Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Week 5: Inferno

At last, it's here.
The big day is upon us.

A happy Halloween to all of you from the Third Row.

I could continue to build on this intro, but we've got a LOT on the table today. So let's kick off this big Halloween celebration of 9 titles right here and now, shall we?

Med School Bloopers and the even more controversial More Med School Bloopers still remain two of the most infamous of the banned Fox specials

10/23 - Day of the Dead

This is the final part (well, before he reopened the doors decades later) of George Romero's Dead trilogy, and certainly one of the more unique entries. I had only very vague memories of this one before rewatching this month. I have to say, while I'm not surprised to hear this one is something of the black sheep of the franchise, I'm also pretty pleased to hear opinion of it has gone up from that of the original negative wave. Yes, this is a different style of zombie film for Romero, but it still contains many of the elements that the man does best when he's on his A game - maintains a good sense of tension, some great gore, and all while managing some social commentary. Commentary that, as horror goes, is actually fairly well thought out without feeling too on the nose. From the sound of things, it was his decision to set this far enough into the zombie outbreak that humanity may be down to just a few scraps and holdouts, a question the cast themselves debate at points, could be taken by some as pretty bleak, even by the standards of the zombie film. Pair that with the fact that the humans in this are a motley group ranging from the noble to the power-mad and violent, and the zombies become more of set dressing to the post-apocalypse drama playing out within the base- Until the last act, of course. Romero holds back on the zombie carnage for a while, but when the time comes to open the floodgates, the man does NOT disappoint.
That said, some of his most effective bits of directing in this for me weren't actually the zombie related parts. Rather, I was surprised to find Romero managing to convey a great sense of horror in several of the nightmares that Sarah (Lori Cardille, in arguably the best of the female lead roles in the original trilogy) has throughout the film. While they follow the somewhat conventional 'you don't know it's a dream until the big reveal' rule, Romero still manages to slip that reveal in such a way that they still provide some good jolts. It's actually a rather nice touch from the man and shows he's adept with other types of horror as well.
Back to the story- I will say it's not without its downsides. While I was actually fine with the more bleak character-focus, I do have to admit parts of the narrative felt a little stretched for time. More problematic is the antagonists in this. While the main cast are, as the Dead films go, pretty well fleshed out - I don't mind saying this was the one group I was actually most hoping to see survive to the end -  the antagonist soldiers within the base feel like their villain role is laid on thick and heavy. Having one jerk in the base like Steel or Rickles (G. Howard Klar and Ralph Marreo respectively) is one thing, but it seems they all act that way - except for Joseph Pilato as Rhodes, who's an even bigger monster. Actually, I will concede from my earlier point, they are a LITTLE on the nose as far as a message here. The theme about communications and understand does at least get a bit better treatment on the other side care of the subplot involving one of the base's scientists (Richard Liberty) teaching zombies to coexist (with a good performance by Sherman Howard as one of his test subjects, conveying much of his regained emotion through body language and a few groans.)
It's also worth noting this film isn't entirely what Romero had originally envisioned - his script for this movie was a much bigger project to begin with, and many of the cuts made were the price he had to pay for being able to make the film unrated like he wanted to. While I will continue to wonder what could have been (I've read some of the original draft of the script, plan to finish) what we have still isn't bad. It's not without its occasional bumps and shortcomings, but it's still a suitably ambitious look at the dark final days of the Dead universe. least until Land of the Dead came out, anyway.

I'll admit it. If I could be sure I wouldn't get run down for doing so, I'd go out one Halloween and re-enact this scene.

10/24 - Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

This marks a first here for The Third Row - covering a remake and THEN doing the original. To be fair, the same will likely happen with The Thing in the future. That said, there's a reason that the Body Snatchers story has been consistently remade with each new generation - it's a genuinely creepy prospect. The idea that people you've known your whole life could somehow be replaced and only you would notice and the notion that you could somehow go to sleep and not wake up yourself are genuinely terrifying prospects that are also universal and timeless.

It DOES also help that it's the kind of idea that lends itself perfectly to any number of movements of the times: the 1970s version playing to the 'I'm OK, You're OK' self-help craze and this version, while not by conscious intent, owing strongly to the paranoia of McCarthyism running rampant through the country at the time (curiously, the film has been read as being about both McCarthy and the Communists. Director Don Siegel has denied either were by design, but it certainly is telling in any case.)

