Friday, October 31, 2014

Shocktober Review: Dead Snow 2


 It only seems fair to end Shocktober with something to look forward to - Tommy Wirkola's gonzo sequel Dead Snow 2. I've seen it subtitled "Red vs. Dead," but the title screen just said Dead Snow 2 (well, technically it was Død Snø 2), but when you get a chance to see it, you really ought to. If you read yesterday's retro review of Dead Snow, you'll know the Cap'n enjoyed the first film, but wasn't blown away by it. Dead Snow 2 is a completely different story, as Wirkola goes for broke in staging an all out war between his Nazi zombies, Russian zombies, a returning hero, a maybe not-so capable Zombie Defense Squad, and an even less capable local police force. It's more violent, more ridiculous, and a whole hell of a lot more fun without ever going off the rails.

 Wirkola picks up the story where Dead Snow left off - Martin (Vegar Hoel), the last survivor is about to drive away after giving zombie Nazi Colonel Herzog (Ørjan Gamst) the last piece of gold that reanimated his battalion, when another piece lands on the floorboard. Who's standing outside the car? Now, it's not totally unprecedented to continue a story directly, Dead Snow 2 gets points for turning the classic ending "twist" into a full-on horror action sequence as Martin tries desperately to drive away, Herzog and troops in pursuit. In the ensuing mayhem, both protagonist and antagonist end up losing their right arms, and when Martin wakes up in a hospital nearby, he's alarmed to discover that doctors have reconnected Herzog's arm to his body. He's also not too pleased to be the prime suspect in the murder of his friends (seen in footage from Dead Snow at the outset of the film).

 That's the least of Martin's problems, as it turns out, because Herzog and his undead minions don't just go back to their graves once the gold is returned. A chance encounter with a truck ignites memories of the mission they failed: to capture and destroy a small town in Norway. If Martin can stop them, he's going to need the held of the Zombie Defense Squad: a trio of American geeks (Martin Starr, Jocelyn DeBoer, and Ingrid Haas) who are anything but well equipped to handle Col. Herzog's newly acquired tank. He also picks up Glenn (Stig Frode Henriksen), employee of the WWII museum Herzog raids, and a zombie sidekick of his own (Kristoffer Joner). The latter comes as a result of Martin's new arm, which gives him a degree of super-strength and the ability to re-animate the dead. It's also something he has limited control over, as we learn during his hospital escape, which includes some impressive gore and a few accidental murders.

 But wait, there's more! Daniel (Starr) uses his research of Herzog's mission in Norway to deduce that there's also a unit of dead Russian soldiers somewhere in the mountains that Martin could raise from the dead to help, while Monica (DeBoer), Blake (Haas), and Glenn try to slow the march of the undead. Meanwhile, the local police force is on the hunt for Martin, so midway through Dead Snow 2 we're following no less than four different storylines that don't converge until nearly the end of the film. It's no small feat to keep so many balls in the air, let alone in a sequel with only two returning characters, but Wirkola somehow manages to keep Dead Snow 2 moving forward without ever feeling overstuffed. That's in addition to the fact that the film alternates between Norwegian, German, and English because of the inclusion of the Americans.

 Much of that is due to Wirkola's demented sense of humor and ability to acclimate to a larger budget. Dead Snow didn't necessarily feel hampered by its scale, but the sequel opens up in so many different ways that it's all the more admirable he manages to retain the anarchic sense of "anything goes" while not totally losing control of the story. The humor is still intact, and Dead Snow 2 is much funnier in its use of gore as a punch line (in this respect, I'd say it's fair to compare its approach as a sequel to Evil Dead 2). I thought that there was no possible way to use Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" for comic effect again, but its placement in Dead Snow 2 is a great payoff of a setup you likely forgot from earlier in the film. To say any more would be to spoil the very end, which might have you laughing and gagging at the same time.

 Dead Snow 2 also stages the climactic battle, between Nazi zombies, Russian zombies, the ZDS, and Martin in a way that makes the chaos easy to follow, which is frankly uncommon these days. I'd like to highlight one moment where Wirkola distinguishes himself not only from frenetically edited horror films, but also from most current action films. Late in the film, when Martin is fighting Herzog, they end up inside of a house. Aside from using kitchen implements in a way that's reminiscent of Kill Bill by way of Evil Dead 2, Herzog also throws Martin through the ceiling. Rather than cut upstairs, or cut away to the battle outside, Wirkola holds on the scene, tilting the camera up slightly to show the ceiling and nearby stairwell, where Martin comes rolling down shortly thereafter. It's both an impressive stunt, but is also funnier as a gag because of his timing in an unbroken take. Wirkola relies on his actors (with well times sound effects) to sell the geography and timing of the stunt rather than dictate the pace with edits. It isn't the only example in Dead Snow 2, but it impressed me precisely because of how rare it is to see a shot like that in modern horror films.

 There are a few minor quibbles I have with Dead Snow 2, mostly from its mid-section: Wirkola's comic timing, with respect to using gore as punctuation, is often spot-on, but there's a lot of the Zombie Defense Squad that falls flat. Martin Starr (Party Down) is largely relegated to expository dialogue, and the decision to make Monica a Star Wars quoting "geek" doesn't really go anywhere. I think it's supposed to be a joke that she picks the wrong lines to reference, but it honestly wasn't very funny. I minded Wirkola's cheap shot zombie kills of children and the handicapped (mostly limited to a montage) less, and the continued abuse of Joner's sidekick zombie goes on for so long that it stops being funny and then becomes funny again towards the end of the film. While I'm not convinced the Americans were necessary, their presence isn't a detriment to Dead Snow 2. There's honestly so much to enjoy about the film that any complaints are minor. I would have been impressed that a movie this busy had worked at all, but not only does it, it's also constantly keeping you off-balance with unexpectedly smart twists. If the hinted Dead Snow 3 ever materializes, I'll check it out. In the meantime, fans of Dead Snow have plenty to look forward to, and there's enough of a recap that first timers can feel comfortable jumping in as well. Of the horror films the Cap'n saw during Shocktober (but didn't review*), this by far comes the highest recommended.



 * At some point, I will try to get you reviews for The ABCs of Death 2, Horns, V/H/S Viral, and See No Evil 2, but only one or two of them were any good.
 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Shocktober Revisited: Dead Snow

Tommy Wirkola's Dead Snow is a fairly entertaining Norwegian horror film with one very enticing gimmick: Nazi Zombies. That it doesn't quite live up to the expectations one might expect from that premise shouldn't scare genre fans away from the film; there's enough quality gore to overcome a slightly derivative script that, at times, relies heavily on Sam Raimi's early work to get from plot point to plot point. It's funny enough to distract you from a familiar plot and even more familiar story beats, and while the zombies aren't exactly zombies, they're certainly a fun twist in otherwise well trod territory.

Stop me when this sounds familiar: college students (in this case, all med-school) go to a secluded cabin on a mountain to spend the weekend. There's an even mix of girls and guys, with two couples and four singles of recognizable types - the missing girlfriend who everybody assumed would be there, the guy who always talks about movies, the girl that's kind of nerdy herself, and the squeamish guy with the self-reliant girlfriend.

Okay so far? Let's add the "Creepy Older Guy" who warns them about the history of this particular mountain - Nazis occupying Norway that stole the village valuables and were killed by the townspeople... or were they? - and then leaves. Where's the girl who owns the cabin? Is she okay? What's all this gold from 1942 doing in the cabin? People start dying? Could it be undead Nazis? Oh, you know it is! Let the evisceration commence!

I say that the Nazi Zombies aren't exactly zombies, in part because while yes, they are undead, they don't behave like traditional zombies. They behave like undead Nazis, ones that really like fist fights, using knives, and in one instance, gutting a girl to put a grenade inside her torso. The makeup is pretty nice, particularly on General Herzog, who just happens to be missing his lips. All of the Nazi zombies (who do bite people, but don't really seem interested in eating them) are menacing, if easily dispatched with late in the film.

Since I mentioned General Herzog, now's as fair a time as any to talk about how intertextuality-laden Dead Snow is. Not only do the characters discuss other horror films with a similar premise at the outset of their trip, but at least one of the films mentioned comes into play repeatedly during the film. There are two explicit references to Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn - one is part of a "if this were a horror movie" conversation and the other one is a direct visual reference to Ash cutting off his hand, used to set up an "Oh yeah, now what are you going to do?" joke involving a crotch-level Nazi zombie.

Erlend, the character constantly quoting films (including Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Terminator) is also wearing a Brain Dead shirt (better known in the States as Dead Alive). Fans of Machete are going to be saying "Dead Snow did it!" when they see a very similar gag involving guts from two years earlier. The references aren't overly distracting, but they do underscore how much of Dead Snow is familiar territory, particularly the end, which lacks the kind of punch I suspect it was supposed to have.

That being said, you're going to have a lot of fun moments, and a few surprises - the nerdy film fan is the only character to have sex with someone - and for horror fans, plenty of gore. I'm not really sure I've seen a film so obsessed with intestines as Dead Snow is, and the fact that the protagonists are medical students does actually come into play in a meaningful - if totally unrealistic - fashion. Also, the crow scene is pretty funny. Dead Snow isn't going to reinvent the zombie wheel, and the Nazi Zombie concept isn't as developed as one would hope, but it's still definitely worth renting or (as the Cap'n did) "Watch(ing) It Now."

