated Resurrection well before the halfway point. I remember not liking Halloween 6, but that's not as clear to me as the hatred for the last gasp of the Halloween franchise after Miramax squeezed everything left out in 2002. In retrospect, had I watched Resurrection again before Rob Zombie's Halloween, I might have been kinder, even with all of the idiotic "I'm gonna skullfuck you" dialogue. It's like the Weinstein brothers perceived a certain formula from H20 (a handful of "hot" young actors from better movies*****, a popular rapper, some referential dialogue, and whatever the newest fad was) and recycled it into a crappier version, a xerox of Kevin Williamson's already growing stale pop culture screenplays.

 Halloween: Resurrection is what people are complaining about when they talk about how awful sequels are, and devoid of the one consistent narrative thread between the first seven films (okay, six, since Halloween III isn't about Michael or his family tree), there's nothing worth investing your time in. I honestly can't say I've seen a moment of the film since we saw it on the big screen, and I know I've watched parts of H20 on cable. If one was on, the other one must have been at some point. After part 8, there was a five year layover, and then Zombie took over. At the time I write this, Patrick Lussier and Todd Farmer (My Bloody Valentine 3-D, Drive Angry) have pitched a Halloween 3D to the Weinsteins that they may eventually get to after rebooting Hellraiser (you read that right), but for now, at least I can say that Rob Zombie's Halloween 2, for as many detractors as it has, is a MUCH better movie than Halloween Resurrection, and it's probably better than H20. Now who would've thought I'd ever say that?

*For write-ups of Halloween (kind of), Halloween II, Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers, Halloween the Remake and Halloween 2 the Remake, follow the respective links.
** This much I gathered from IMDB's coverage of Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers.
*** SPOILER: It IS Marion Crane's car from Psycho.
**** In the interest of fairness, Williamson's original draft did include 4,5, and 6 as continuity, and writers Robert Zappia and Matt Greenberg wisely dropped the subplot.
**** And by that I mean American Pie and Save the Last Dance, and eventually Sackhoff would be in Battlestar Galactica but I'm not giving Bob and Harvey any credit for that one...

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Shocktober Book Review Revisited: Shock Value

Since we're officially into Shocktober now, the grand month of Horror Fest(s), I thought I'd kick things off with one of Cap'n Howdy's rare book reviews. Today I'm looking at Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and and Invented Modern Horror by Jason Zinoman. It explores the period between Rosemary's Baby and Halloween, when outsiders made a huge impact on the way audiences experienced horror films, revitalizing the genre and ushering in a new era we're still feeling the effects of today.

 When Shock Value appeared on my radar, the only concern I had was that this might be old hat for the Cap'n. I'm a big fan of that particular era of horror, and have been soaking up books, interviews, and DVD extras about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Last House on the Left, Halloween, Alien, and Night of the Living Dead for years. I'm always interested in more analysis, but I had trepidations that Shock Value might bear no new fruit for a horror fanatic. Fortunately, I was well off base.

 Almost immediately Zinoman surprised me with a story in the Rosemary's Baby chapter, about a Vincent Price appearance on the Mike Douglas show where the horror icon was unable to defend the genre that made him famous (or, perhaps, was not interested in defending horror) from attacks by Dr. Fredric Wertham, the same man who killed EC Comics in the 1950s. I must admit that I had never heard of the debate, or of its impact in the transition from Old Horror to New Horror. Zinoman's coverage of the development of Rosemary's Baby also provides a nice counterpoint to the what Robert Evans presents in The Kid Stays in the Picture, his memoirs of developing pictures for Paramount.

 Shock Value is filled with surprising moments, including the aborted collaboration between John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper that eventually morphed into Halloween. I was particularly fond of the reactions the major figures in New Horror had to each others' work: for years, I suppose I considered Brian De Palma and Alfred Hitchcock to be mutually exclusive - that one simply mimicked the other, so it was (rightly or wrongly on my part) revelatory to hear that the Master had seen De Palma films before he passed (and didn't like them, to wit). Dan O'Bannon's fall out with John Carpenter after Dark Star produces a great deal of animosity on the former's part, especially to the success of Halloween. Sean Cunningham's reaction to Carpenter's slasher film is classic, and the way that Rosemary's Baby formed what The Exorcist became to William Peter Blatty and William Friedkin (along with the extended explanation of how the "Version You've Never Seen" came to be) were all stories I thought I knew well, but Zinoman finds a way to bring a fresh perspective.

 Speaking of Halloween, I'm a little curious about the construction of Zinoman's analysis of the film. Generally speaking, what successfully separated New Horror from Old Horror is the ambiguity of motive from the villains, a reflection of the uncertainty of America during and immediately after the Vietnam War. It's not that element that bothers me, but the way Zinoman frames Halloween - a success in spite of its "sloppy" mistakes. One or two of his assertions sent me back to the film, particularly the breakdown of Carpenter's opening sequence. For some reason, Zinoman chooses to fixate on the perspective shot of Michael Meyer's knife when he's stabbing his sister (a choice that identifies the audience and director's interest rather than the character). However, Zinoman treats this paragraph as though it's the first time we've seen the knife in the film. That wasn't how I remembered it, so I checked, and sure enough...

 The audience is already aware that the (to that point unseen killer) is carrying a knife, and we know what to expect when Michael arrives and his sister recognizes him. The shock of the murder is on her part, not the audiences. Zinoman's point is well made, but it's a sloppy mistake in a critique of "sloppy" moments in Halloween.

 My only other issue with Shock Value is that Zinoman echoes the central thesis of Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls at the end of the book. He arrives at the conclusion that the seminal voices of New Horror peaked in their early years, and have struggled to match, let alone surpass, their original masterpieces. Like Biskind, Zinoman highlights the struggles of many of the creative forces to move forward with any success (highlighting the failure of Romero's projects between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, or O'Bannon's reputation as an intrusive curmudgeon kept him unable to parlay his involvement with Alien to anything until Return of the Living Dead. The controversy surrounding Tobe Hooper and Poltergeist isn't glossed over, either). Wes Craven is given the Scorsese-like pass of the "exception to the rule" because of the Scream series re-invigoration of horror in the late nineties (although A Nightmare on Elm Street is given a lukewarm reaction for its innovative first film and watered down sequels)..

 I take umbrage with this in part because I disagree with the premise of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and Zinoman mostly chooses to ignore the fact that John Carpenter had varying degrees of success in and out of horror through Vampires, not limited to The Fog, Christine, or In the Mouth of Madness. He scarcely "topped out" after Halloween and The Thing with an immediate (or even steady) decline attributed to Hooper and Cunningham and Romero. It makes me wonder whether the curious exclusion of Sam Raimi (save for a brief mention of The Evil Dead director during the "end of Horror's New Wave" portion of the epilogue), and the cursory inclusion of David Lynch and David Cronenberg during O'Bannon's "body horror" chapter.

