Friday, October 11, 2013

Halloween Week 2: Farewell to the Flesh

Welcome back for week 2 of our Halloween festivities. Once again, we've got an interesting spread going - flesh-eating zombies, ghosts, and that most horrific of creatures - the high schooler.

OK, that's kind of a cheap joke, but I have yet to be proven wrong.

Anyway, we have a full seven this week, so how about we dive right in?

Blood, fire, screaming, and dead bodies...reminds me of my prom.
[NOTE: The author of this piece did not actually attend prom. At least, not that he's informed legal of.]

10/5 - Carrie 

OK, this is actually kind of a cool piece of randomized trivia: first time a Stephen King movie is featured in the Halloween blocks, and on top of that, it's both based on his first novel published, as well as the first filmed adaptation of his work.

It's always interesting to rewatch one of those films after you've seen it enough times casually and heard it invoked in pop culture time and again. Done right, you still find yourself catching little details that you either didn't notice before or forgot about. In some ways, it's like watching the film for the first time all over again.
Which is a bit of a weird way to lead this one off, but it was pleasantly surprising giving this one a more direct watch than I have in some time. In particular for realizing just how much of early DePalma's style is present in a lot of this movie. Like when I discussed Sisters last year, one can see his eye for good camera work as well as his love of Hitchcock (here most embodied in taking a musical cue from Bernard Hermann's score to Psycho) in several places. In fact, with the exception of the contemporary aesthetics of the movie, this has aged surprisingly well. To be fair to said aesthetic...well, it's a movie about high schoolers. No matter what decade you make the movie in, it's going to date itself. It's just a risk that comes with the subject matter. Fortunately, in this case, it doesn't detract too much from the main film. This is further helped along by the casting - there's a reason this is still one of Sissy Spacek's most well known roles, and one she got an Academy Award nomination for. As the title character, Spacek embodies the abused and soft-spoken Carrie White to a T, making her sympathetic without feeling overdone in the pity department. Also earning a nomination, and the other MVP of the cast, is Piper Laurie as Carrie's hyper-religious mother. When she is onscreen, she all but hijacks the scene with her fervor (in the very best sense of the word.) It's a role that definitely risks flying into parody, Laurie herself allegedly thought the film was going to be a comedy, but she still manages to just keep it on the line rather than flying over the proverbial cliff. With these two as the centerpieces, the rest of the cast fare well in their various roles of support or antagonism (including a young John Travolta, who, despite the advertising now playing him up, is a fairly minor role in the movie.)
Once you adjust to the above-mentioned aesthetic, the movie is still actually quite well done visually. Alongside DePalma's already mentioned camera-work (one of the highlights of which is the infamous prom scene) some of the set design in this is well done. The prime example of this being the White house - feeling perfectly cramped and spartan, all centered around an incredibly unsettling prayer closet (in which the filmmakers took on the challenge of 'How can we make a crucified Jesus statue even creepier?')
With the remake due out next week, I have to say the film's got a lot to live up to. Sure, it can at least one up the very 1970s feel of this movie, but given how many other parts of this version all hit their mark, the remake is going to have to work VERY hard to hope to do it one better.

For the record, based on the promotions, I'm not optimistic. But that's just me talking. I could be proven wrong (I DID already say once this week marketing for films has been in a slump.)

"...all that and NOW the list calls for a cold case corpse?
This is the worst scavenger hunt I've ever been involved in!"