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Shocktober Review: Motel Hell



 Motel Hell is an odd duck as horror movies go - originally Tobe Hooper was attached to direct, completing a "cannibal" trilogy of sorts with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Eaten Alive, but when Universal studios took issue with original script (which included bestiality and wasn't comedic), they passed and he left. MGM picked up the film after director Kevin Connor (From Beyond the Grave) crossed the pond from the U.K. to direct the film in five weeks. While the end result doesn't actually resemble Hooper's earlier films, it does feel like some of it directly influenced The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 - more on that in a little bit. Motel Hell is comedic in a manner of speaking, but borders more on camp much of the time, and in many ways feels like a spiritual cousin to Jack Hill's Spider Baby. For slasher crowds, I can only imagine that this was not what they had in mind...

 Farmer Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun) runs the Motel Hello with his sister, Ida (Nancy Parsons). He's also the face and proprietor of Farmer Vincent's Meats, which are famous in the countryside surrounding the Motel Hello (if only they could use the profits to fix that pesky "O"). Everything seems to be on the up-and-up: Vincent has regular visits from inspector Bob Anderson (E. Hampton Beagle) and his hogs are in good shape. His customers always leave the motel happy... well, most of them, anyway. If you've seen the original poster (not included here), you already know what the phrase "it takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent's fritters" means, and it's not like I didn't write "cannibal" in the first paragraph. So, uh, SPOILER if you somehow never came across Motel Hell or read the synopsis. Don't worry, it's not a mystery for long. Even how Vincent and Ida find their prey isn't much of a mystery, and catching their guests is the exception, not the rule.

 Before we really know much about Farmer Vincent's meat, we seem him out "hunting" - out in the woods, at night, with a shotgun, he finds a biker, Bo (Everett Creach) riding with his girl, Terry (Nina Axelrod). They have an "accident" that runs them off the road, and as Vincent is loading up the Bo, he takes a shining to Terry and decides to "keep" her in the motel. Bo goes to the "farm": Vincent and Ida's specially hidden area that is, at least for the early part of the film, a mystery (unless you've seen the poster, that is). While there's a lot more of Vincent setting up traps to catch people (most notably a tour van for "Ivan and the Terribles" featuring John Ratzenberger), much of Motel Hell is concerned with Terry living with and learning about the Smith family.

 It would be tempting to call it "Stockholm Syndrome," but since she doesn't have any family or, apparently, a life elsewhere, Terry adjusts pretty quickly to life at the Motel Hello. Ida doesn't necessarily like her - she tries to drown her, in fact - but Terry is quite smitten with the much older Vincent (Calhoun was only 54 when the film was made, but he looks more aged than that). More upset than Ida is Vincent's kid brother, Sherriff Bruce Smith (Paul Linke), who has eyes for Terry from the moment he meets her and is constantly rebuffed in his advances. The family skirts around the "cannibalism" issue at first, but eventually Vincent feels confident enough in Terry that he promises he'll teach her his "secret recipe." He inadvertently also proposes, and on a trip into town talks Reverend Billy (Wolfman Jack) into performing the ceremony, unless something goes horribly awry back at the motel...

 Motel Hell alternates between victims and family life, and unlike your traditional slasher movies, both are equally unusual. The film is more of a black comedy, with very little suspense - it seems like we're meant to find the eccentricities of the improbable Smith clan more amusing than disturbing, despite the fact that they consider humans to be just another food source. Vincent believes in treating them ethically, although the most disturbing part of the film is easily the "farm." Victims are buried up to their necks, and Vincent surgically cuts their vocal chords so all anyone can hear is them gurgling desperately. The way he kills them is admittedly pretty comical: first Vincent and Ida hypnotize them, and then snap their necks by tying nooses to a tractor. He considers it to be more humane to reduce their "suffering." That the hypnotism sequence is presented mostly for laughs does make it slightly upsetting, but also successful in finding gallows humor.

 I mentioned the possibly unintentional influence of Motel Hell on Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and while it isn't readily apparent early in the film, by the end you can see some uncanny echoes from one film to the next. Farmer Vincent is only a slightly smaller scale version of what the Sawyer family is doing (local "flavor" vs. regional barbeque champions), and it's really hard to argue that a climactic chainsaw fight between a police officer and the villain (wearing a mask) isn't awfully familiar. The tone is more exaggerated in Chainsaw Massacre 2, but it's a similarly comedic approach to what would normally be played for straight horror. Since Hooper left the project when a more serious Motel Hell was abandoned, I have a hard time thinking he didn't see Motel Hell. Perhaps the end result of Connor's version (re?-written by Robert and Steven-Charles Jaffe) gave Hooper some ideas, as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is much more like Motel Hell than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This is mostly speculation, but I was strongly reminded of one film while watching the other.

 Motel Hell is a tricky movie to recommend, because it's not going to be everybody's cup of tea. It's a leisurely paced film, a more character oriented film than most of its ilk from the 1980s, but at the same time characters are often barely sketched out. I haven't mentioned Ida or Bruce much because there isn't much to them, and Terry is even less of a character. You get a better sense spending five minutes with a pair of swingers that Vincent and Ida lure in than for most of the main characters, with the exception of Vincent. That's largely due to Rory Calhoun investing an inherent - if bizarre - sense of decency into the role. It's tonally amusing but not often very funny. It can be disturbing but is rarely scary. Like I said at the outset: Motel Hell is an odd duck. I'm tempted to say it's like a toned down John Waters making a Tobe Hooper film, but that doesn't even quite work. I enjoyed it, but you really have to take the film on its own terms and not come in expecting Motel Hell to be like other early 80s horror movies.  With that mindset, there's a good chance you might enjoy it.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Shocktober Revisited: Theory, Audiences, and Horror

 This critical essay originally appeared in 2009.

Greetings, Blogorium readers! Tonight I thought I'd share with you part of a large-ish paper I've been working on.

The paper is on movie-going as a ritual activity, which in and of itself was fun researching, but a healthy section is devoted to Horror films and the role they play in group catharsis, so I'll drop that knowledge on you, followed by a section devoted to the question: "Why do horror fans like $1.50 movie theatres?", in which I think you'll find the Cap'n comes to a reasonable conclusion.

Just a tiny forewarning: this is from a first draft, so if anything reads as dodgy or the sentences are awkward, I'll be adjusting them in ensuing drafts.

Horror Films

“Each of us experiences a film individually, and our different tastes in films demonstrate how unique our individual reactions are. Yet, what are we to make of those films that seem to have tapped in the collective fears of an entire generation?” (Phillips, 3)
Horror films repulse and terrify us, yet they remain financially, if not critically, successful. Noel Carroll poses the question “But – and this is the question of ‘Why horror?’ in its primary form – if horror necessarily has something repulsive about it, how can audiences be attracted to it?” (33) The answer may be that the genre presents us with escapist variations of real life anxieties. The genre of horror taps into our deepest primal fears, and coupled with the venue (total darkness), collectively audiences must overcome individual terrors.
Consider the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, which tapped into mounting tensions about race relations and the Vietnam War through the lens of a zombie film. Kendall Phillips describes the reaction to Night thusly, “for many contemporary critics, the film was ‘cathartic for us, who forget about the horrors around us that aren’t, alas, movies’” (93). Similarly, films like The Exorcist or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre tapped into apocalyptic concerns of the mid-1970s, though less literally than atomic holocaust films. “Apocalyptic visions… need not express a literal end of the world but may entail a sense of the inevitable decay and demise of broad social structures and order” (Phillips, 111).
Horror manages to, in the words of critic Robin Wood, “respond to interpretation as at once the personal dreams of their makers and the collective dreams of their audiences, the fusion made possible by the shared structures of a common ideology” (30). Its role as a societal release is a more extreme version of cathartic theatre, one designed to explicitly face our fears in dark spaces, with the comfort of being able to safely walk away when we choose to. Linda Williams, in learning to scream, identifies a similar mechanism in horror films designed to help audiences gasp and scream together:
Anyone who has gone to the movies in the last 20 years cannot help but notice how entrenched this rollercoaster sensibility of repeated tension and release, assault and escape has become. While narrative is not abandoned, it often takes second place to a succession of visual and auditory shocks and thrills.” (163)
Despite its role in tapping into our collective experience, the horror film is not highly regarded by critics. Robin Wood describes the phenomenon:
The horror film has consistently been one of the most popular and, at the same time, the most disreputable of Hollywood genres. The popularity itself has a peculiar characteristic that sets it apart from other genres: it is restricted to aficionados and complemented by total rejection, people tending to go to horror films either obsessively or not at all. They are dismissed with contempt by the majority of reviewer-critics, or simply ignored. (30)
Horror is regarded as a “lesser” form of cinema, one that is frequently associated with “low culture” and is beneath contempt for cultural critics. Audiences, however, flock to this ritual of being scared half to death and walking out at the end. The ways that horror films function as a dual ritual of “movie-going” and “date” are also related to cultural norms. In her discussion of horror marketing during the “classic” monster-movie era, Rhona Berenstein notes the ways that male / female reactions during this ritual are performative:
Just as social mandates invited women in the 1930s to cling to men while screening horror movies, thus encouraging them to display conventionally feminine behavior as a means of garnering male attention, so, too, did the male viewer… use female fear, as well as his own traditional display of bravery, to disguise his terror behind a socially prescribed behavior. (137)
In fact, women were frequently the target audience during the “classic” monster movie era, for reasons that solidified gender roles in American society. Berenstein continues, “women were classic horror’s central stunt participants because they were thought to personify the genre’s favored artifact: fear. The upshot was that if women could survive the viewing or a horror film, and moreover, if they could respond bravely, then other patrons, meaning men could do the same” (143).
The horror film provides a number of valuable roles in maintaining the movie-going ritual: in addition to reinforcing cultural norms, it taps into collective fears and faces taboos, even at the chagrin of most critics. At the end of a horror film, no matter how traumatic or cathartic the experience, the collective returns to the daylight, capable of functioning as members of society. As we will see, the horror film provides for a different kind of engagement in the movie-going ritual based on what theatre an individual chooses to visit.