 Overall, Shock Value has more than enough going for it that I'm willing to overlook minor quibbles like the Halloween analysis or the ambivalent closing. I was initially concerned that the book might be a retread of stories I'd heard in other documentaries (or from the directors / writers / producers themselves in other books), but you'll be pleasantly surprised by the more obscure anecdotes and the depth of insight into some of the heavily covered entries. Horror aficionados shouldn't hesitate to pick up Shock Value, even if you're positive you know what you'll find inside.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Shocktober Revisited: So You Won't Have To - The Thing (2011)

 It's almost too easy to beat up on The Thing - it's a movie with no purpose. From the big dumb cgi alien to the big dumb climax in the big dumb space ship to the between-credits sequence that's there to remind people that the END of this film is the BEGINNING of John Carpenter's The Thing, there's no reason for this movie to exist. If you thought to yourself "who gives a shit what happened to the Norwegian station?" when you realized this was a prequel and not another remake, director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. and writer Eric Heisserer didn't do anything that's going to make it worth your while. Their answer, apparently, was "pretty much the same thing that happened in the first remake."

 Let's get that out of the way right up front, by the way: I'm tired of reading reviews that call this a "remake" of John Carpenter's The Thing and then conveniently neglect to mention that Carpenter was remaking The Thing from Another World. Have any doubts about that? Watch the title screens of both films. Technically all three films present themselves as adaptations of John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?" but the 2011 iteration is explicitly set right before the 1982 version. The newer Thing is designed to be linked to the first remake, which adapts the premise if not the structure of The Thing from Another World. John Carpenter's The Thing is a superb remake, and one of the arguments everyone uses when defending "good" remakes, because it is, in its own right, a fantastic horror film. It's prequel, on the other hand, is awfully familiar. Oh, and awful.

 To be honest, if the film didn't keep shitting its pants trying to be grosser or creepier than The Thing everybody loves, it might be okay. Then again, the reason everybody calls it a "remake" is because the story is so close to what happens in John Carpenter's film. After a promising opening where the Norwegian crew discovers the frozen spaceship and "thing," we meet Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a bio-paleontologist invited to attend a "discovery" on short notice by Dr. Sandor Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) and his research assistant Adam (Eric Christan Olsen). We already know what the "discovery" is, because if we've seen The Thing from Another World and / or The Thing, we've seen the outline of the ship and the frozen specimen. This time we get to see the ship, which at first seems novel but then becomes ridiculous at the end of the film.

 Well, you can guess that they bring the specimen back to the base camp, it thaws out, starts killing / absorbing people, and before we know it no one can trust each other. First they pull a "bait and switch" about who the Thing has "copied" in a helicopter attack scene that defies narrative logic. Okay, I'm willing to accept that the Thing is (SPOILER) just trying to get back to its ship and not headed for society like Kate worries it will. That's fine. But why, when in the helicopter, does the Thing freak out and attack the guy we thought was "infected" and cause the copter to crash, presumably killing it and the two American pilots (Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). But wait! They aren't dead, so Kate doesn't trust them. Could one of them be the Thing that survived and (for no good reason) returned to the camp?

 The paranoia that works so well in Carpenter's film is nonexistent. Why? None of the characters are remotely memorable. It's hard to care about who is or isn't the Thing when your protagonists are two pilots who should be dead, three scientists who behave suspiciously, a bland research assistant and a gaggle of interchangeable Norwegian victims-to-be. I give Mary Elizabeth Winstead credit for trying to keep everything together, and I will also concede that the film wisely doesn't try to make her into a Jack MacReady surrogate. That said, she's constantly pushed into the background of scenes by characters I could care less about and I didn't buy the "sad" ending before the film remembered it needed to bridge to a much better film.

 Because they couldn't use the "blood" test again, there's a half novel but half baked attempt to develop the absorbing powers of the creature. It can't mimic non-organic material, so Kate decides the best way to see who is and isn't human is to - it's so much stupider typing it - check everyone's mouths for fillings. Seriously. They set up the Thing's evolution but couldn't figure out how to parlay that into an interesting way of generating suspense. Why? Because FOUR people don't have fillings and only one of them is the Thing, but we don't find out which one until a silly fight scene between the pilots and the scientists.

 A word on the effects - I was under the impression that 2011's The Thing was to have more "practical" special effects and less CGI. What I didn't realize was that was limited to corpses. The work by Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. is appropriately disgusting, but it isn't freakish or disturbing like Rob Bottin's effects. They also don't move - the practical effects are for corpses, of fused Thing/human hybrids or half absorbed corpses or charred remains. Anything that moves is bad looking CGI that seems like it was borrowed from Dead Space. Things look even stupider in the ship, where the Thing looks like a rejected monster from Men in Black II.

Who was this movie made for? I can't imagine people who have seen The Thing from Another World or The Thing sitting through the entire film. Only people with a passing knowledge of Carpenter's film would even stay engaged, but most of the connections at the end would be lost on them. I actually give a pass to selling it as "from the producers of Dawn of the Dead" because in theory, it could have been different enough of a take on the premise that using Zack Snyder's remake as a basis for comparison. Had the film lived up to that concept, maybe I could understand why it exists.

 For a brief moment in the first thirty minutes, I thought there might be something watchable in The Thing. It turned out that there was, and it was John Carpenter's The Thing. Why I watched the watered down, CGI "enhanced" version is anyone's guess. Well, the truth is that I said "what the hell" and rolled the dice. Never has the term "craps" been more appropriate. Let's just say I watched it So You Won't Have To and leave it at that.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Shocktober Revisited: Documentaries - Fangoria's Weekend of Horrors

  (Originally posted in July of 2011.)

 Many of you may not know this, but 2011 marks the 25th anniversary of the VHS release of Fangoria's Weekend of Horrors, a sixty minute documentary about the first ever Fangoria convention. Held in 1985, the first Weekend of Horrors was a gathering point in Los Angeles for horror enthusiasts, short film makers, and aspiring make up effects artists. Unlike UnConventional, a film I reviewed last year, the Weekend of Horrors doesn't feel sleazy or exploitative, despite promoting Fangoria throughout (it's co-director, Kerry O'Quinn, is actually the creator of Fangoria, along with Starlog).

 Compared to 2004's Unconventional, Weekend of Horrors feels relatively quaint: the enthusiasm of the fans is infectious, with many effusively gushing about their favorite monsters and why they're attracted to horror films. While there are merchandise tables - the site of a surprise appearance by Star Trek's Walter Koenig, wandering around the convention with his son - most of the tables that appear in the film are designed to showcase amateur makeup, monster, and effects work by fans of the genre.

 Like UnConventional, there is also an auction and a costume contest, but the costumes are all homemade and shall we say, less slutty. Instead of auctioning off Tiffany Shepis' underwear, the Fangoria fans bid on a shooting script for John Carpenter's Halloween, and judging by how little other items were going for, I'd be willing to bet someone went home with it on less than twenty dollars.

The main attraction of Fangoria's Weekend of Horrors is the guests of the convention, who range from Wes Craven and Robert Englund (there to support A Nightmare on Elm Street and the Craven-less Part 2: Freddy's Revenge) to a beardless Rick Baker, who brought along some ape effects from Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan. Tom Savini appears briefly during a montage; Elvira answers questions from the audience (Attack of the Killer Tomatoes was apparently the worst Movie Macabre film she ever aired); John Carl Buechler does a Q&A for Troll; Steve Miner and William Katt talk about House; Dan O'Bannon talks about Return of the Living Dead; Tobe Hooper appears to talk a bit about his films but also to preside over the Cinemagic Short Film Search Festival, where fans are awarded for their 8 and 16mm films.