Regardless your take on it, this still remains a great take on the story. Some may find the horror takes a while to really get moving, much of the first act being more about re-establishing the ties between protagonist Dr. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) and his ex-girlfriend, Becky (Dana Wynter.) There are certainly hints of it, but it doesn't become a major plot point until roughly a half hour into the film. Fortunately, the time spent building up to it works - both in that it's well used to set up character ties for the rest of the movie, and for the fact that the nature of the titular invasion requires an insidious presence.
Once the movie begins to lay out the nature of the pods and how far into the community of Santa Mira their influence reaches, things start getting interesting. Given how they work, nothing is considered 'safe' anymore and all bets are off the table. By the time the last act rolls around, there's that grim sense of dread that nothing can stop them.

Which means this is as good a spot as any to discuss the movie's big weakness - studio interference. It's pretty well known that Siegel had to change the ending of this movie under protest, at the insistence of the studio heads. His desired spot to end the movie was the now famous scene of McCarthy trying in vain to warn people of the coming takeover, eventually yelling to us in the audience "YOU'RE NEXT!" The studios felt this was too bleak and, in a trick that would later be repeated with Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, had a new more upbeat ending tacked on (and intro in this case) as well as a voiceover narration outlining things. It doesn't completely destroy the movie, but watching it, one can't help but notice how the scenes and narrative really don't go with the rest of the film at all. You can even imagine them being removed and see the film flow much better as a result of that.

Luckily, that's really the only fault this film has going for it. Otherwise, it remains an effective, well-acted thriller that still manages to deliver some good jolts as it nears turning 60. Even the finale, despite knowing it's coming, maintains a sense of dread that is worth commending here.

It's really a shame the subsequent remakes haven't quite been able to live up to the first two versions.

"'They're coming to get me?' GOOD."

10/25 - Night of the Living Dead (remake)

And we're back on the remake front.

This is another I find myself split on as I look at it in its role as a remake. I do have to admit - there's a couple of things this version does that I actually like more than I did in the original. In particular, almost all of the characters seem to be improved here - especially Barbara, whose shellshock in the original renders her almost a non-entity, and is now a more active player. While her more proactive stance could be seen as a bit of a cliche in and of itself, Patricia Tallman plays it well here. Likewise, Tom (now played by William Butler) actually has something of a role and personality where he's mainly just sort of "there" in the first film. In the role of Ben, while I'm not sure I'd say Tony Todd surpasses Duane Jones, he does safely at least deliver on equal footing. About the only character who really suffers in this version is basement-favoring Harry Cooper (Tom Towles.) Granted, Harry's supposed to be somewhat unlikable by design, but here, the performance is laughably bad, with Harry's overacted anger making him lose it at even the slightest provocation. It's an oddly overemphatic performance in a film that otherwise handles its characters fairly well.

The tradeoff here, however, is that the story loses some of its edge. While Savini's revisit has a more fleshed out cast, and his zombie gore is, as expected, at the top of his game, his direction doesn't have quite the same memorable touch to it as Romero's original. A big part of why Romero's original has endured is his direction in the film that maintains a great sense of that grim atmosphere and suspense. Savini's direction isn't bad, but he never quite hits that same sense of dread, or some of those genuinely iconic moments that have so defined the original. To his credit, he does manage a few standouts in this as well, in particular with regards to the zombie hunting team at the end (some scenes of which are reportedly based on parts that Romero had initially planned for the original but decided to leave out for concerns they would be seen as too political.)

All in all, this is part of that rare, but not AS rare as the surpassing remake field - the remakes that actually aren't bad, but don't really outdo their source material either. If nothing else, it makes for an interesting companion piece to the original, and again, Savini carnage is always worth the watch.

I plan to use this image as incentive to get my future kids to not pick at injuries.
...once again, they may not be my kids for much longer afterward, but I will have no regrets.