[...]
For many critics, the reputation of Horror as a “low culture” genre comes from these second run houses. Conversely, many Horror aficionados will also attend the Sedgefield of Blue Ridge Road theatres because they replicate the “Grindhouse” experience, based on one-screen cinemas in large cities, most of which no longer exist. The Grindhouse theaters were permissive of rowdier behavior, much of which is considered by aficionados as “augmenting” an otherwise marginal film. The most famous example of a Grindhouse film or “Midnight Movie” turned ritual experience is The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
[...]

Monday, October 27, 2014

Shocktober Revisited: The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project

Portions of these reviews originally appeared in 2011.

 In some ways, it's hard for the Cap'n to believe that The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project have been out there for fifteen years. They don't feel that old, which is not to say they don't feel dated in different ways - both are distinctly products of the turn of the millennium - but it doesn't seem like it's been that long. Maybe the Cap'n is just getting older, which is funny, considering that I saw them when I was in college and technically speaking I'm not that old. Old enough that I can't have Horror Fests into the wee hours of the morning anymore, but y'know, comparatively speaking, not that old. Movies from 1999 just don't feel like it was that long ago, but someone born the year The Sixth Sense came out is getting their learner's permit now.

 Here's a look back at what it was like in those halcyon days of pre-Y2k, when people thought The Phantom Menace might not be terrible and that M. Night Shyamalan had promise. Oh, who am I kidding? At least we weren't tired to death of "found footage," although my friends were very concerned that the "scary bonus footage" on the Blair Witch Project soundtrack was three people bickering in the woods. If we only knew...

(For good measure, I'll throw in the now fourteen year old Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, because nobody's going to be talking about it's fifteenth anniversary next year.)

---

editor's note: if, for some reason, you actually don't know anything about The Sixth Sense, this is absolutely the wrong review for you. However, if you found this review by Google-ing "Sixth Sense Spoiler," you're going to get it. Consider that your warning.

Long before people hated (or had forgotten about) M. Night Shyamalan, he was the "hot new up-and-comer" with his debut film* The Sixth Sense. If you were somehow drunk for the entirety of the summer of 1999, it's possible that you didn't hear about this suspenseful ghost story with a wicked twist**, and have somehow never seen or heard of the movie where Haley Joel Osment (remember him?) "sees dead people."

 Specifically Bruce Willis (SPOILER), who plays a child psychologist killed in the opening scene by one of his former patients (Donnie Wahlberg). Of course, he doesn't know that until the end of the film, even if eagle-eyed viewers can see that Dr. Malcolm Crowe never physically interacts with anyone during the film and nobody talks to him other than Cole Sear, the kid who sees ghosts. The ghosts, by the way, are spooky and sometimes quite gory (like the accidental gunshot victim kid), but aren't actually dangerous to Cole. Most of them are sad or lonely or need to pass something on. This doesn't stop Shyamalan from milking every ghostly encounter for the maximum creepy factor, but you have to remember that I'm writing this from the perspective of someone who's already seen the film.

 When The Sixth Sense came out, all we really knew about the movie was the "ghost" angle, and that there was a twist. The ghosts are played for scares, and it's quite effective, in the same way that The Haunting (not the one that came out in 1999) or The Others are. It's a clever move not to make the ghosts actually menacing, until you watch the movie again, and then it's just a lot of building tension to mess with the audience in order to pull a switcheroo. The same problem exists with the twist, because a) if you know there's a twist, chances are you're looking for it (I was), and b) the best twists make you want to watch the movie again. If you figure out the twist early (say, when Crowe is "having dinner" with his wife at a restaurant), then there is no rediscovery in watching the film again - you did it the first time. All of the color coding is easy to figure out and The Sixth Sense becomes an elaborate game of "follow the rules" twist filmmaking.

 Maybe I'm being meaner than I ought to be, because I bought the Shyamalan promise - that he was a spiritual successor to Steven Spielberg - through Unbreakable, a movie I also used to really like (and probably still enjoy more than The Sixth Sense) but it all fell apart during Signs. I gave up after he started lifting narrative beats wholesale, and have only seen one of his films sense - The Happening. Most of you know that The Happening is a colossal failure in almost every respect, and is hilarious because of it; I either subjected you to the film or you've heard about it from me. In the interest of fairness, The Sixth Sense is still highly regarded by just about everywhere in the critical community, and people still seem to love the movie. Don't take that old Grumpy Gus Cap'n Howdy to speak for the consensus opinion here.

 After Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender, Shyamalan is pretty much a joke - audiences reported laughter when his name appeared on trailers for Devil - and even his die-hard fans have given up making excuses for the lousy writing, awkward editing, bad performances, and the pompous, thin-skinned auteur / actor himself (Lady in the Water features Shyamalan as a writer who is destined to "change the world," while the least likable character is a film critic). Nobody knows what he's doing next, and I'd go so far as to say they don't care, either.

 The reason I really wanted to bring up The Sixth Sense, which was for 1999 a highlight of an already packed summer of great movies (and The Phantom Menace) was because I have, as usual, a story related to events surrounding the film. The air conditioning was out in the auditorium we saw the film in, so the staff propped a door facing the back of the theatre open, and crickets got in. We knew this because the whole audience could hear them chirping. A colleague of mine (Professor Murder) eventually got up from his seat, crawled under the screen, and we heard "THUMP THUMP THUMP" and the chirping stopped. The packed auditorium gave him an ovation, and he cut the back of his head on a curtain staple. Forgive me if I look back at that night and consider this moment to be the highlight of seeing The Sixth Sense.



* Which was not actually his debut film - he made this and this beforehand, and he wrote Stuart Little. Seriously.
** My own fake poster quote, but here's what the New York Observer's Andrew Sarris wrote at the time: "An effectively understated and moodily engrossing ghost film with a surprisingly satisfying jolt at the end."

---

At this point, it's almost been so long since The Blair Witch Project came out that people have by and large forgotten all about the film. Considering that we're still feeling the impact of "found footage" movies, including no less than three that I can name released in the U.S. this year (The Troll Hunter, [REC]2, and the upcoming Apollo 18). That's not including [REC], Quarantine, Diary of the Dead, Paranormal Activity 1 and 2, The Last Exorcism, Cloverfield, The Zombie Diaries and The Poughkeepsie Tapes. These are, in one form or another, the offspring of The Blair Witch's Projects success; a low-budget horror film passed along like an urban legend until it was time to explode in the mainstream. It captured the zeitgeist at a time when horror was winding down from self-referential Scream knockoffs, and scared the hell out of a lot of people.

 And then there was that second film. Yeah, I don't blame you for not remembering Book of Shadows.

 Back to the success story - The Blair Witch Project was a movie I'd hear about long before I saw it. In 1999, the internet was agog about this "found footage" of three film students making a documentary in Burkittsville, Maryland about the "Blair Witch" legend. Something went horribly wrong and they were never heard from again. In fact, I bet you remember the tagline:

 In October of 1994 three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary...A year later their footage was found.

  Very few people knew who Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez were, and since The Blair Witch Project ended without credits, there was good reason to perpetuate the myth that this WAS "found footage" and not a horror movie designed to make you think it was real. By the time it opened wide in the U.S. (in the summer of 1999), internet savvy geeks already knew it wasn't (online critics love to be the people who have the "scoop" that shows the seams of an illusion), but there were plenty of "John and Jane Moviegoer"'s who didn't know. I was taking some summer classes at N.C. State, and there was a guy in one of the poetry classes that I overheard talking about having a bootlegged copy of the film. A clerk at Schoolkids Music claimed it had already been in "secret" screenings in Raleigh when I purchased the soundtrack (containing footage from the film as part of a CD-ROM feature). I always seemed to be one step behind The Blair Witch Project.

 And then it opened at The Rialto, and the next part is not going to endear the Cap'n to theatre owners. I can only say that it's something I did once and never again, and not something I would do again. Some friends were in town to see The Blair Witch Project with the Cap'n and friends, and the midnight showing was SOLD OUT. But we needed to see that showing of the film, so while standing in front of the vacant box office, we noticed that instead of using special tickets, The Rialto (at the time) had the kind of tickets one could purchase at, say, an Office Max. So we maybe kind of bought a roll of tickets from Office Max, tore five off, and got in line early. And it worked. It was a shitty thing to do, but it's the kind of thing you'll do at twenty to see the movie everyone wants to see. Our ruse wasn't a total success, as before the film started the manager came out to say that he knew some people got in when they weren't supposed to, and we shrunk in our seats a little. The moral of the story is don't do this, kids - you'll feel shitty about it twelve years later.

 The movie? Well, if you were old enough to see it in 1999, then you already know what The Blair Witch Project is like. It's a nice setup, a whole lot of pointless bickering, some carnival tricks to rattle you, and a baffling ending that's really only effective with an audience willing to be scared shitless already. The reason that nobody remembers The Blair Witch Project is that when people know it's a film and are watching it at home with no suspension of disbelief or desire to really let the adrenaline take over, the film is a total bore. There's virtually no rewatchability to The Blair Witch Project, and other films have taken the crude elements and refined them with less believable but more effective narratives and gimmickry. The success of Paranormal Activity is in large part a reflection of how much it borrowed from The Blair Witch Project in publicity and execution (appropriately ten years later, following an excessive cycle of gory horror films often lumped together under the moniker "torture porn").