With a magazine like Fangoria behind the event, it's no surprise that the emphasis is on special effects makeup, and many of the montages are devoted to masks from films like Friday the 13th and Creepshow (as well as a certain monster Tales from the Darkside fans will recognize immediately). Makeup effects artist Craig Reardon (Altered States, Poltergeist) gives People Magazine reporter Tony Lawrence a quick monster makeover in time for the costume contest. Special attention should also be given to Nora Salisbury, a fan who made her own Freddy Kreuger costume (with full head piece and glove) that's pretty impressive.

 For a sixty minute film, Weekend of Horrors does at time lean too heavily on scenes from films mentioned by guests (I still don't understand why the entire trailer for The Toxic Avenger needs to be there) and it takes a curious detour into promotional territory when Tobe Hooper finishes with the short film competition and begins talking about his remake of Invaders from Mars. There's a lengthy section devoted to behind the scenes footage, which does admittedly find a way to include Stan Winston in the film, but it's a jarring shift in the movie that sticks out when O'Quinn and Mike Hadley cut back to Dick Miller. Why this breaks up the previous montage, which includes interviews with Clu Gulager (Return of the Living Dead, Feast), producer Alex Gordon (Voodoo Woman, The Atomic Submarine), and composer Albert Glasser (The Cyclops, The Amazing Colossal Man), who talk, in part, about Roger Corman, is unclear.

 There's a bit of a "home movie" feel to Fangoria's Weekend of Horrors, but in a good way; it feels like a tape made to share the good time had by people there instead of a document of the lurid side of horror conventions (okay, I'll stop beating up on UnConventional), and I have to say it sure seemed like a great place to be in the summer(?) of 1985. People came from all around the country to share their enthusiasm for horror films, to show off what they could do, and to meet their heroes. I give O'Quinn and Hadley a lot of credit for conveying that sense of joy in such a concise package.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Shocktober Revisited: Documentaries - UnConventional

I've decided that it's best to keep this review short; otherwise, I'm going to feel like the Cap'n is kicking a dog when it's down. See, UnConventional may be the most unflattering document of any event I've seen on DVD.

Somewhere on the cover artwork, there's a statement along the lines of "Like Trekkies for Horror Fans", which I guess is technically true if you watched Trekkies the same way I did: as a collection of increasingly goofy people that make that one super-dork you know look cool by comparison. Which is what that movie is. Trekkies is a freak show disguised as a documentary about fandom, as is Ringers: The Lord of the Fans or whatever its called. You watch because you can't help but guffaw at these poor people, but you feel awful afterwards.

UnConventional is like that, but not entirely because of the subject matter. The film attempts to be about the 13th Annual Chiller Theater Convention in East Brunswick, New Jersey. Chiller Theater is, if you've read my review of American Scary, hosted by Zacherely the Cool Ghoul, one (if not) the first Horror Hosts on television.

While Zacherely appears in UnConventional periodically, the documentary focuses primarily on one person you've heard of, one you might kinda recognize the name of, and somebody the Cap'n had to look up to figure out what she'd been in. They are (in order): Gunnar "Leatherface" Hansen, 42nd Street Pete, and Tiffany Shepis.

This is not to say that there weren't many more recognizable names at the Chiller Theater Convention. Appearing briefly on camera are Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Linda Blair, David Carradine, Kane Hodder, Michael Jai White, Linda Blair, Cybill Danning, and Tom Savini. If you take the credits' word for it, apparently Bruce Campbell, Clint Howard, and Elvira, among others who don't appear on camera for one reason or the other.

Instead, we spend the lion's share of our time with Tiffany Shepis, who I had to look up on IMDB, and found was in Abominable and a number of Troma movies, plus LOTS of movies I've never heard of. Considering how much narration by 42nd Street Pete (who also appears in the film and, as far as I can tell, is responsible for this) and fan interaction revolves around how hot Shepis is, I'm gathering she's the sex appeal for the documentary. Mostly she drinks, complains about fans, and later in the film appears in various states of undress.

This all seems somehow tame compared to the lesser billed "star", Bob Gonzo. The producer, writer, director, and pimp employer of "Gonzo's Gorgeous Girls", Gonzo makes movies that would barely classify as "horror." Think of Fred Olen Ray crossed with the film Snuff and you have some idea. Bob Gonzo has a table at the convention to sell his sexploitation films (of which he's also the star) and to let attendees oogle his girls, who also show up. Sleazy doesn't begin to cover it.

Only Gunnar Hansen comes off looking good, mostly because he's such a genuinely likable guy in UnConventional. He's not really that attached to being Leatherface, but appreciates the fans and stays for the three day convention in order to make them happy. He doesn't get involved in the drunken parties that make up the Chiller Theater after-hours portion(s) of the doc, and is happy to sit down and talk about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and horror fandom during the movie.

In fact, I gather that the Chiller Theater Convention is actually a reasonably cool place to be. I don't know, because UnConventional is a documentary which seems to point the camera in all the least interesting directions - like 42nd Street Pete pretending to vomit in a trash can or the world's lamest Horror Auction - for 90 minutes.

It also doesn't help that the documentary feels so low rent. At times it feels more like a collection of home movies than an actual film, and none of it seems all that intriguing to people not directly involved in the convention. The Cap'n will admit that he turned UnConventional off a few times out of boredom, particularly when they seem to run out of things to do and send Shepis down to the laundry room of the hotel in a skimpy dress.

See? This is just getting mean. I don't know any of the people involved in UnConventional, and I don't have any reason to believe they'd ever read a review of their documentary from 2004, but I feel bad beating up on them. They were doing the best they could, and I guess they thought all of this footage was pretty cool. The problem is that it makes them look silly, the fans look idiotic, and the convention look cheap and uninteresting. All of that may not be the case, but UnConventional doesn't leave me with any other verdict.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Shocktober Revisited: Documentaries - American Scary and The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made

Well, one documentary and a "list" movie, American Scary and The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made, both thanks to Netflix streaming video.


American Scary is easily the better of the two: it deals specifically with the cultural trend of "Horror Movie Hosts" which caught on regionally in the 50s and 60s. For those not familiar with the movement or have just heard of Elvira by reputation, in the early days of television the networks were starved for content to fill out their schedules. The film studios began leasing out their back catalogs (particularly horror) to the stations, and local stations would punctuate the films with a gag-spouting "host" who alleviated the tension for kids watching at home. As the "Horror Movie Host" spread, it ended up at all hours of the day and grew popular with local audiences.

The documentary covers the birth of the "Host", takes a regional journey through hosts in Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Trenton. Many of the surviving Hosts are on hand to tell their stories, including Roland / Zacherley, Vampira, Ghoularid, Count Gore D. Vol, Crematoria Mortem, Son of the Ghoul, and Penny Dreadful. Elvira doesn't appear in the interviews but he impact is mentioned on a national level.

Along for the ride to share memories of the Hosts are Neil Gaiman, Curtis "Booger" Armstrong, Joe Bob Briggs, Bob Burns, author James Morrow, Chris Gore of Film Threat, Joel Hodgson of MST3k, Tim Conway, Leonard Maltin, Patricia Tallman (the evil witch in Army of Darkness), John Kassir (the Crypt-Keeper), Len Wein and Phil Tippett.