10/26 - Videodrome

Cronenberg's back for another year, and he's bringing one of his most iconic movies with him. Even to this day, this feels like one of his most ambitious movies, and I think that's a big part of what's allowed it to age as well as it has, despite dealing in video technology that would be seen as ancient by today's standards. In terms of what it has to say and how it says it, there really isn't anything else quite like Videodrome out there.
Which is kind of a relief, really. Not because I dislike this movie, mind you. In fact, I was actually really pleased to be able to put this one into the draw this year, but it is a story that requires a very specific kind of director to do it justice, and, let's face it, there aren't many like Cronenberg out there.
That said, one of the interesting elements about this is, again, how well this has aged. Yes, all the old TV and video gear looks VERY out of date now (almost depressingly so for realizing when this was made,) but frankly, what the film has to say about the relationship people have with media, and how the projected image at times seems to surpass the 'flesh and blood' reality, has actually become even more relevant in the current age of technology. Even at just the basic level of Max Renn (James Woods) seeking to find the next big shocker and desiring Videodrome, a show that is essentially the utmost logical extension of torture-porn, this still feels relevant. That's before getting into the above-mentioned philosophical discussions and getting mixed up in the political agendas of two factions that each seek to exploit that extra element of media control. Couple all of this with some vividly nightmarish hallucination sequences, many of which STILL look phenomenal  even by today's standards - barring a few slips prosthetic issues, anyway. This is the kind of movie I feel like I'm not doing justice by keeping it to a short writeup...but at the same time, I think I burned up my good faith on allowing these to run too long after what I put you guys through by unloading on Red State, so I'll be trying to keep these quicker.
This certainly won't be a movie to everyone's tastes. Some may not care for the harsh depictions of sex and violence that Max's bread and butter. Others still will be turned away by the body-warping hallucinations and the waxing philosophical on the nature of flesh and the screen. At the same time, however, I would still push for everyone to at least give it a shot regardless. Cause even if you don't like it, I can safely promise you won't see many others of its kind unless you ride in some VERY particular circles.

"...he's right outside, isn't he?"

10/27 - The Innocents

This is a film I will admit to having a sentimental attachment to even before I get into it. This was among the first batch of movies used for study back at college when I was first getting into the idea of film study (it was a course on film & literature, and this was used as an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw.) Even outside of that, rewatching this I'm still impressed at how effectively this movie can suck one in. It's definitely not a 'mile a minute' scarefest, and heavily favors the art of the slow burn. Which is really one of its best strengths. The movie eases you in very slowly, and for much of the first half, the only clues you have that something may be suspicious are the rather creepy song sung in the beginning and Deborah Kerr's assurance "I only wanted to save the children. I didn't want to destroy them!" This clue, combined with the immersive atmosphere created by director Jack Clayton and cinematographer Freddie Francis helps keep you from asking "where's the horror" as the film builds up its mystery.
Then when they do start the wheels turning, the shift in tone is handled well, never missing a beat as the protagonist, governess Miss Giddens (Kerr) slowly finds herself being confronted with ghosts of her job's past. Ghosts that may be coming back to roost in the present in her two young charges (Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin, both graduates of the school of downright creepy child acting.) Probably one of the best tricks in this film's arsenal comes as it moves along and more clues are unearthed. In most haunting movies, the more you learn, the more certain you become that the haunting is real. In this case, the further the movie goes into exposition, the more it instead leaves you questioning Giddens's sanity. By the end, even having seen it before, I still find myself left with just as much evidence for the children being possessed as I am that it's all a delusion. It's that uncertainty that makes the film's climax so memorable, and adds to why so many praise this as one of the great ghost stories of film.

"OK...this wasn't as fun as I'd initially hoped."

10/28 - Vampyres

Let me just get this out of my system first - oh WOW. I'm still trying to remember which list I'd found this one on after watching it. Cause it's definitely one of the stranger titles I've encountered in the three years I've run this (and this is coming from me, mind you.)
That said, it's a rather curious film. I can't rightly say it's an amazingly memorable piece, but at the same time, I wouldn't call it one of the worst I've seen either. One of the more standout moments for this, I can sum up as saying: anyone who thinks the entire 'erotic vampire' concept is a fairly new idea clearly hasn't been too versed in horror for long. When I saw this film tagged with an 'X' rating, I just figured that was an exaggeration. Nope, this one definitely earns it with a fair amount of on-screen sex. Though, to be fair, it IS a vampire movie, so that tends to come with the territory.
Anyway, I have to admit this is actually an interesting take on the vampire concept. For one, this goes with the generally less explored idea of the woman as the vampire...well, more accurately women, and a bisexual couple at that, and instead, the man is the food. In particular, we focus on the case of Ted (Murray Brown, further adding to the interesting dynamic shift in his overall powerlessness in the plot,) a traveler picked up by the two vampiresses, and one of the few they haven't simply killed in feeding. Why he's kept alive is never made clear, but it serves well as a means for the audience to slowly unravel the mystery of Fran and Miriam (Marianne Morris and Anulka respectively) and what they truly are. There is also a secondary plot involving a couple (Sally Faulkner and Brian Deacon) who catch wind of something being up in the local mysterious abandoned castle (which, as fun facts go, was the same Richard O'Brian used for The Rocky Horror Picture Show.) Unfortunately, either they were meant to be in there as a red herring, or the writers just weren't sure what to do with them, since their plot never really goes anywhere, despite laying out some interesting potential clues that it could.
In all, this film is something of a give and take. It certainly has some interesting ideas behind it, and it plays into some of the lesser utilized tropes of the vampire mythology, but at the same time, it never quite hits high enough highs to make it a masterpiece of the genre.
Still certainly worth giving a watch if you're curious-and again I will stress, in true 70s fashion, they work in a fair amount of sex of several stripes, just so you know what you're in for.