10/6 - The Changeling

This is one of those films that's been on my 'to do' list for a long time now. On finally getting around to watching it, I am glad to say it was worth the wait.
As I discussed last week with The Woman in Black, there's something to be said for a straight-forward ghost story from time to time. Further proving that point, Peter Medak's The Changeling is a good example of many of the draws of this breed of story. For one, it's another great case of a slow burn - much of the first part of the story is less concerned with the supernatural aspects as it is with the background of the movie's protagonist, John Russel (George C. Scott, in a surprisingly somber role.) Even when the unusual elements come, they ease their way in, often appearing in the form of sounds or minor actions, such as a door being opened by no one in particular. In many cases, it's fairly minor things, but they do a very good job of building up an air of mystery on the film. Which leads to one of the other big draws to many ghost stories, and part of the appeal to this one - figuring out the puzzle at the center of it all. Even more than in The Woman in Black, this movie's particular specter hinges on a secret of the past. When we finally start getting clues revealed during a well-directed seance sequence, the film slowly eschews the spiritual cat and mouse and becomes more of a mystery as John tries to discover what this spirit is trying to tell him. The second half, admittedly, doesn't have quite as much of a spooky air to it as a result of this. It still maintains an interesting narrative, just not one that maintains the air of suspense the first half did. Instead, the draw is now on seeing just what John is about to find out - which itself, is a good story twist (albeit one I won't go into here so as not to spoil the movie.) Fortunately, even though it loses the tone for the second half, the first still maintains the spookiness well enough to carry the movie. Once again, one of the real signs of a good ghost story is when it leaves you bracing for the moment when the other shoe drops before it's even begun to raise it. Before we begin to learn just what John is dealing with, the movie has that feeling in spades - building an entire atmosphere around what or who is inhabiting the house with him and just what it wants.
Alongside the narrative strength, the movie's other areas also carry their weight quite well. Alongside Scott, whose performance is different from his norm but still well handled, the rest of the film's cast are commendable - in particular Trish Van Devere (Scott's wife at the time) as a local woman who becomes a friend to John in his investigation, and veteran actor Melvyn Douglas in one of his last roles as a prominent politican who may have ties to the mystery in John's house. These performances, further aided by an atmospheric score by Rick Wilkins and some eerie cinematography by John Coquillon. The latter in particular puts his skills to good use in many parts of this movie, at times framing scenes through the ghost's eyes to great effect. One particular example of this being early on in the film as John first moves in - on entering the house's music hall, the camera starts out viewing John and Claire (Van Devere) from the floor level. As they get closer, the camera slowly starts to rise as though getting up to stare at them from a smaller eye level. It's a minor effect, but still a very nice touch.

This may not be one of those films that's going to keep people sleepless for nights on end, but it's still worth the watch. It's an eerie little ghost story with a fascinating puzzle at its center, and one worth sitting down to pay the extra attention on.

One of those moments where the look on one's face sums up their whole day in a single expression perfectly...

10/7 - Shaun of the Dead 

Just as a heads-up from here: the randomizer apparently really felt a yen for zombies this year. While previous years had roughly 2 or 3, this year we're up to 4 or 5, depending how you want to look at it.

Luckily, they started us off on a good note.  With this, we're now 3-for-3 on Edgar Wright this year [notes to self: see about working Hot Fuzz into the reviews after this month.]

I'm going to start by saying, prior to this week, I hadn't really sat down to watch this movie in a long time. By that, I mean it may have been at least 5 years since I watched this in its entirety before this week. You can imagine my happiness to realize the movie still holds up VERY well. Fresh from their work on the series Spaced (which I will again plug here - especially as much of the cast appear in this in various small roles that adds to the humor,) Edgar Wright teamed up with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost to put together this, the first of the Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy. Granted, they weren't intending to make a trilogy at the time this was made, so no sense going too into detail on that.

Anyway, after this much time, I'm still pleasantly surprised with how this film starts on one gear and shifts to another. On the surface, it reads like a spoof of the zombie genre - and while it does make fun of some of the elements of the genre, the humor is less genre-riffing as it is just a comedy that happens to involve a zombie outbreak. On top of that, it also manages to make itself a fairly well done story about an affable, if somewhat shiftless slacker (Pegg) who is determined to get his life together - and it just happens that outbreak provides him the suitable kick in the ass to do it. One of the things that's really surprising about this one is, for as much humor as this has going for it (and it's pretty damn funny,) it also manages to counter it with some decent emotional weight at points. When ill fortune befalls the small group of survivors, the film actually manages to get some genuine sadness out of a few of the scenes. A good example of this fairly early on is with regards to Shaun's stepfather, Phil (Bill Nighy.) At first, we see him as the classic stiff hard-ass stepfather - like Shaun, we hate his guts. As things get worse, and he finally decides to make his piece with Shaun, the scene actually puts him in a new light without it feeling contrived. This is one of those areas where I really have to commend a lot of the cast. For a group where many of the members are known for comedy, they further prove that comedic actors are capable of handling darker emotions more than capably as well. In particular, Pegg shines in a few moments when faced with the idea of losing his loved ones - for playing a goof for much of the movie, when his emotions really start intensifying, it's hard not to genuinely feel bad for Shaun. Like his later work in The World's End, Pegg shows some surprisingly dramatic chops at points amid the humor.