I found the discussion of MST3k's role in carrying on the "host" tradition (albeit in different ways) an interesting take on the show's impact. If you look at Mystery Science Theater 3000 in that light, it does bridge the gap between the corporatization of network television (which effectively ended "Horror Hosts") and the rise of Public Access "Horror Hosts". It's strange that while Joe Bob Briggs appears, no mention is made of Monster Vision. USA Up All Night also fails to register even though it did similar work.

Still, this is quality stuff, and you'll get a lot of footage from people you may have only read about. Check it out.


The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made is less a documentary and more of a quick hit kind of list. The "movie" itself is 60 minutes long, so you can do the math. Generally you spend barely more than a minute with each film (the runtime includes credits and "graphics" devoted to a booing audience) so it's more of an overview than anything.

All things considered, I did pick up a few ideas for future Bad Movie Nights, and I buffered out the "trailer gallery" for this weekend (available here). I can't really argue with the list too much (other than possibly Spider Baby, which I like), but here are the 50 Worst Movies Ever Made:

50. Glen or Glenda?
49. Mesa of Lost Women
48. Troll
47. Teenage Zombies
46. The Fat Spy
45. Voodoo Woman
44. Ishtar
43. Frankenstein Conquers the World
42. The Creeping Terror
41. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
40. Howard the Duck
39. They Saved Hitler's Brain
38. Black Belt Jones
37. Greetings!
36. The Great Alligator
35. Hillbillys in a Haunted House
34. TNT Jackson
33. Robot Monster
32. The Incredible Melting Man
31. Firebird 2015 A.D.
30. Dracula Vs. Frankenstein
29. Bride of the Monster
28. Smokey and the Bandit Part 3
27. Xanadu
26. Leonard Part 6
25. The Wild Women of Wongo
24. Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla
23. The Ape
22. Galaxy of Terror
21. The Robot vs the Aztec Mummy
20. Snow White (German Version)
19. Creature from the Haunted Sea
18. The Swinging Cheerleaders
17. Trial of Billy Jack
16. Killers from Space
15. Spider Baby
14. Trog
13. The Three Stooges in Orbit
12. The Crippled Masters
11. Sorceress
10. The Crawling Hand
9. Bloodsucking Freaks
8. J.D.'s Revenge
7. Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster
6. Killer Shrews
5. Great White
4. Plan 9 from Outer Space
3. The Thing with Two Heads
2. Eegah!
1. The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies

Honestly this "movie" has next to no value unless you want a quick overview of some bad movies with next to no insight and clips of bad acting and cheap monsters. All Monsters Attack is better for that, as are the 42nd Street Forever discs. This is a "Watch Once" at best, but I'd advise skipping it altogether.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Shocktober Revisited: Documentaries - Going to PIeces; The Rise and Fall of the Slasher FIlm

 Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film is a pretty good documentary, if a little light on content. Truthfully, it's a pretty good overview of the genre (with the exception of never mentioning Black Christmas and only showing clips of it during a montage of kills), but you could make much longer pieces about any number of sub-sections they spend time on. Sure, there are plenty of lengthy docs about the Friday the 13th series and at least three really good Halloween documentaries, and more Tom Savini featurettes than you can shake a stick at. Still, there's some interesting stuff tucked into the middle section of the movie, including the first acknowledgment of Splatter University's existence I've seen. Some lesser discussed slasher and post-slasher movies get their due; movies like The Prowler, Sleepaway Camp, He Knows You're Alone, and April Fool's Day. Even something as shitty as Return to Horror High gets a quick mention.

As noted above, many devotees to the genre are going to wonder why certain movies don't get as much attention (Alice, Sweet Alice, Black Christmas, and a deeper investigation of Suspiria's influence) and the transitional music is a little distracting, even if it is by Harry Manfredini (he of the ch-ch-ch kill-kill-kill). There's sort of a lull between A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, but the movie is so front heavy you might not notice.

There's also the curious style of interviewing people: the director really must have wanted something different, because some interviewees are constantly walking or being circled by the camera (the editor of Fangoria and Greg Nicotero stand out) and the camera is sometimes uncomfortably close to people like Tom Savini and Robert Shaye of New Line. Still, the line up of people interviewed is pretty impressive. Of particular note are Felissa Rose (the original Angela from Sleepaway Camp) and Fred Walton, who defends April Fool's Day and its twist ending, insisting that Paramount decided to market the film as a slasher movie. Oh, and kudos to Going to Pieces covering the feminist angle on Slumber Party Massacre during the "Critic Bashing" section.

You may not have the same problem that I did with this, but the movie itself would not play from the dvd menu. In fact, nothing would; I had to press stop and then play again to get the film itself to play. None of the special features would play either, which bummed me out because there was a bonus interview with Bob Clark, director of Black Christmas (and, incidentally, A Christmas Story) which leads me to believe there was some coverage of Black Christmas cut from the film. Bummer.

At 88 minutes, Going to Pieces is possibly too short, but if you're a fan of slasher movies or want to give somebody a good primer on the genre, it's certainly worth watching. Some of the stories won't be new, but the inclusion of lesser known entries and the people who made them more than cover for old anecdotes. If you can get the dvd to play, it comes Recommended.

Now bring on the follow-ups!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Shocktober Revisited: The Descent Part 2

Folks, I have good news and bad news. Let's get the bad news out of the way first.

By definition, The Descent: Part 2 is an unnecessary sequel. There is no reason for the film to exist, because the story is predicated on an assumption that director Neil Marshall's original ending to The Descent didn't happen. For you to even buy into The Descent: Part 2, viewers need to go with the truncated "American" ending, where Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) does escape and drives off for that last minute jump scare. The movie tries to play off her escape from the caves in a different way, but it still undermines the original ending, where it's clear she's bonkers and never leaving. But let's say we buy into that for the sake of watching this film - which is not directed or written by Marshall - and simply move forward.

So two days after the cast of The Descent go missing, a police search is underway with media coverage. It turns out that Juno (Natalie Mendoza) is the daughter of a Senator, so there's a pressing urge to find her. When Sheriff Vaines (Gavin O'Herlihy) finds out Sarah made it out and is in a nearby hospital, he drags her - along with his deputy Ellen Rios (Krysten Cummings), a spelunking instructor (Douglas Hodge) and his assistants/students (Joshua Dallas and Anna Skellern) - back into the cave system to find Juno and the other girls. Vaines assumes that Sarah killed Juno on account of all of the blood on her clothes and her semi-catatonic state.

The biggest problems I have with The Descent: Part 2 are in the opening. There's a big hurry to get back into the caves, so Vaines brings Sarah back out to the Appalachians hours after she's taken to the hospital. In fact, there's a pretty good reason to believe she's still sedated considering how choppy the narrative is up front. The other serious issue is Vaines' insistence that instead of re-directing the search in light of this discovery, he instead keeps it hush-hush and brings along an ill-equipped search team. Two police officers with no experience underground (one of whom appears to be the department's psychiatrist), a trauma victim, two students, and only one person who seems to know what he's doing. It doesn't make any sense.