 By the time that Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 came out, nobody was that interested in the film anymore. The curtain had been lifted, the actors done the publicity rounds, and the directors moved on to make... well, not much for seven years. They didn't even want to make Book of Shadows, and instead acted as executive producers for new director Joe Berlinger, a documentary filmmaker best known for the Paradise Lost films about the West Memphis Three. Book of Shadows was Berlinger's first (and, as far as I can tell, last) narrative feature, which he co-wrote with Dick Beebe (the House on Haunted Hill remake). It attempted to look at the Blair Witch phenomenon, but quickly devolved into a terrible movie about possession, murder, and surveillance footage wrapped up in a pale Rashomon "multiple perspective story" mold.

 It took quite a while for me to muster up any memories about Book of Shadows, which should give you some idea how forgettable the film is. Until I looked it up, I'd completely forgotten that it involved two different "Blair Witch" tours in Burkittsville or that one ended up butchered and everyone else went to a house with excessive closed circuit cameras. I vaguely remembered people being picked off and someone being accused of being the witch, as well as stock stereotypes of Wiccans, Goth Chicks, hippies (?), and mentally unstable characters.

 Looking at the film from a distance, it's kind of funny how many people I recognize for roles they took after Book of Shadows: Jeffrey Donovan is now better known for being the lead on Burn Notice, Kim Director worked with Spike Lee before and after the film, and Erica Leerhsen played virtually the same role in the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Only Tristen Skyler and Stephen Barker Turner haven't done anything I noticed since 2000. Oh, and there's that Kurt Loder guy; wasn't he in Get Him to the Greek or something?

 While it should come as no surprise to people that I saw a movie with Cranpire where he fell asleep, I can't honestly fault him for nodding off during a late showing of Book of Shadows. There's nothing in the movie worth staying awake for, and I think he got more out of the nap than I did the movie. The only other fun tidbit is that when the DVD came out, Artisan was desperate for a gimmick, so they tried a variation on the "flipper" disc: on one side, the movie; the other had the soundtrack. The problem was that the disc was often too heavy for CD players and when it wasn't, the film portion scratched easily, meaning you could never sell the damned thing when you got bored of having it around. And yet, I suspect if you go anywhere with used DVDs, you'll find a copy of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 in the "three for $1" bin. It's still not worth it.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Shocktober Revisited: Dawn of the Dead (Extended Cut)

 This review originally appeared in 2011 as part of a series on George Romero's "Dead" films.

Welcome back to Retro Reviews: after the Night of the Living Dead anniversary hack job, the Cap'n needed a palate cleanser, preferably with zombies. I watched Shaun of the Dead (with the Edgar Wright / Simon Pegg commentary on, because I'm the kind of person who listens to commentaries, thank you very much), but I realized what I really wanted to watch was Dawn of the Dead. The last three times I saw the film, however, I had seen the theatrical cut, so it seemed high time to shake things up. It was time for the longer, zombie-er-er "extended" cut!

While I will cover aspects of the film, this review will also cover the history of the "extended" cut. Accordingly, I won't recap Dawn of the Dead for readers unfamiliar with the film, and will more than likely include spoilers.

Unlike the mangled, pointless Night of the Living Dead 30th Anniversary edition, Dawn of the Dead's history of alternate versions goes back almost to the film's release. There are a number of different cuts (many of which were bootlegs in the era of VHS) in different countries, but Anchor Bay settled on three versions for its Ultimate Edition: the theatrical cut (127 minutes), the "extended" version (139 minutes), and the "European" cut (121 minutes).

The Ultimate Edition is, in many ways, a combining of earlier (albeit bare bones) releases of the films: in the early days of DVD, Anchor Bay released the "extended" version as the "Director's Cut," a disc so early in the medium's existence that Dual Layer technology had not yet been implemented, meaning that you had to flip the disc halfway through the film*. Romero was quick to point out that he preferred the shorter, theatrical version, so when releasing the Ultimate Edition, it was given the "extended" moniker and suggested as producer Richard Rubenstein's preferred cut. The European Cut, also known as Zombi, was re-edited by Dario Argento for foreign audiences; this version is shorter, removes much of the humor, and adds a few smaller character moments.

And that is, in a nutshell, your brief recap of the different versions of Dawn of the Dead. For the purposes of today's Retro Review, the Cap'n is setting the wayback machine to the version I've had the most contact with, the "Director's" or "extended" cut. Over the years I've had multiple copies of the longer version on VHS and DVD, and while the Blu Ray release is the theatrical cut, the version I've seen as often (if not more often) is the longer cut.

Young cinephiles are always excited to find something they didn't know existed, especially "alternate" cuts of films they love. I had seen Dawn of the Dead, maybe made a copy on VHS, and knew the film well by the time I first saw the two tape "Original Director's Cut" at, of all places, a used Record Store. Assuming that the Dawn of the Dead I knew was merely a charade, some censored version, I paid eight dollars (or whatever the price was) to see the "true" Dawn of the Dead, and to show it to all the other zombie fanatics I knew, as I would with so many other films over the years. Despite the fact that this was something mass produced - not to mention something someone already bought and sold - we thought we had the inside track on movie secrets!

I confess that I owned the "flipper" disc of the "Director's Cut" as well as the later Theatrical cut (which wasn't a flipper), and more than likely owned the re-release that preceded the four disc Ultimate Edition (which I still have). The holy grail until the Ultimate Edition was Zombi, the Argento cut, but aside from stripping away much of the social commentary and the underlying humor that sold it, Argento's version (disc three) isn't much more than a footnote best remembered for allowing Lucio Fulci to make Zombi 2 (or, as it's known in the U.S., Zombie). Let's take a look at what makes the "extended" cut so, well, extended.

The chief difference between the "extended" cut (disc two) and the theatrical version (disc one) of the set is that there's more of just about everything: more mall, more interview footage with the scientists, more ransacking, more mall shopping montage, and more chaos at the beginning, both in the WGON news station and in the housing project. With twelve extra minutes, there's actually less zombie carnage and more time spent developing the relationships between Roger, Stephen, Francine, and Peter. The additions are spread out over the film, usually in little chunks rather than a noticeably different sequence. Over the years the 127 and 139 minute versions bled together so much that I don't notice when minor additions are missing or present.

In fact, the only scene I can directly point to is early in the film: an extended encounter between the protagonists and police officers escaping by boat. In the theatrical version, most of the conversation is limited to the conversation about escaping to an island ("any island") and the cop asking for cigarettes. In the "extended" cut, there's a longer standoff between the two groups, and a cameo that I found interesting with respect to Romero's last three "dead" films.

Visitors to the Blogorium (and no doubt many other pages) have periodically dropped in my Survival of the Dead review because Alan Van Sprang appears in Land, Diary, and Survival of the Dead, playing what may or may not be the same character (Brubaker, Colonel, and Sarge, respectively). Since Land takes place after Diary and Survival, it is entirely possible that Van Sprang is playing the same soldier, but it turns out Romero also cast an actor in Dawn of the Dead for a minor part only to use him in a lead role in his next "dead" film. Joe Pilato, who plays Captain Rhodes in Day of the Dead, is one of the escaping officers in Dawn of the Dead. The "extended" cut expands his cameo by giving him the most interaction with Stephen and Francine, and he's listed in the credits. It's almost certain that Pilato is not playing the same role; the Van Sprang connection remains to be seen.

Other than that minor trivia tidbit, the "extended" cut of Dawn of the Dead does feel a little padded at times. Oh sure, it's nice to spend more time in the mall, to see more of Roger before he "turns," and feel the sense of time as the Monroeville Mall shifts from dream to nightmare, but in other ways the additions hurt the film. The film's opening at WGON is interminably long, and while it conveys a sense of chaos as the world tries to explain what's happening, the urgency of Francine needing to escape diminishes with every cut back to George Romero's cameo, or to the longer argument on-camera about the nature of the dead. The cumulative effect actually lessens the immediacy of "getting away," in part because the audience is now mired in the minute details of keeping the station operational.

It also takes twice as long to introduce Ken Foree's Peter and Scott Reiniger's Roger during the apartment complex raid. The sequence is adversely affected as a result: while the raid itself doesn't appear to be any longer than in the theatrical version, it certainly feels longer because the WGON sequence dragged the pace of Dawn of the Dead to a crawl, and by the time the foursome leaves in the helicopter it feels like the film may never find momentum. Romero's theatrical cut allows the film to have a sense of urgency, of desperation, before the film slows down in the middle, then to pick up again during the biker raid near the end.

With respect to pacing issues, I will say that there's no great harm done to Dawn of the Dead as a whole in the "extended" cut. It's hardly a mangled version of the film and, at times, benefits from a more languid pace. At two hours and twenty minutes, you're going to get more Dawn than you ever knew you needed, but for fans who wore out their shorter versions, it's a nice break from the norm.

Join the Cap'n next week when I continue "March of the Dead" by reviewing, um... Day of the Dead? Maybe? Return of the Living Dead part 2? We'll see when we get there.



* Early DVD adopters might also remember this from Goodfellas and Sleepers discs as well.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Shocktober Revisited: Mad Ron's Prevues from Hell

 This review originally appeared in 2010.

Sometimes, it pays to follow your gut. When I read a review of Mad Ron's Prevues from Hell, a review that said at best the trailer compilation was a "rental," I filed the title away in my head until I saw the DVD at Hastings. The Cap'n is something of a trailer freak, and I love a good compilation - I own all of the 42nd Street Forever discs, All Monsters Attack, and am trying to get ahold of Stephen Romano's Shock Festival set - so despite the fact that Mad Ron's Prevues from Hell was clearly duped from a 1987 VHS copy, Professor Murder and I sat down for 83 minutes of preview mayhem.