Of course, not wanting to downplay the humor, I will again stress - when the movie is going for the laughs, it goes all in. Wright and co have a wonderfully black sense of humor, and a zombie outbreak setting is a perfect place to play with that. This includes both the quieter gags (genre fans will likely be amused by a lot of the little shout-outs to previous zombie movie veterans throughout) as well as some of the out-and-out splatter/slapstick humor - such as the entire protracted sequence of Shaun and Ed trying, and failing, various ways to kill two zombies in their back yard. The humor is further added to by the sharp camera work and editing. In particular two sequences that really stand out here: the first when Shaun heads out to the store, oblivious to the outbreak around him - the sequence is a single continuous take from his leaving the flat to the store and back, Shaun remaining completely unaware of the scenes of carnage unfolding around him throughout the sequence. It's impressive how smoothly the whole take plays out not missing a beat the entire time. The other segment here, and arguably one of the most well-known scenes in the film, is during the survivors' hold-out at the local pub...where they find the owner has already been infected. What ensues is a wildly choreographed fight scene set to Queen's 'Don't Stop Me Now.' The sequence is VERY well edited, syncing to the music without feeling like it's breaking the scene in that context, and making a darkly comic blast out of the band's high-energy song. It's a moment that succeeds in being a great action piece as well as being out and out funny as Hell.

I could keep going, but there's only so much I could polish this movie up while others are in the cue. In a nutshell, it's a rather fun, twisted take on zombie horror that also manages to do something a little bit more with story and editing. Finding that it's aged this well is so far one of the highlights of this month's run for me.

As obnoxiously precocious children in movies go, there are few that scream 'Hug me!' quite like this kid.

10/8 - Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Further proving the randomizer is on a zombie kick this year, and that maybe it's not as random as the program advertises itself to be. I'm not just talking for two zombie movies in a row here, but rather two from when the zombie genre started to kick back into the boom it went through for a few years (and some would argue still is, but I've said my piece on that matter.)

That said, I find myself somewhat of two minds with regards to Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead. On its own, it's actually a pretty solid zombie movie. For a director I've had some issues with in the past, particularly with regards to his problems of living up to the potential of what he's given to work with, his feature debut was actually a rather solid start. Additionally, it helps that he avoids one of the popular pitfalls remakes can fall into - what shoutouts to the previous version this movie has are fairly minor and treated as easter eggs within the movie, rather than direct scene lifts and overt calls to it (barring the original's famous 'When there's no room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth,' though the context on that one is a nice touch.) This can trip up a remake in a big way since, rather than allow the remake to stand as its own telling, it seems to be either latching on to nostalgia for the older version, or inadvertently setting itself up to look lesser by comparison. In this case, beyond the title and a very loose similar story, Snyder's version, written by James Gunn, takes the concept in a whole other direction. In many ways, this is probably for the better since, while I love the original version, just updating that story isn't particularly likely to hold up well. Instead, Gunn and Snyder just use the jumping off point of hiding out in a mall against a zombie outbreak and build their own narrative here.

Which is part of where the drawback in this comes in to play. While on its own, the movie isn't bad, as an adaptation, it does feel somewhat wanting in certain areas. Most notably the fact that, while they got the zombie carnage down quite well, this movie loses the more satirical edge Romero's original had. It acknowledges parts of the earlier film's message on consumer culture, but they feel ultimately disconnected and lost in the proverbial sound and fury.
and the blood.
Especially the blood.