But there is good news. Once the six of them get into the caves again, things get better. While the sense of claustrophobia isn't quite as pervasive as it was in The Descent, when things get tight later in the film, it does finally get unnerving. The unmemorable characters are dispensed with quickly by the Crawlers, and there is a reasonably good sense of tension in the second half of the film, particularly after (SPOILER) Juno turns out to be alive. (one minor point of contention - the opening is pretty clear that they've only been missing two days, one of which is theoretically the day in which the first film takes place, so it's a little odd that Juno goes quite as "feral" as she does when Vaines catches up with her).

Once the teams are split up and Sarah snaps of her "Barbara in Night of the Living Dead" state, it's actually a pretty good movie. Director Jon Harris finds interesting ways to keep the caves fresh, and has the good sense not to mess with what works. The Crawlers aren't really any different than they were in the first film, and that's probably for the best. It's harder to scare viewers when all the really good reveals were used in the first film, but Part 2 finds other ways to keep things moving.

The big one, I have to say, is that the gore in this film is a) all practical, and b) really gross. It's not often that you can have one really good disgusting gore moment, but Part 2 has several. A handful of them build off of deaths from the first film, but there's one moment in particular that I both give the writers and director credit for and found alternately pretty tasteless.

I imagine that most of you remember the "blood pool" scene in The Descent, so you're expecting something like that to happen in the second film. And it does. But it's not blood this time. In fact, it isn't really clear what Sarah and Rios are swimming in until a Crawler wanders over to the edge of the pool, turns around, and shits. Yes, they've been fighting in the toilet. Gross. As stupid as it sounds, the way it's revealed is more revolting than stupid, but it should give you some idea of where Part 2 is willing to go.

The acting is kinda all over the map, but Shauna MacDonald and Natalie Mendoza are still good, and when they finally cross paths again there's a nice moment of grudging respect that either one of them survived. Krysten Cummings emerges from Part 2 as the most memorable character, which is all the better considering a much better surprise ending in this film. I'm not going to spoil it, because I honestly didn't see what ends up happening coming ahead of time. That also bumps the movie into "better than I expected" territory.

Overall, while it's nowhere in the same ball park as The Descent, I have to say that Part 2 is a reasonably fun horror movie, and much better than I was expecting it to be. I thought I'd be getting into another s. Darko "so you won't have to", but this is worth checking out. Since it's going direct to DVD, I don't need to recommend you wait to rent it, because that's really your option. It's quite watchable after a bumpy beginning, and despite the fact that there is no reason for it to exist, The Descent: Part 2 is one of the better unnecessary sequels I've seen.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Shocktober Revisited: The House That Dripped Blood

Since it is October, and since Cap'n Howdy's Blogorium could be described as "horror themed" in its layout, I guess I should make with the reviewing horror movies that won't be a part of our annual celebration in two weeks. Fortunately for you, dear readers, I have a shelf full of horror flicks waiting to be discussed. We'll start this semi-regular column with 1971's The House that Dripped Blood.

I've made no secret of my love for anthology films, specifically those coming from Amicus Productions, so it was a surprise to me to discover that I'd never gotten around to watching The House that Dripped Blood. It turns out that House is a pretty good addition to their collection of supernaturally based horror films. The cast is great, the direction is atmospheric, and most of the stories work in context.

Like most anthology films, you get four stories with a bit of a wrap-around, and House that Dripped Blood covers most of your horror bases: Spectral Killers, Vampires, Witchcraft, and evil museums / shops of mystery. The stories, by Robert Bloch (author of Psycho) are:

1. A writer (Denholm Elliot) and his wife move into the house in question so he can finish his macabre masterpiece. When his creation, a mad strangler named Dominick, starts to appear in and around the house, he's convinced his grip on reality is slipping.

2. A recently retired businessman (Peter Cushing) moves into the house, and while wandering the nearby town, finds a wax museum of horrors. He becomes obsessed with a figure of Salome that reminds him of a long lost love, and when a visiting friend goes missing, the terrible secret of the museum comes to light.

3. A not-retired businessman (Christopher Lee) and his daughter (Chloe Franks) come to the house to get away from the city. When a tutor (Nyree Dawn Porter) begins to connect with the distant and sheltered child, her true nature comes to light, with terrible consequences.

4. An actor and horror-buff (Jon "The Third Doctor" Pertwee) and his co-star (Ingrid Pitt) rent out the house while he's filming Curse of the Bloodsucker. Convinced that his cape looks too cheap, he visits the mysterious Theo Von Hartmann's shop and buys an authentic vampire cape. Maybe a little too authentic, as he discovers when he puts it on.

The wrap-around story involves a detective (John Bennett) investigating the disappearance of Pertwee's character. The owner of the house, Mr. Stoker (John Bryans) shares the mysterious history of the tenants. When Inspector Holloway finally goes to the house, he finds much more than he expected in the basement...

I think the third and fourth stories were my favorite. Admittedly, the Jon Pertwee story gets quite silly in the middle (especially when he puts the cape on after midnight and reacts hammily to his fangs and... flying), but it is salvaged by Holloway's visit, one that ties up the film nicely.

The first story, about the writer and his mad killer, suffers from a rushed ending, one that relies on you paying attention to a last second development based on a character you just met. The set up is wonderful, and most of the lingering architectural shots and creepy ornaments does soften the weak ending.

Despite the really trippy dream imagery in the second story, the ending just doesn't make sense. Something happens to the wax figure that, if what the owner says is true, would render it impossible to be fixed in time for the last shot. The final image, on the other hand, is a pretty good one.

Despite the fact that the film (rated PG) is virtually bloodless, there's plenty of atmosphere and suggested horrors to raise a bit of a chill. This is more evident in the witchcraft story with Christopher Lee, which relies entirely on suggestion for its gruesome finale. The House that Dripped Blood isn't as gory as Tales from the Crypt or From Beyond the Grave, and it might come off as a little tame compared to what was to come. However, taken with the much earlier Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, I think House fits the Amicus m.o.

Finally. the title is a little misleading, because while the film is about four tenants who died (separately) in the same house, at least two of the stories really have nothing to do with house as evil. They attempt to tie everything together with Stoker directly addressing the audience (something that seemed strangely familiar, although I'm convinced I've never seen this before), but if you're willing to put the misnomer of the title aside, it's a fun little spookshow you could probably scare children with - and not scar them permanently.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Shocktober Revisited: Slaughter of the Vampires

Previously on Cap'n Howdy's Blogorium:

I started but haven't finished watching Slaughter of the Vampires, which is a nice slice of Italian Cleavesploitation (no nudity, but lots of nubile young ladies in very tight bodices for no reason whatsoever) and I guess a vampire. I mean, there is one, but I'm not far enough in to see what his plan is, other than finding a new vampire bride (the old one was left behind and staked by angry villagers).

The film is dubbed but it's not such a bad thing. I don't honestly know how watchable it would be with subtitles, and horror is the universal language, y'know? Besides, I'm pretty sure that the vampire is a German gentleman and perhaps this was a multilingual shoot, like those Spaghetti Westerns.