Mad Ron's Prevues from Hell isn't just a trailer compilation; director Jim Monaco places the clips in between a sort-of "frame story," involving a movie theatre invaded by the living dead. Mad Ron, the projectionist, threads trailers for the ghastly, the exploitative, and the extremely violent while we're "entertained" by Nick (Nick Pawlow) and his zombie dummy Happy. Happy tells... well, I'd be lying if I called them "jokes," but that's what the tape-turned-DVD wants you to regard them as. When Nick and Happy aren't cracking wise, the "film" (I'm using that very loosely) cuts away to zombies getting into hi jinks like pouring blood on popcorn, eating guts, and pulling eyeballs out.

I suppose it's worth noting (because the back of the DVD does) that the effects were done by Jordu Schell, who later went on to work on Avatar, and the gore is pretty good. The tape itself feels like a "let's put on a show" production from locals who wanted to play the living dead while trailers string the story together. They aren't always horror, but you're in for a pretty good selection of full frame, fuzzy, beat up ads for films like Three on a Meathook, Torso, House of Exorcism, The Wizard of Gore, Flesh Feast, Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, Fangs of the Living Dead, Black Christmas (advertised as Silent Night, Evil Night), Sisters, and Mad Doctor of Blood Island.

Towards the end, the trailers wander off into exploitation territory, with movies like Africa Addio (identified here as Africa Blood and Guts), Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, and some 3-D porno which is presented partially in 3-D (in case you have glasses handy). Does it run a little long? Maybe. Are the Nick and Happy segments kinda tedious? Oh, you bet. Does the anti-piracy warning at the end serve any purpose other than one more gore effect? Not really.

Despite the very low budget-ed nature of Mad Ron's Prevues from Hell, the myriad of detracting factors working against it, and the fact that it's clearly just a video cassette plopped onto a DVD, I'm highly considering showing the disc at Horror Fest during pre-festivities. It's just entertaining enough that audiences in the right frame of mind could get a kick out of the old school vibe.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Shocktober Review: Trilogy of Terror


 The Cap'n was a little young for Dark Shadows, so for the most part my only experience with the long running horror soap opera was through reruns on The Sci-Fi Channel (back when it was called that) and maybe USA. It seems like I saw it before The Sci-Fi Channel existed, but I know that it was always in the early afternoon and that I rarely caught every episode in a given week. My experience with it tended to include some member of the Collins family being pulled back in time (the Salem witch trials run stands out in my mind) and then being sidelined / imprisoned so the show could immediately begin telling the soap opera lives of their ancestors, often not involving monsters. It led me to pick up a tape called "The Scariest Moments from Dark Shadows," which was (no joke), a 60 minute compilation of monster reveal scenes with no sense of context whatsoever.

 All of this is to give you some sense of context that the name Dan Curtis doesn't mean to me what it did to a generation younger than the Cap'n. Uber producer and director, on an intellectual level I know he's responsible for Dark Shadows, The Night Stalker and Night Strangler, both House and Night of Dark Shadows movies, and that he adapted Bram Stoker's Dracula with Jack Palance. I know this, and his role as producer and director is well known, if you're just a little bit older than I am. As a result, I've long known Trilogy of Terror, and I'm positive I've seen it, but I'd never associated Curtis with the anthology of stories. Watching it again, it's funny, because he directed the whole thing, cast Karen Black to appear in all three stories (playing four characters), and brought in William F. Nolan (Logan's Run, Burnt Offerings) to adapt three Richard Matheson stories.

 The end result, as anthologies often are, is mixed. While I'm fond of the movie overall, there's no arguing that two of them barely muster "terror." Two of them are kind of conventional stories, one - "Julie" - about a student (Robert Burton) who seduces and later blackmails his teacher (Black), only to find he's in over his head. The other - "Millicent and Therese" is about a pair of sisters (both Black) who are at odds after the death of their father, but is there more to their rivalry than it seems? The final segment - "Amelia" - is probably the most well known, as it features Karen Black at the titular character being stalked by a Zuni fetish doll in her apartment. It easily has the most energy and comes the closest to being suspenseful / terrifying, if sometimes amusing as a result of the noise the doll makes.

 Maybe I give Trilogy of Terror too much grief - we are talking about a made-for-TV horror anthology from 1975. It's not as though it's any more or less tame than an episode of Night Gallery or some (emphasis on "some") of the Amicus films. In order to get more specific, I'll have to venture into SPOILER territory, specifically about "Julie" and "Millicent and Therese." Continue accordingly.

 While I chuckle at the Zuni fetish doll (or, rather, the low-fi way Curtis and company bring it to life), "Amelia" is easily the best segment and the closest that comes to horror. "Julie" is, technically speaking, about a serial killer, although there's a bit of bait and switch about how she "implants" the idea of pursuing a teacher into Chad (Burton)'s head. I honestly thought it was heading in a supernatural direction, but nope, Ms. Eldritch just lures students in, lets them think they're in control, and then murders them when she gets bored. It seems like a horrible idea to have a scrapbook filled with nothing but articles about college students who died under mysterious circumstances, but that's how Curtis, Nolan (and, I guess, Matheson) wanted to end it.

 "Millicent and Therese" is horror / terror in the most tertiary sense - Millicent accuses Therese of using witchcraft and being a demon, and then kills her with voodoo magic. The only problem is that it's abundantly clear that since we never, ever seen them occupy the same space that Millicent IS Therese. Possibly this wasn't as easy to guess forty years ago, but it's not exactly subtle in foreshadowing, and by the time Millicent's doctor (George Gaynes) interacts with both of them (separately), it's easy to figure out the "twist." Split personalities makes for an interesting challenge for Karen Black, but it's hardly terrifying.

 That said, Karen Black is easily the main draw of Trilogy of Terror - in the span of 71 minutes, she plays four completely different types of characters and never draws attention to the gimmick of having one actress headline the entire anthology. She's so different in behavior, in delivery, and in body language from one segment to the next that it's easy to overlook the shortcomings of the rest of the movie. "Amelia" is essentially a one woman show, and she sells the fact that a mostly stationary doll is stalking and violently attacking her. When it bites her neck, the moment should be patently ridiculous, but instead it's quite tense. Black even makes the ending, which could be laughably bad in less capable hands, ominous.

 I'm a sucker for anthologies, even ones that barely qualify as horror, and Trilogy of Terror delivers just enough and doesn't overstay its welcome. Yes, Chad is possibly the most loathsome protagonist (?) you're going to see in any horror movie, but it's nice when he gets his. The second segment is at least atmospheric, if not very predictable. For a TV movie, the production values are pretty good. And, again, Karen Black is the main draw here, and she goes for broke to elevate Trilogy of Terror beyond just another TV movie. You can find creepier, or more violent, but for entertainment value, Trilogy of Terror is just the kind of anthology to put on for friends at a Halloween party.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Shocktober Revisited: The House By the Cemetery

This review originally appeared in 2010.

The House by the Cemetery is an exercise in futility: the film, made by Lucio Fulci (The Psychic, The New York Ripper) should be a gorehound's delight, with it's quasi-Lovecraftian connection (it forms the "Death" Trilogy with The Beyond and City of the Living Dead / Gates of Hell), brutal kills, and atmospheric setting (just north of Boston, Mass). Instead, the film is a disaster; an unnecessarily convoluted narrative that contradicts itself whenever possible, leaving plot points that go nowhere, characters that serve no purpose, and an ending that raises more "what?"s than anything else.

I don't know how much of this to blame on the fact that the DVD is dubbed and offered no alternate language / subtitle options (IMDB indicates it was filmed in Italian) but I doubt that many of the erratic plot jumps could be saved simply by Fulci's native tongue. From the opening sequence, which spatially misrepresents the Freudstein house, to the final scene and its fabricated Henry James quote, not a whole lot of The House by the Cemetery makes a lot of sense.

Following the strange death of his mentor, Dr. Peterson, Norman Boyle (Paolo Marco) moves his wife Lucy (Katherine MacColl) and son Bob (Giovanni Frezza) from New York to the small town of New Whitby, where Peterson murdered his mistress and hung himself. Staying in the "Freudstein" house - redubbed Oak Mansion by the real estate agent (Dagmar Lassander) - with Ann (Ania Perioni), Bob's babysitter, the Boyle's are beset with strange occurrences, mysterious indoor tombs, and a locked cellar that hides a terrible secret. Will Norman discover the secret of Dr. Freudstein before it's too late? Why did Peterson kill himself? Is Lucy really going insane, or is someone else in the house? And who is Bob's new friend Mae (Silvia Collatina), a girl only he can see who warns him of grave dangers?

Honestly, don't expect any of those questions to be answered. Well, not exactly. By the time anyone figures out what's going on at any point in the film, it's too late for them. Across the board, the plot of The House by the Cemetery makes no effort to address any of the many questions it raises, instead compounding on "twist" after another to the point that none of them mean anything at all. Every single character in the film exists to react to something that happens, and no one (including Dr. Freudstein) actually does anything to set events in place.

The criminal mistake that Fulci makes in The House by the Cemetery is to assume that just because the film is "inspired" by H.P. Lovecraft that he (and co-screenwriters Giorgio Mariuzzo and Dardano Sacchetti) frequently set up plot points that disappear mid-movie, or abruptly change characters in order to suit a "kill" scene. Norman is the subject of an entire subplot that goes nowhere: while following up on Dr. Peterson's research, more than one character mentions that Boyle has been to New Whitby before, has a daughter (not a son), and seem very surprised when he refutes their claims. Even Lucy asks him why it is he has a picture of the Freudstein house (which he makes dubious excuses about).