That said, back to its own merits, this is arguably some of Snyder's best work as a director. At least in part, this is thanks to the fact that it works well with the man's strong suit for spectacle and large scale carnage. In fact, probably one of his best moments in this film is actually the film's opening titles - a montage of the outbreak played out in news footage set to Johnny Cash's 'The Man Comes Around.' Minimal character focus, no actual dialogue beyond news reports, but the sequence does a great job of encapsulating all the horrors of a zombie outbreak on a grand scale. It's that broader scope that seems to be where Snyder's most at ease, and a concept like this gives him a lot of good action set pieces to play with there. To that end, it's fascinating to see his earlier dabbling in slow motion before it became a punchline of a lot of his films. On the smaller scale, the cast are actually all pretty well chosen for this movie, in particular Ving Rhames in one of the few characters who could be seen as having a parallel to the old version. While the script doesn't really do much in terms of deep character study, what it gives the actors to work with, they make good use of. They even manage a few of the more emotional moments have seen a Snyder film successfully pull off.

In all, I can't say this qualifies as a remake that surpasses its original. It is, however, still one that can stand as a solid movie on its own, which is still fairly rare to find as remakes go anyway.

Who knows, maybe some day Snyder will be able to get back just what he had in him that made this one work that then got away from him later. For now, at least he'll always have this.
Well, this and 300, but that was a whole other matter in terms of why it worked.

Back to the horror!

"Cliff's Notes? Did I just hear you say CLIFF'S NOTES?!"

10/9 - Theatre of Blood

Back for his second year in a row on the Third Row Halloween runs, it's time for another highlight of Vincent Price's career. In particular, this is the movie he considered to be his personal favorite.

In starting this, I once again have to give Price some considerable brownie points. Once again, he proves he was ahead of the game on theme killings years before anyone else saw it as a marketable way to make your murderer stand out. In this case, it's an even more curious theme - as Price's weapon of choice is the writings of the Bard himself.

It's not surprising that Theatre of Blood is treated in part as a comedy. Even the premise - Price as a disgraced Shakespearean actor who uses Shakespeare-based murders to reap vengeance upon his critics, feels somewhat silly on paper. Fortunately, that's where a lot of this movie's charm comes from. By this point, Price had certainly tread similar waters before with The Abominable Dr. Phibes, but where Phibes was played as a fairly serious tale of revenge born out of the loss of a loved one, here director Doug Hickox gives us a wrath born more from ego than anything else. Further, while Phibes operates out of a sinister hideaway, Theatre of Blood's Edwin Lionheart makes his lair in a theater filled with vagrants and meth-drinkers. In a lot of ways, it's almost like the comedic counterpart to Phibes.

Of course, it still doesn't forget it's a horror film as well - say what you will for the Bard's prose, he knew how to make for some violent kills, and writers Anthony Greville-Bell, Stanley Mann, and John Kohn pick some gems to use for material in this. In fact, with the possible exception of one of the later kills, most of the murders in this themselves are fairly serious. The comedy largely comes from Price's role as Edwin. In the movie, Edwin is a rather hammy actor, and Price is having a blast playing that up. Watching him eagerly gloat as he reminds his victims of their printed slights against him in particular is an escalating bit of humor, starting fairly straight forward and slowly climbing to more and more pitched craziness with each new designed kill. It actually gets rather fun trying to figure out what Edwin's next move is going to be, in part just to see how ridiculous they get.
Alongside Price's comic zeal, the other standout in this cast actually goes to a young Diana Rigg as his daughter, Edwina (with an ego like his character in this has, are we THAT surprised by the name?) While she doesn't get as many chances to live up the lunacy as Price does, she still gets her share of moments playing up other personas in disguise and definitely doesn't mind being along for the ride.

A good blend of literary smarts, some creative kills, and a gleefully dark streak of comedy all make a very good case for seeing why Price would consider this to be among his best work.

Unfortunately for the monster, you really can't make much for pick-up lines out of the likes of 'bread, friend, good, fire, bad.'

10/10 - The Bride of Frankenstein

Embarrassing confession - this was actually the first time I've seen this movie. I'd seen the original Frankenstein, but this was my first time seeing the sequel in full.

I have to say though, I can now see why it's held in as high regard as it is. The movie still holds up quite well as extension of the original story, and even if you haven't seen it, it's still gives you enough of what you need to know in order to jump right in. Further, it's worth seeing this just for its influence alone. I had some knowledge of its legacy going in and even I was surprised at the sheer number of titles I wound up recognizing would later make call backs to this (it was hard to keep a straight face during the blind man scene through no fault of the movie's own, but just thanks to the Young Frankenstein parody coming to mind as a result.)