For some reason, this movie was released stateside as Curse of the Blood Ghouls, which is admittedly a better title, but it doesn't set you up for any vampire slaughter. I like it when the movie promises you something and then kinda delivers on it in the first three minutes. Hopefully there's more slaughtering to come.

Here's the trailer, which looks much worse than the dvd picture does. Kudos to Dark Sky Films for cleaning this up, I suppose.

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming:

I'll give Slaughter of the Vampires this: it's a more appropriate title than Curse of the Blood Ghouls, but just barely. Technically speaking, three vampires are killed, so it earns the plural quotient, and at least one of them is stabbed pretty viciously, so I'll count that as "slaughter". Otherwise, there's not much about the trailer or the title of the film that would be considered "accurate".

Most of Slaughter of the Vampires is about talking. And waiting. And talking about waiting. There's some momentum at the beginning, when the Vampire (he has no actual name, just Vampire, but is played by Dieter Eppler) and his first vampire bride (not sure who) are running like crazy from angry villagers. After he escapes and she doesn't, Count... uh, Vampire rides like crazy in a carriage to a castle. It's not really clear how he knows about the castle or if he lived there, but he moves into the cellar.

The castle belongs to Wolfgang (Walter Brandi) and Louise (Graziella Granata) and assorted servants. The Count takes a liking to Louise and decides to make her his new vampire bride. Very. Slowly. So slowly that Wolfgang has lots of time to talk about it with the servants and a Doctor and then to travel out of town to visit Dr. Nietzsche (Luigi Batzella). They talk some more and eventually get around to hunting down Louise, Count Vampire, and Louise's inexplicably vamped out servant maiden (also don't know the name. IMDB is a little vague).

As I said before, the movie is 79 minutes long. During that time I fell asleep three or four times, woke up, and rewound the dvd only to discover I'd missed nothing. Typically, it was a shot of Wolfgang 0r Dr. Nietzsche waiting for something to happen, followed by a shot of the vampire or Louise with "dramatic" music, except that they were also waiting. There's a lot of waiting for a movie where almost nothing happens.

I will say two things kept my attention, and neither one of them were the abundant cleavesploitation of Louise (who spends 80% of the movie in a low cut nightgown):

1. Count Vampire's main theme is played on a Theremin, which has the exact opposite effect they were intending (rather than mysterious and creepy, it's pretty silly).

2. The dubbing is done the same way many Japanese films are dubbed, so you get lots of overexplained sentences in order to match the mouths of characters. For example, Wolfgang says "Here comes the Doctor who was a good friend of mine in school. He will help you out he is a good Doctor. He does not bother you, does he little girl, you are not afraid of Doctors."

For a movie with a gratuitous bath scene (I mean, there is absolutely no reason for the bath, unless you really need to argue re-introducing a character late in the film) which is less suggestive than Louise's nightgown, Slaughter of the Vampires is pretty lackluster. I should have known better than to rewind after nodding off, because I probably stretched the running time into actual 90 minute territory as a result, and this movie doesn't deserve it.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Horror Fest VIII (Day Three): The Wolf Man, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and John Dies at the End

 "Even a man who is pure of heart
     and says his prayers by night
         may become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms
            and the autumn moon is bright"

 That's the poem uttered three times in the first twenty minutes of The Wolf Man, so that audiences won't forget that the movie they came to see (The Wolf Man) is about a man who becomes a wolf. The man in question is Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) although you wouldn't know that from the opening credits, which bill Chaney as "The Wolf Man." I must imagine that when The Wolf Man ran on television during the 1950s and 60s that its opening looked familiar to children: title cards introducing the characters play over a brief clip of them from some point in the film, a template of sorts for most TV sitcoms and many dramas.

 Back to the poem for a moment, because the one takeaway I had from watching The Wolf Man this time is that Lawrence Talbot isn't really a man who is "pure of heart" at all. In fact, he's kind of sleazy: not only does he use his father's telescope to spy on Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), but he then uses that information while in her father's pawn shop to put the moves on her. He gives her some business about being psychic, but even when he eventually comes clean about how he knew about her earrings, it's still in an unrepentantly smarmy fashion. It's no wonder that she doesn't want to go with him to the gypsy camp and brings along her friend Jenny (Fay Helm).

 It's a good thing that Talbot buys a cane with a silver wolf's head, because the gypsy woman Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) is hiding a secret: her son, Bela (Bela Lugosi) is a Dracula... no, wait. That's not right. He's also a wolf man, and while reading Jenny's fortune, Bela realizes she's his next victim. He sends Jenny away, but she can't run fast enough and he attacks her in wolf form (more like German Shepherd form, but you get the idea) and Talbot is injured while killing said wolf with his cane.

 I'm being a little unkind to The Wolf Man, one of the Universal Classic Monster movies that I was always the fondest of, and I do feel bad about that. I had always remembered Lawrence Talbot as something of a tragic figure, something that continued as long as Chaney reprises the role in various quasi-sequels (House of Frankenstein, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein), but it's hard to feel too sympathetic about a guy who clearly doesn't care that Gwen already has a boyfriend and who behaves in such an underhanded way when he meets her. Perhaps it's supposed to be charming, but when he reveals that he has a telescope and she says "from now on I'll be sure to draw the curtains" and he tells her not to, that's just creepy.

 Talbot is more sympathetic in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, to be sure; after having been killed by his father (Claude Rains, the Invisible Man himself), Lawrence is placed in the family mausoleum, where he at least has peace (as promised by Maleva upon his death). That is, until the two graverobbers show up and break in, looking for jewels. They open Lawrence's coffin and move some of the wolfsbane so they can take his ring (but not before saying the poem for people who might not remember) but seeing as it is a full moon, after all, it's hard to keep a dead werewolf down...

 Revived and apparently immortal, Talbot is found in Cardiff and taken to a nearby hospital with head trauma (the cane wound that killed him) and he's patched up by Dr. Mannering (Patric Knowles) while the authorities try to figure out who their mystery man is. Lawrence Talbot has been dead for four years, so the man in the hospital can't possibly be who he claims he is. And the following night a police officer is murdered by a wolf, something that Talbot seems to know about.

 In The Wolf Man, Sir John Talbot and the authorities regard Lawrence's claims of being "dangerous" as an illness of the mind, but Dr. Mannering seems much more willing to accept his "affliction," although there's quite a while between when they are together in the story. Lawrence leaves the hospital (and Wales) to track down Maleva and find a way to die. He has no interest in being cured, only in no longer living - which is fair, considering that he was dead.

 Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man opens the scope of the first film considerably, and by necessity. Maleva is not only somewhere in Europe, but she's also nowhere near where the two of them need to be in order to help Lawrence. Maleva has heard of a man, named Frankenstein, who might be able to help Talbot, so they travel to Vasaria, the (fictional) home nation of the Frankenstein family, only to find that Ludwig Frankenstein is dead and that the burnt down castle has been abandoned.