Ann, the babysitter, also seems to be involved in some conspiratorial pact with Norman, considering the frequency of close-up of Normans eyes, Ann's eyes, and sometimes Lucy, who has no idea what's going on. Ann, after all, goes out of her way to remove the board covering the cellar door, cleans up the blood after Freudstein kills the real estate agent, and seems to have a particular interest in Bob. That is, until she goes down into the cellar and is killed by Freudstein (decapitated, as per a vision Mae has with mannequins). Ann seems so surprised that Freudstein is down in the cellar that it totally undermines the suspicious behavior earlier.

Of course, almost everything is undone. To spoil a great deal for you (if such a thing is possible in a film that goes out of its way not to make sense), Norman doesn't have any connection to the Freudstein house that's ever mentioned, the couple in the beginning aren't Peterson and his mistress, and Mary Freudstein might be Dr. Freudstein and the monster we assumed was Dr. Freudstein is her son Jacob (at least, that is, if the ghost Mary and ghost Mae that take Bob away have anything to do with the quote Fulci made up and attributed to Henry James have anything to do with the story). We also never learn why the Boyles didn't leave the house after the "bat" incident (more on that below), even though they clearly stated they weren't staying.

The cheap and easy solution the trio of screenwriters thought they could get away with was a Lovecraft-esque series of revelations by Peterson that hinted at an increasing madness, leading him to suicide. Unfortunately, within the frame of a slasher narrative - with giallo-inspired murder set-pieces - creeping madness and dread become irrelevant. The two subgenres unfortunately fail to intersect: one demands a protagonist that encounters evil and goes insane, the other requires all characters but one to be killed and for the hero to kill the monster. The House by the Cemetery manages to do neither, instead settling more a muddled "ghost story" ending that just barely closes things out.

Does The House by the Cemetery have anything going for it? Well, as this is a Lucio Fulci film, the blood flows freely and the gore is at least worth some of your time*. While there's nothing as inventive or disturbing as Zombi 2, The New York Ripper, or Cat in the Brain, the Freudstein makeup is pretty cool, if entirely spoiled by the DVD cover. The kills alternate between simple giallo-esque stabbings (the real estate agent, the girl at the beginning) to full on exposed brains and heads decapitated slowly with a kitchen knife.

In particular, there's a sequence where the Boyle family goes into the basement for the first time and are attacked by a bat that starts unintentionally funny and grows increasingly violent, especially when Norman stabs the bat and it begins bleeding profusely, but doesn't die. Also of note: Mae's hallucination (vision?) of a mannequin that looks like Ann losing its head - complete with very real looking tendons and blood - adds a nightmarish quality early in the film. Alas, it promises more than The House by the Cemetery can deliver, so enjoy it while you can. The movie itself isn't really worth the time it takes to watch, especially when Fulci has so many better films to offer.



* How much of your time? Certainly not the 87 minutes it takes to watch the film, but I'm sure there's some "gore" compilation from the film on YouTube that'll save you wondering what you missed.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Shocktober Revisited: Tales from the Darkside - The Movie

 This review originally appeared in 2010.

The Cap'n makes no effort to hide my love for Tales from the Darkside, a staple of USA's Up All Night and horror anthology show that frequently gave me the creeps in the wee hours of the morning. After Season Three arrived on DVD two weeks ago, a set that contains quite a few of my favorite episodes (including The Circus, The Geezenstacks, Seasons of Belief, and The Milkman Cometh), I realized that despite my unabated enthusiasm for the show, I'd never actually seen the movie.

I blame this on a handful of factors: when it came out in 1990, I would have only been eleven and still in a phase where horror scared the hell out of me. I've also rarely heard a kind word about Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (it has a 38% Fresh Rating on Rotten Tomatoes and generally seems to merit [at best] a "rent it"), so while I've seen the DVD around before, I just never bothered renting it.

And let me tell you, I kind of regret that now. It's not a great movie, but it does do two things that kept me on board for 90 minutes: the anthology structure (which keeps it true to the spirit of the show) and a pretty damn good cast (also keeping in spirit of the show, if you look at the number of people who worked on the series).


The structure is pure anthology: three unconnected tales wrapped together punctuated by a "bridge" story - in this instance one of a boy named Timmy (Matthew Lawrence) trying to avoid being cooked by a witch (Deborah Harry). The stories are vintage Darkside: a killer mummy doing the bidding of a meek college student; a deadly cat threatens an eccentric millionaire and a hit man; a gargoyle spares the life of an artist - but at a price.

I've read in a few places that Tales from the Darkside: The Movie fails to really take the TV show forward into a cinematic presentation, but I'm not really sure that's the point. While it's true that it sticks to fairly limited locations with small casts and limited (although at times pretty good) special effects, broadening the scope isn't really going to do anything but make Darkside like any other anthology film. One of the strengths of the show was the fact that it had a limited budget, and within that they managed to foster a sense of dread and claustrophobia for the stories. There is "no escape" for these characters, and in some ways I think that the movie does replicate that nicely while still benefiting from higher production values.

The cast is also more interesting to me now than I think it would have been twenty years ago: at the time, I supposed that Christian Slater (Heathers, Pump Up the Volume), Deborah Harry (Videodrome, Hairspray), and Rae Dawn Chong (Commando, Soul Man) would have been the big "names" for the film, but the movie also features James Remar (Dexter, Ratatouille), David Johansen (Scrooged, Married to the Mob), Julianne Moore (Boogie Nights, Far from Heaven), Robert Klein (Primary Colors, Jeffrey), William Hickey (Wise Blood, Prizzi's Honor), Mark Margolis (Breaking Bad, The Fountain, Oz, and oh, a dozen other things you've seen) and Steve Buscemi (I shouldn't even need to tell you). It's a nice combination of well known character actors - some of whom were on the show - and up and comers that would be better known later.

The stories are pretty good too, particularly the last one ("Lover's Vow"). Even if you can figure out the "twist" (and it really isn't that hard), there's a surprising poignancy I wasn't expecting from a low budget horror film. The first segment ("Lot 249," based on an Arthur Conan Doyle story) is also nice, although it relies pretty heavily on arcane explanations of scrolls and translations that dull the last "shock" a little bit. What it lacks there, it makes up for with solid performances from Buscemi, Slater, and Moore and some inventive mummy kills.

If there's a weak link, it may be the too-long-for-it's-own-good middle section (Stephen King's "Cat from Hell", adapted by George Romero). It's not that "Cat from Hell" isn't interesting in its own way, it's just that the story is broken into two sections: Millionaire Drogan (Hickey) relating the story of the cat to Hit Man Halston (Johansen), and Halston stalking the cat in a mansion with almost no lightning. The first half sets things up nicely, and you can tell that Romero's relationship with King on Creepshow had some effect on the flashback structure (while Romero didn't direct the film, I strongly suspect the use of a deep blue to indicate "flashback" came from the same comic-book formula used in Creepshow).

The problem is that once we get to Halston hunting the cat alone, it's pretty clear what's going to happen, so the drawn out hunting gets a little repetitive. It's saved by what may be the grossest gore effect in the entire film (involving the cat crawling into Johansen's mouth, down his throat, into his stomach, and back out), but by the end it's almost too little, too late. The wraparound story starts out strongly - with Timmy in a cage trying to prevent a very modern witch from cooking him in her suburban oven - but fizzles out at the end by trying to not play into Darkside audience expectations. It's not the best way to end the film, especially after a great third act anchored by Remar and Chong.

Gripes aside, I still don't quite understand why people dislike this movie so much; it's closer in spirit to the show than either Tales from the Crypt movie (and to some degree, the earlier anthology version Amicus put out) and considering that it's competition in that era was Campfire Tales, Creepshow 2, and Grim Prairie Tales, I'd say Darkside works better as an anthology movie. The genre is probably better known for having a lot of "good" entries and only one or two really "great" films, and I'd certainly say that Tales from the Darkside: The Movie is on the same page as The House that Dripped Blood, Asylum, or Trilogy of Terror. It's probably better than Cat's Eye, Quicksilver Highway and Twilight Zone: The Movie, if not up there with Doctor Terror's House of Horrors, Tales from the Crypt, or From Beyond the Grave.

If you like the show, then the Cap'n feels like you'll appreciate the step up in production value of Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, especially because it doesn't stray too far from what made the series work. The film has a good cast, limited - but impressive - gore, and two of the three stories were better than I expected they'd be. So count me as one of the 38% that's "for" Tales from the Darkside: The Movie; it worked for the Cap'n.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Shocktober Revisited: Death Bed - The Bed That Eats

 This review originally appeared in 2010. Death Bed: The Bed That Eats is also currently available on Blu-Ray from Cult Epics, with some nice supplementary features.

 Tonight I watched Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. This film, shot in 1972, finished in 1977, and never officially released until 2002, is by no means a "good" film. What it is, however, is a film that manages to combine woeful ineptitude with a handful of inventive - albeit stupid - tricks to create a film that, while awful, is imminently watchable.

 To set the stage, listen to this portion of Patton Oswalt's cd "Werewolves and Lollipops" and join the Cap'n on the other side:



Are we all back? Cool.

 The first thing I need to mention is that despite what Oswalt says, the movie is actually not titled "Death Bed: The Bed That Eats People", because the Death Bed eats a lot more than people. In fact, because the Death Bed enjoys toying with its victims so much, it will often eat anything on the bed before it eats a person.

 For example, in the opening scene, the Death Bed eats an apple, drinks a bottle of wine, and then empties a bucket of fried chicken in order to confuse the couple making out next to their food. No, really. Then the death bed closes its curtains and kills the couple off screen, just so we don't quite know what happens to people.