Additionally, this film does make a bit more of an effort to try and hew this story a bit closer to Mary Shelly's original work than the first did (further added to by a new prologue feature Elsa Lanchester as Shelly.) Taking its own narrative loosely from a portion of the original novel itself, this movie further tries to build on the humanization of the monster, again played by the legendary Boris Karloff. To that end, while the casting on this is generally good all around (the other standout being Ernest Thesiger as Henry's mentor Dr. Pretorius) it's Karloff that still stands out in this. Even more impressive given he's both under considerable makeup and only has very limited dialogue. Despite those setbacks, he still proves himself capable of conveying a great deal of emotion through simple gestures that make it understandable that he became such an iconic name in the genre. This isn't to sell short Lanchester, again appearing as the titular bride. Like Karloff, her performance here is largely a matter of gestures, and in a screentime of under 10 minutes, she still creates an iconic character that has endured to this day.

I do have to admit some parts of the film are a bit odd to watch now even without the sense of indirect familiarity. To be fair, this is partially by design (director James Whale himself described what he was making here as 'a hoot,' and was reported to have been heard laughing at one of the screenings of it.) In general though, the film is still quite watchable, and even the odd parts are at least fun in their goofiness.

It's certainly a sequel of a different stripe, but what it sets out to do, it happens to do quite well. This is one of the classics that's earned that status.

OK, I'll be the one to say it - Bodyworks has finally gone too far.

10/11 - Autopsy

and what better way to close out the week than some good-natured blood letting to get out those bad humors.

OK, that one was a bit of reaching joke, but after a classic like Bride of Frankenstein, I had to find some way to segue into this modern slasher piece. In any case, this was a pretty brisk title to end out the week with. I will apologize if I don't go as into detail on this one. Not because it's necessarily bad, but because it's a fairly basic movie. It's your classic 'reckless 20-somethings run afoul of misfortune' storyline - in this case, the misfortune coming care of a hospital staffed by graduates of the Josef Mengele School of Medicine (...too dark?)

Said staff have some pretty welcome casting bits to them as a nice bonus. In particular, the film's primary antagonist, Dr. Benway, as played by Robert Patrick. As a villain role for Patrick, this was kind of a pleasant break from his more famous stoic killing machine role in Terminator 2. Here, he tries to pass himself off as friendlier, keep the darker side under wraps until the ride is in full motion and the blood is flowing. Even there, he keeps it strangely sedate. It's a different sort of character, but he carries it well. The other standout in the staff being Jenette Goldstein, further proving her ability to blend into any number of roles here, lapsing from a seemingly bureaucratic nurse who, likewise, lets her evil side out to play as the movie goes on.

It's that moment when the movie starts letting the blood fly - cause let's face it, in a movie like this, the kids themselves are primarily just there to die. It sounds horrible, but it's true - that it actually starts showing some of its real strength. In particular, for a gore piece, this has some pretty solid effects work. Though it says something that some of the most effective moments are actually pretty light on the actual gore, but are still unsettling to watch just for what's happening (two words: lumbar puncture.)

I feel somewhat bad keeping this one brief, but really there's not a whole lot of detail you can go into here. It's a pretty straightforward slash and bleed, with no bid to make an extra message (which is perhaps for the better, since when those backfire, they backfire HARD.) For what it wants to be, it does its job well. It's not a particularly high profile job, but I can't condemn them for doing it with zeal all the same.

As one last side note, I do have to say - having seen the unused alternate ending for this one, I think I prefer it. True, it results in a recurring discussion point being discarded, but it's also a more unexpected ending. The ending this movie does have works, but it's admittedly a bit more predictable in its delivery.

Just a minor quibble.

Well, this was a particularly messy week. I think only two of the days didn't involve gallon levels of blood.

Also, I've been asked to pass along this message from our legal department - apparently the randomizer decided next week it wanted to mess with people with claustrophobia, so you've been warned.

...till then!

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