 The person I was watching Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man with had not seen Ghost of Frankenstein, which caused a bit of a conundrum here, because until Baroness Elsa Frankenstein (Illona Massey) mentions that the experiments killed her father AND her grandfather, it's not stated in the film which Frankenstein is dead when Talbot arrives. As this is a sequel to both The Wolf Man and Ghost of Frankenstein, it's a good idea to be caught up on both series. (They do play it a bit fast and loose with chronology, though: in The Wolf Man you can clearly see cars driving around town, but by Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man either there are no cars in Eastern Europe and Cardiff or Lawrence was dead for four years and traveled backwards in time. By the same token they have a hydroelectric dam in Vasaria - they mention that it powers the equipment in the castle - so it's anybody's guess)

 At any rate, Talbot finds Frankenstein's monster (Bela Lugosi) frozen in ice and thaws him / it out in the hopes of finding some way to end his existence, and ultimately decides to contact the only surviving Frankenstein (Massey) to see if she can help him. The Baroness is not a scientist and wants nothing to do with the family, but during the Vasarian equivalent of Oktoberfest, Dr. Mannering finds Talbot and the merry band settle in at the castle to see if energy can be drained from Talbot and the monster, finally killing both of them.

 The villagers are, understandably, weary of any activity involving a Frankenstein. They have good reason to be, as Mannering can't help but try to bring the monster back to full strength. Lucky for him (and us), they choose to experiment during a full moon. Well, that's a little fuzzy. I'm not sure if it's a full moon or if the experiment causes Talbot to turn into the Wolf Man (which Chaney is again billed as), but what's important is that the monster smackdown ensues to close out the film. How the Baroness and Dr. Mannering (and, I'm hoping, Maleva) manage to escape the exploding dam above the castle is a manner of movie convenience, but the two monsters presumably perish in the ensuing flood - as would everyone in the village below.

 Interesting tidbit time: Bela Lugosi and Patric Knowles appear in both The Wolf Man and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, albeit playing different roles each time. Ilona Massey, who plays Elsa Frankenstein, replaces Evelyn Ankers, who played Elsa in Ghost of Frankenstein, because it might be a little weird for the woman who played Gwen Conliffe to also be Baroness Frankenstein. All of the monster (Lugosi)'s dialogue was cut from Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, which makes it tricky to understand why it walks arms outstretched. The reason? In Ghost of Frankenstein, the monster is blind as a result of receiving Ygor (Lugosi again)'s brain. Vasaria, is, by the way, a post-World War II replacement for Germany, where the original Frankenstein was set, created by writer Curt Siodmak.


 Finally we come to John Dies at the End, the best possible adaptation of David Wong's novel that Don Coscarelli could make with the budget he had. That's not a knock on the movie, because I can't imagine it would be easy to faithfully adapt that book considering how many crazy, outlandish, and disgusting moments are on nearly every page. Without the money to clear the many songs mentioned in the book, or to include Fred Durst, or to even be able to include the section in Vegas (it should happen instead of going straight to the mall, for those who have only seen the movie), let alone what happens AFTER David and John come back from the dimension Korrok originates from, it's impressive how close to the book John Dies at the End is. The first hour or so picks up all of the major beats with only a few omissions (where David works, Amy's brother, and some of the names of characters in the film).

 As much as I want to resist the temptation to compare the book to the movie, it tends to happen without trying. So many people I know read John Dies at the End (how can you not when someone describes it as "GrossBusters"?) and while I'm glad that the movie works for audiences who haven't read it, I have no idea how it would play if I didn't know where the story was going. It's a collection of some of the stranger moments you'll ever see onscreen. I am impressed that Coscarelli turned what is an episodic structure in the book and made it more streamlined (mostly by dropping some of the detours) even if the ending is... abrupt.

 I would imagine even if you hadn't read the book, the sudden leap from "things from another dimension that invade people and cause them to explode" to "welcome to the dimension of Korrok" must be a little jarring, even in a film where a guy's mustache flies off and attacks our hero. The last section of the film happens so quickly and is so packed with exposition that I'm kind of impressed it works at all. The coda during the credits eases things a bit, and the resolution to Arnie's frame story is surprisingly bittersweet for a movie so ready to shrug off the bizarre with "what's next?"

 And yes, it still plays well the third time. I suspect it will the fourth, fifth, and so on, to boot. John Dies at the End may not be the level of "cult" film of Coscarelli's Phantasm series or as beloved as Bubba Ho-Tep, but I suspect that it will grow an audience for a long time on home video. It's just a shame that Coscarelli killed one major character, making a This Book is Full of Spiders adaptation very, very difficult, if not out right impossible. Then again, if they ran out of money for the spiders scene in John Dies at the End and had to animate it, there's probably no chance you could make This Book is Full of Spiders into a movie (the scope is considerably larger). But read both books, if you haven't. It isn't going to hurt the movie one bit.

 Horror Fest VIII has come to a close, and I'll tell you it's been a good year for the Cap'n and Fests. Bad Movie Night was a blast, Summer Fest 5 had some great moments, and Horror Fest VIII may be my favorite to date, rivaling only III and V. I'm looking forward to next year - I hope you are too.

Horror Fest VIII (Day Two): The Haunting and The Woman in Black

 I have a piece of advice for any character in a Nightmare on Elm Street sequel (remakequel?): if you really need to stay up, like not fall asleep at all, just watch The Haunting and The Woman in Black back to back. Do it alone in the middle of the night and you'll be too terrified to close your eyes, let alone fall asleep. Freddy will just be twiddling his thumbs, waiting impatiently while you seek every shadow for the terrible ghosts waiting to murder you.

  Nancy had the right idea trying to watch The Evil Dead, but there's something to be said for an atmospheric haunted house movie. Many contenders are out there, and horror fans have their favorites, but for me, Robert Wise's The Haunting edges out The Innocents and The Uninvited. The only one that comes close for the Cap'n is Lady in White, and that has everything to do with the fact that it terrified me as a child. But The Haunting is, for me, the haunted house movie to go to and it's all about atmosphere.

 You never see a ghost in The Haunting, and, in fact, the only "effect" on camera is the pulsing door between Nell (Julie Harris), Theo (Claire Bloom), and whatever might be on the other side. Wise relies entirely on sound and the cast does the rest of the work, with Harris handling the brunt of the scares. It's a fair argument as to whether Hill House is actually haunted or if Nell's tenuous grip on reality is feeding off of the creepy vibe. She's not helped in any way by the distant Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), the emotionally manipulative Theodora, or the pragmatic but otherwise "audience surrogate" Luke (Russ Tamblyn). Is she losing it or do the spirits haunting Hill House really have it in for the most vulnerable member of this research team?

 The Haunting is a brilliant exercise in audience manipulation, slipping you into Nell's mindset without the benefit of snapping you back to reality. The response from other members seems unwarranted, but we're predisposed to her perspective, so of course something is trying to get her. Only on the other side of the credits is the ambiguity more clear - are they really under attack or feeding off of each other's anticipation for something to happen? Did something really move or were we not paying attention to the background carefully? The imagination is really quite a powerful tool to scare, and you won't find many better of building tension merely by suggestion until things literally go careening off of the road.

 The Woman in Black is less subtle, and designed with more "jump" scares - although nowhere near the level you'd find in a Paranormal Activity or Haunting in Connecticut - as well as making it pretty clear there IS a ghost and that she has the power to directly impact the world of the living. That said, the second theatrical release from the newly branded Hammer Films (the first was Let Me In) has enough atmosphere to carry it past the mandatory "scares" modern audiences seemingly require.