 What we do know is that the Death Bed eats in a way I was not expecting. Yes, it's true, when I saw the name "Death Bed: The Bed That Eats," I just kind of assumed that it created a mouth out of the mattress and baseboard or something like that. Oh no, not this Death Bed. Writer / Director George Barry had a much better idea: digestive fluids.

 That's right; when the Death Bed starts eating something, the person / food object / luggage is covered with yellow bubbles, and then falls into the bed, where the camera cuts to one of two tubs behind yellow glass. This is the clever part: sometimes what we're seeing is food dropped into acid, so that you can clearly see it eating away.

 Other times, we just see skeletons, people, blood, or other objects in regular water. Either way, we're meant to assume this is the inside of the Death Bed. The other clever thing Barry does is to design a bed that has a mattress clearly two or three feet above the floor, so that audiences would theoretically be confused as to how the Death Bed worked.

 Believe me, that's not what's confusing about Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. Everything else is confusing: almost every character narrates part of the film, and there are flashbacks within flashbacks that span.... maybe hundreds of years? It's hard to say. Basically, this demon has sex with a girl on some bed in the middle of a field, but she lives and the demon bleeds on the bed. The demon goes to sleep inside of a tree and the girl dies but doesn't really die, so she's just lying half dead / half alive in a grave that's waaaaayyy to close to a lake.

 Meanwhile, the Death Bed moves into a mansion, then out of a mansion, then back in the mansion, and then to the cellar. Then at some point the mansion is destroyed and only the cellar remains. According to a newspaper - and the narration of a dead artist who lives behind his painting and talks to the Death Bed (don't ask) - thousands (THOUSANDS) of people are killed by the Death Bed between when the girl dies in 1897 and 1977 when I guess the movie takes place.

 But mostly we're asked to follow these three girls who apparently have the property for the weekend (or something). One of them is kinda loopy and is quickly eaten by the Death Bed; the other scares the Death Bed so it holds her prisoner; the last girl uh... well, let's just say she's there to explain how the Death Bed grabs a suitcase earlier in the film.

 Actually, the first girl isn't really "quickly" eaten by the Death Bed, because first it decides to play some dumb "choking game" involving her crucifix necklace, then her skull magically appears outside of the cellar underground and sprouts a rose bush. No, really.

 I'd say more than half of the film's 77 minute running time is devoted to the history of the Death Bed, the demon, the dead girl who isn't dead, or the stupid artist that hates the Death Bed but benefits from it murdering people. I don't really know why; maybe because he painted the Death Bed before letting it eat him...

 When that isn't going on, the brother of one of the girls (you kinda assume it's the loopy one who dies first, but then it turns out to be the one the Death Bed is scared of) shows up in time to be trapped in the cellar.

Oh, and this happens:


 I know it sounds like the Cap'n spoiled practically everything in the movie, but I can't begin to tell you how weird Death Bed: The Bed That Eats gets. This synopsis doesn't come close to capturing how bizarre and arbitrary this movie is, and I didn't even get to the why the Death Bed eats the suitcase (hint: there's Pepto Bismol in the suitcase. Seriously.).

 George Barry recorded a comparably arbitrary and inane introduction to Death Bed: The Bed That Eats, which ends with him essentially saying "go ahead and watch it because it's too late to return the movie," but he doesn't need to do that. Patton Oswalt might sell you on checking it out, but Death Bed will keep you watching well beyond the opening credits. Oh crap, I didn't even mention how it's broken up (by screen titles) into meals of the day.

See Death Bed: The Bed That Eats as soon as you can, and with as many people as you can find. I assure you it's worth your time.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Shocktober Revisited: Sisters

 This review originally appeared in 2010.

 Sisters, a film that arguably is the first time the signature "style" of Brian De Palma is on display, is also a precursor to his "homages" to Alfred Hitchcock*, like Dressed to Kill and Body Double, cobbling from a number of the "Master of Suspense"'s films.

 Danielle Blanchon (Margot Kidder) was born half of Siamese twins, with her sister Dominique. After being separated, Danielle pursued a career in modeling and acting, appearing on game shows like "The Peeping Tom Show" (which opens the film in a curiously race-baiting manner, both for the contestants and the audience). When Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson) avoids the temptation of watching a "blind" woman undress, he wins a dinner for two to the even less politically incorrect "African Room" and invites Danielle (the "blind" woman) to come along (Danielle wins a set of knives). Aside from an awkward run-in with her ex-husband, Emil Breton (Bill Finley), the date goes swimmingly, and he accompanies her home to Staten Island.

 After a night of heavy petting, Phillip overhears Danielle and Dominique having and argument and accidentally knocks her medication into the sink. Phillip runs out to find the twins a birthday cake, and comes back only to be (SPOILER, I guess) stabbed in the groin by Dominique, and then viciously sliced up before scrawling "HELP" on the window in full view of investigative journalist Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt). Collier becomes obsessed first with proving the murder happened, then on uncovering the "true" story of the Blanchon twins, enlisting the help of private detective Joseph Larch (Charles Durning). What is Breton's actual relationship to Danielle and Dominique? Why aren't the police interested in the murder? And what is really going on at the institute that the Blanchon twins grew up in?

 I don't feel bad about ruining the death of Phillip Woode because if you've seen Dressed to Kill, you have some idea how the first thirty minutes of Sisters is going to play out. Hell, if you've seen Psycho, you know how both of them are going to play out, but sticking strictly to De Palma films, Dressed to Kill is likely better known than Sisters, which plays out like a grindhouse-friendly warm up for his more direct Psycho homage.

 But it isn't just Psycho that gets the nod in Sisters: there's also Rope, Rear Window, Frenzy, and a strange running gag akin to The Trouble with Harry involving Woode's final resting place - and the film's MacGuffin - a fold out couch-bed. The last shot, in fact, echoes the futility of the MacGuffin, as Joseph Larch (the Sam Loomis /Lisa Fremont stand-in) sits perched on a telephone poll, spying on an abandoned couch in a comparably abandoned Canadian train station, never to be claimed.

If it feels like I'm spoiling a lot of Sisters, really I'm not; I deliberately left out the film's "twist," which shouldn't be difficult to figure out given De Palma's penchant for Hitchcock plot turns, and I'll dance around the hallucinatory third act, which takes place in the institution and intentionally echoes Freaks or The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari in its dream sequences. It's placement in the film is rather jarring, considering the great technical lengths De Palma goes to earlier in the film (including not one, but two intricate split screen sequences), and nearly derails the picture. It kicks the Freudian overtones into overdrive and drastically switches gears from an exercise in intertextuality into an overcomplicated bundle of psycho-mumbo-jumbo before returning to a by-the-numbers murder mystery.

Which is not to say that critics with a psychoanalytical bent won't have a field day with Sisters (as they do with virtually all of De Palma's films): the almost literal "castration" of both male leads (and a more figurative form for Larch and Arthur McLennen [Barnard Hughes**], the reporter who broke the twin story) is consistent throughout the film. Dominique seems to be triggered by arousal and her weapons are always phallic (a kitchen knife, a scalpel), and Collier's general disdain for men (and her overburdening mother) eventually point her towards a safe, if unsatisfying, end.

Sisters is a bit sloppy around the edges, lacking in much of the precision evident in later Brian De Palma films, but it has a scrappy quality to it that keeps the film watchable when it teeters on incomprehensibility. It doesn't hurt that Kidder is very good as Danielle and Dominique, and Salt carries most of the film as the truth obsessed Collier. Wilson, Finley, and Durning are also believable in mostly thankless roles, and when De Palma is on, the film crackles with suspense. It's easy to see in Sisters the traces of his later, superior films, as well as his interest in incorporating Hitchcockian themes and images early on. As a horror film - which I suppose is technically why it's included this month - you could do worse, although Sisters is probably going to appeal to cinephiles more than casual viewers.

*edit* In my haste to put this up, I forgot about the Cranpire's favorite character, who will be referred to only as "The Midnight Gardener," who so inexplicably a plot device that I must assume he's a direct reference to another film. Kudos to you if you identify it in the comments!

* The debate rages on whether these are homages or rip-offs, and I don't really want to get into it here. For plenty of starting points, I refer you to Google.
** If the name doesn't ring a bell, Hughes' voice should automatically ring a bell, particularly if you remember Dumont in Tron or Grandpa in The Lost Boys.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Shocktober Revisited: The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror (I-XXIV)

 This originally appeared in TV Talk as two parts in 2011.


  I am both old enough to remember a time before The Simpsons and still young enough not to have understood its impact on television or, eventually, on the show itself. At the time, anyway. Now it's easy to look back and understand why I stopped watching the show around season 12, then would check in sporadically, only to eventually give up around season 17 or 18. The show just wasn't that funny anymore. A brief flirtation with The Simpsons Movie and the show's shift to HD collapsed midway through the Blu-Ray of season 20, and I'm fairly content saying that I don't watch The Simpsons anymore. They recycle their own jokes now, unironically aware of what South Park already knew: "The Simpsons did it!"

 You can actually trace the downward trajectory through the first ten Treehouse of Horror's (which, oddly enough, are all called The Simpsons Halloween Special on the title card, but not on IMDB or the boxed sets). For those not familiar with the concept - in season two, The Simpsons introduced a yearly Halloween special. It was always a triptych, and they all typically involve the following: 1) a Twilight Zone redo, 2) a film parody, 3) a literary interpretation, 4) Some variety of social commentary (this happens increasingly as time goes by).

 People tend to be hard on the first few seasons of The Simpsons, but the first Treehouse of Horror isn't actually all that bad: there's "Bad Dream House," a Poltergeist/Amityville homage; "Hungry are the Damned," a Simpsonized twist on "To Serve Man," and an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," wrapped around by a story of Bart and Lisa trying to scare each other.

 From there on out, there are a number of great moments: send-ups of King Kong, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Shining, Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Fly, The Omega Man, Godzilla (kind of), and The Indestructible Man; versions of The Monkey's Paw, Frankenstein, The Devil and Daniel Webster, Dragonwyck; and Twilight Zone episodes Little Girl Lost, It's a Good Life, Living Doll, Terror at 20,000 Feet, and The Little People.

 What I noticed though is that there's a steady decline starting with Treehouse of Horror VII (season 8), which stands out for an otherwise pretty stellar season (Hank Scorpio, Mr. Sparkle, Larry Burns, the Insanity Pepper episode): I could have sworn the "Hugo" evil twin segment happened later in the series' run, the "Little People" segment runs out of steam, and the Bob Dole / Bill Clinton Kodos and Kang story is a non-starter. It hints at the dull-witted political commentary to come, reaching a nadir in the late 2000s with a "War of the Worlds" / Iraqi Invasion segment.

 Treehouse of Horror's VIII, IX, and X are all hit and miss, but indicate a downward trend: for every "Homega Man" and "Fly vs. Fly," there's a pointless cameo by Jerry Springer or Regis Philbin (the Springer being a serious low point in the show's pop culture commentary), and things just fall apart in season 11. Again, I'm a little surprised by this because while it's nowhere in the same league as season 8, the next-to-last season of The Simpsons I watched entirely had at least given up on a semblance of plot, instead trying to out-surreal itself with each successive episode.

 It turns out that when that's the case, when making Santa's Little Helper say "Chewy?" and introduce Tomacco into the mix, that a Treehouse of Horror is going to struggle in comparison. Not only is it the first time the show directly references Kodos and Kang as not fitting into the Halloween milieu (something they would continue to do from what I've seen), the segments just aren't any good. The parody of I Know What You Did Last Summer sputters to a conclusion and is more fixated on the developing "Jerkass" Homer that characterizes seasons 12-onward. "Desperately Xeeking Xena" is a dumb comic book parody that also doesn't know how to end, so it settles for random: see, Xena can't fly, but Lucy Lawless can! That's the joke! The only thing funny about the "Y2k" segment comes in retrospect: notice Mark McGwire and Mel Gibson on the "best of humanity" rocket.

After Treehouse of Horror X, I can only say I remember parts of XI and XII: I'd honestly thought "Day of the Dolphins" came sooner than it did, the Ghost Dad parody doesn't stir much other than Homer dying on a piece of broccoli twice, and I have vague memories of Pierce Brosnan as the voice of a house that hates Homer. I don't recall the Harry Potter parody at all. From there on out, I understand they've spoofed Transformers, 28 Days Later, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, The Dead Zone, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Most Dangerous Game, A.I., The Blob, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Twilight. Mmmhrm...

Believe me, I'd love to jump on them for more movie parodies, but going back and looking at it, the Bram Stoker's Dracula send-up was right after the movie came out, and they weren't wildly removed from A Nightmare on Elm Street's sequels at the time either. What I can say is that I laughed less and less from Treehouse of Horror VI to X, and I laughed quite a bit during VI. The episodes are a fine time capsule of where The Simpsons was, what the writers found amusing, and which elements were emphasized - story, character, parody, or randomness.

 At a certain point, I simply stopped watching The Simpsons - it was likely in the early 2000s, when the repetitiveness of the stories became too taxing and I just gave up. Every now and then, I'd notice a Treehouse of Horror episode (in particular, ones that aired after October), but didn't pay them much mind. However, it seems unfair to start reviewing these episodes and not try to cover them through the present, so the Cap'n soldiered on. I was left with a "good news, bad news" scenario: the good news was there were flashes of my favorite Treehouse of Horror's, but the bad news was they were often fleeting, and a rarely did one of them lasted for an entire segment of its episode.

 Things get off to a shaky start in Treehouse of Horror XI with a parody of the Bill Cosby movie Ghost Dad, but evens out with the final segment, the aforementioned "Night of the Dolphin," which manages to fit in nods to Jaws and The Birds and has a fitfully dark ending. The middle segment, "Scary Tales Do Come True," is symptomatic of a problem that plagues the latter Treehouse entries: many of the parodies are tangentially (at best) tied to horror.

  A Hansel and Gretl meet other fairy tales would make sense in the context of other Simpsons anthology episodes (which have covered works of literature, myths, or Biblical stories), but it begins a trend of moving away from Twilight Zone stories and horror films to other parodies - some of which don't even make sense. But Transformers? Mr. and Mrs. Smith? The Harry Potter spoof doesn't even get a pass because if you took that, "Scary Tales Can Come True," and "Four Beheadings and a Funeral", a Sherlock Holmes / Jack the Ripper story, and put them into their own anthology.

  I'm more willing to give the Mad Men-esque spoof "How to Get Ahead in Dead-vertising" because it at least continues the trend of zombie celebrities, even if it is just a variation on the Homer the Grim Reaper segment from XIV. However, "Bartificial Intelligence" doesn't make any sense in a Treehouse of Horror, and a Golem story (like "Hex in the City") eventually shifts from possibly horror related to cheap ethnic jokes. A Fantastic Voyage (really?) spoof turns it self around into a variation on Treehouse of Horror II's "Homer and Burns share a body" joke, followed by a song-and-dance vaguely reminiscent of the "Bart Simpson's Dracula". "The Ned Zone" never really goes anywhere, and "Married to the Blob" starts great but falls apart long before Dr. Phil appears as himself. A Tales from the Crypt-style opening sequence falls apart as soon as Smithers appears, which is a shame.

 The nadir of the latter Treehouses is"The Day the Earth Stood Stupid," a segment that seems to be a take on Orson Welles' infamous "War of the Worlds" hoax, but then devolves into a boneheaded (and woefully unfunny) critique of the War in Iraq, with Kodos and Kang arguing about who said they would be "greeted as liberators" and ends with an awful "hearts and minds" gag. Of course, if you like Kodos and Kang, then stay away from "E.T.: Go Home" which seems promising but quickly goes south.

While there are some serious lowlights, it is fair to mention that there are some sporadically clever segments: there's the spot-on Hitchcock homage "Dial 'M' for Murder or Press # to Return to Main Menu," a pretty good take on Dead Calm (although I can't imagine most fans getting that reference) marred only by a pointless A Clockwork Orange reference ("Simpsons did it!"), the Twilight parody actually has a few good jokes, as does Pierce Brosnan's evil house in XII. While I don't love "Frinkenstein", it was amusing to hear Jerry Lewis as Professor Frink's father gleefully collecting organs at the Nobel Prize ceremony. "The Island of Doctor Hibbert" and "Survival of the Fattest" are pretty good, and the 28 Days Later "tainted Krusty Burger" segment is great but drops the ball at the end.

 The closest thing other than the Hitchcock segment is an almost perfect send-up of Charlie Brown cartoons called "It's the Grand Pumpkin, Milhouse." For a while, it sustains the animation style, but overuses a few obvious gags (Marge's trombone, for example) and breaks the tone with Nelson and the bullies before halfway redeeming itself with a racist pumpkin ("all pumpkins are racist; the difference is I admit it!"). The Grand Pumpkin and Tom Turkey's screams of "Revenge!" still make me chuckle.

 At times, the choices of Treehouse of Horror movie references boggles the mind, as is the case with XXII, which opts to parody 127 Hours and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, turning the latter into a series of fart jokes involving an incapacitated Homer. It then closes on a pot shot at the already forgotten Spider-Man Broadway musical. The final segment turns Ned Flanders into Dexter in "Dial 'D' for Diddly," which I guess they chose the title for after forgetting they'd already used that Hitchcock reference. In truth, I'd just as rather not mention Treehouse of Horror XXIII, which I had to look up to remember - the Paranormal Activity is borderline unbearable, and the Back to the Future-inspired "Bart and Homer's Excellent Adventure" doesn't remotely qualify as horror related. The inclusion of a Mayan calendar joke to open the episode and a totally forgettable "black hole" opening segment are best left to be recalled
fuzzily.

 Perhaps the most notable element of Treehouse of Horror XXIV is the extended opening directed by Guillermo Del Toro: it manages to include references to all of his films (closing with a couch gag that ties directly into Pan's Labyrinth) and a number of horror films that influenced him. It does set the tone for what is (at times) a disturbingly violent episode, perhaps no more so than during "The Fat in the Hat," a Dr. Seuss inspired story of trick-or-treating. Take your pick at what's more upsetting that Homer as the titular character does, but I think killing Mr. Burns (as a vulture) and feeding him to the homeless (uncooked) might do it for me. Or skinning Moe and wearing him as a coat. It's surprisingly dark, even for The Simpsons. Comparably speaking, the parodies of Freaks and The Thing with Two Heads are tame, if also violent. Unfortunately, "Dead and Shoulders" is likely to remind you of not one, but now two other similar stories (Treehouse of Horror II and XV).

  Watching the back stretch of the Treehouse of Horror episodes, I can see many of the things I've noticed while popping in on The Simpsons over the years after no longer being a regular viewer - jokes are periodically funny, but often are followed by something that reminds me of a better Simpsons episode. The "jerkass" phase of Homer Simpson is abundant in many of these episodes, and it's more grating than hilarious. The pop culture references become more obvious and get lazier as time goes on, and much of the sharp writing of earlier years is undermined by lazy shortcuts or, worse, an inability to stick the landing. While I don't plan on watching the show regularly again, it was nice to catch up on what used to be a Halloween institution, and I'll try to catch XXV (airing this weekend) to see if an upswing is ever in the cards. Call me hopeful - it might be...