 I've already reviewed The Woman in Black here at the Blogorium, and I selected it specifically because it does make you fear the darkness in your own home. Where the Cap'n lives, there's an upstairs "loft" section that overlooks the living room, and I won't pretend I haven't glanced up there while writing this. It's late and there's nobody else here but... you never know.

  While I'm pretty sure I mentioned this last time (forgive me, it's late... or early, I guess), but I do appreciate that director James Watkins takes a slow approach with the ghost. Instead of lots of "jump" scares, there are long scenes wherein Arthur (Daniel Radcliffe) is sleeping or distracted while in Eel House and the "woman in black" appears and creeps up on him. We can see her, but he can't, and the tension is palpable. It's so much easier to have "nothing, nothing nothing, LOUD NOISE," but until late in the film Watkins resists doing that much with the titular specter. It's much appreciated, and to be honest, that set up / pay-off isn't going to work as well after Sam Raimi took modern horror directors to school with "jump" scares in Drag Me to Hell.

 I'm still not gaga about the very end (what happens to Arthur is appropriate and narrative-ly inevitable), but that last shot is... I don't know. Yes, it's one last jolt to the audience and it does its job, but there's something about letting Arthur wander off into the mist that's in keeping with the slightly ethereal, fairy tale tone of the film. I know that Hammer is planning on a sequel, set (I believe) in the 1940s, which could be interesting. I'd be curious to see what direction they head in. I've been told the original version of The Woman in Black (the TV movie, but also the novel) is much creepier, but for the moment I'm having a hard enough time wanting to close my eyes. She might be up there...

 Oh well, I must give in to sleep, so maybe it wouldn't work out for the children of Elm Street. At least I know I have to be up in a few hours for the last three films of Horror Fest VIII, so chances of waking up are pretty high. I hope... 

 Up Next: The Wolf Man and Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, and then... John Dies at the End!

Horror Fest VIII (Day Two): Curse of Chucky and Trick 'r Treat

  After an episode of Tales from the Crypt ("Beauty Rest," for those curious) and waiting for some attendees to run to get some food, it was time for the double feature "main event," the unveiling of Curse of Chucky for audiences who barely knew it existed and the return of Trick 'r Treat for the first time since Horror Fest IV: The Final Chapter! As I expected, neither disappointed, but other than Demons, Horror Fest VIII has (to this point) been quite the success.

 Like All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, attentive readers are no doubt aware that I already reviewed Curse of Chucky to kick off Shocktober. Unfortunately for those of you reading this, I don't have much to add to that review (feel free to click on that link, I'll be here when you get back), but as it's been a few weeks since the beginning of the month, I'm comfortable spoiling a little bit of the movie and describing how it plays with a larger crowd.

 As the Cap'n suspected, Curse of Chucky works very well with fans and relative newbies to the Child's Play series alike. Some long time fans came in with trepidation, but Don Mancini's willingness to play with expectations goes a long way towards easing any doubts about Curse's "direct to video" stigma. The misdirect about who the nanny was "shtupping," about how Nica's family fits into the Charles Lee Ray back story (and how that retcons into Child's Play), and the kills in particular were big hits, but the cameos that close out the film really sealed the deal. Aside from having to explain why Jennifer Tilly appeared as Tiffany (again, if you haven't seen the ending of Seed of Chucky in a while, you might want to jog your memory), that was the most welcome of the two.

 It was a little trickier with the post-credits Alex Vincent reprising Andy Barclay, mostly because you don't immediately recognize him (for obvious reasons). They do a pretty good job of catching you up quickly, but the interaction between Chucky and Andy is so brief and the final cut so abrupt that I almost with Mancini had left it out. Yes, it helps set up an inevitable Child's Play 7 or Chucky 4 or however you like to keep track of them, but the actual, post-Jennifer Tilly ending with the "hide the soul" and grandma is a more effective way to close out the film. It also leaves you with the question about whether Chucky did transfer his soul or not, because there's no way that little girl would know who Andy was.

 But I'm picking nits, here, folks; Curse of Chucky is not only a better movie than any of us thought we'd get, but probably up there in the Child's Play series overall.


 While several people had to split after Curse of Chucky (it was getting late and we're getting old and boring, what can I say?), I had the distinct pleasure of watching Trick 'r Treat with one person who had seen the film and one person who hadn't. The nice thing is that both of them still saw the movie a new way.

 Looking back at my Horror Fest IV coverage, I noticed something: the recaps were a LOT shorter. Take a look at this and see if you can come away with much of anything about Trick 'r Treat of substance. I couldn't, and I wrote it. And that was four years ago, when I had the stamina to watch all of those movies and get reviews together before going to bed (oops... *SPOILER*). Well, it's been four years and the Cap'n is nothing if not long winded these days, so let's give you a more "proper" look at Michael Dougherty's excellent addition to the Horror Anthology pantheon.

 I still contend it's better not to know all of the twists and turns of Trick 'r Treat going in, because the construction of the anthology is such that it rewards the uninitiated. Watching it a second, third, or fourth time, even when you know how the chronology works (SPOILER: the movie isn't told sequentially, and the overlapping stories aren't always intercut to reflect that), you're going to catch things in the background that give you some idea of where the beginning of the movie fits in with the school bus story, the Principal's story, Mr. Kreeg's story, and the girls' night out story.

 The trickiest editing is actually right after the prologue, where two stories (not going to spoil which ones) cut back and forth when a major character overlaps between the two and they seem to take place hours apart. In fact, I'm only a little fuzzy about how early in the story Principal Wilkins' story is supposed to take place (it has to happen before the prologue and during Kreeg's fight with Sam), but it also has to take place well before the pumpkin collectors take Rhonda (Samm Todd) to the quarry. Why? Because there's a direct spoiler to the "twist" in the Laurie (Anna Paquin) / "vampire" story - while they're in the elevator going into the quarry, Rhonda identifies the howling well before we cut back to Sheep's Grove (as is evidenced by the fact that Sam made it back from the quarry and is watching the girls party). It makes sense in a fashion, but Wilkins (Dylan Baker) and his son (Connor Christopher Levins) must have taken care of Charlie well before the news report about the Halloween parade downtown.

 Every time I watch Trick 'r Treat (and I try to every year near Halloween), I pick up on some other detail in Dougherty's insanely planned narrative. It's quite a draw to revisit the film, even if it weren't already a fun, suspenseful, and at times downright creepy experience to begin with. Some day, I'd love to see this in a theatre with a really big audience; I bet it plays like gangbusters.

 One final note that came up during a post-movie discussion: both of the guys who stayed late to watch Trick 'r Treat have kids, so we ended up talking about what a shame it is that parts are so violent / disturbing, because the movie does a great job of explaining why Halloween / Samhain is important culturally, but also why there are "rules." There may be no better demonstration of why you should always check your candy than the beginning of the Principal Wilkins story, why we decorate our yards and dress up, or why respecting the dead is important. They're packaged in a supernaturally charged fashion that is, almost without fail, exceptional, but underneath everything is a celebration of why Halloween continues to be such an instrumental holiday, and why October is the best month of the year for a lot of people, the Cap'n included.

 Up Next: Why am I still awake? Oh, right, because Day Two closed out with The Haunting and The Woman in Black! I may never get to sleep...