Maybe it's just me, but having seen what's underneath...the mask is actually worse.

10/29 - The Orphanage

Like I'd said earlier this month - a big part of the draw to a good ghost story lies in the puzzle factor. Behind almost every good haunting, there's a mystery that needs to be unearthed, and in this film, that's no exception. In fact, part of what makes this one stand out even more is the fact is balances multiple mysteries at once, and links them together so one has to be solved to reach the other.
Though this is just part of the strength of Sergio G. Sánchez's script on this one. The other lies in the central focus on adoptive mother Laura (Belén Rueda, going all aces on her performance.) As the main person tapped to solve the mysteries at the center of this movie, in order to find her adopted son Simon (Roger Princep,) Laura has a lot of the movie riding on her. Fortunately, both Sanchez's writing and Rueda's acting are more than up to the challenge of carrying that.
On top of that, J.A. Bayona's direction makes for the third strong component in this film (which Sanchez had reportedly been trying to bring to the screen for years) about how the disappearance of one child opens the door on a secret that's been hidden for decades. It's actually quite commendable that, even with the larger revelations made, the film never loses sight of the fact Laura is first and foremost interested in getting her son back. It's the kind of thing that, in another film, could risk backfiring and prioritizing the past over the present. In this case, both are handled in fair balance and Laura's determination maintains its focus.
Outside of that, the story also still does well on the horror front. Bayona is a director with a good sense of building suspense, and gaining a couple of good jolts out of it. Even in scenes where there's nothing supernatural going on, he still manages a handful of good jump moments (one of which I want to mention, but won't since I don't want to spoil it.) Outside of the atmosphere, he also shows an adept hand at keeping the 'connecting the dots' element of finding clues at a good pace, leaving the viewer wanting to see the next step without feeling like the film is slacking off at any point.
Finally, and on top of all of this, there's the simple fact that this film is ultimately about familial ties, not necessarily by blood, but there all the same, and the strength they have under certain circumstances. Even before Simon's disappearance, we see enough of the family's life (Fernando Cayo rounds of the group as father Carlos, who makes the skeptic in this equation) to get a sense of the shared love between the family members. It's a little touch that goes a long way on selling this premise.
The result is an intriguing little mystery with some good suspense and a surprising amount of warmth. Which feels weird to say for a Halloween writeup, but then, this is after Vampyres, so stranger things have happened here.

Everyone has that one college memory like this. Anyone who says otherwise is repressing it.

10/30 - Kill Theory

I'll admit I've always been a bit biased when it comes to slasher films. It's one of those formulas that can be really good if done right, but there are so many ways one can get it wrong- so I get somewhat jaded with the whole formula. As such, it's nice to see a film that manages to skew the concept in a way I haven't seen done before.
Kill Theory is one of those cases of a film that, in a lot of ways, would be pretty average, but the concept helps elevate it. It doesn't make it into a masterpiece, but it does at least make it stand out.
The premise starts off giving you a sense of where things could be going by showing us the film's unnamed antagonist early on - a man who has been undergoing psychiatric treatment for the fact he killed several of his friends on a climbing expedition to save himself. "Anyone would do what I did," he asserts, despite the courts and court appointed doctor swearing that's just not true. So what does he do? Like any aspiring psychopath, he sets up a giant human project to test his theory - selecting a group of college-aged kids on the verge of graduating, he essentially traps them in the house with a simple choice: one of you leaves alive, or none leave alive.
It's an interesting inversion of the traditional psycho formula. While he will kill the kids if he has to, his entire plan ideally relies on driving them to kill each other and prove his point. As a result, his actual threat involvement is minimal, and instead he just lets them hash it out. Which adds an extra thread of interest, as it makes it harder to determine who will double-cross who (within reason, anyway. There's some members of the group you just KNOW will be self-serving killers when the time comes.)
I realize I'm placing a lot of emphasis on just the concept here, but it's not exaggeration to say it's the movie's best feature. This isn't to say the rest is bad, rather it's pretty standard in a lot of ways. The acting is passable, and there's a couple of decent shocks with the kills, but director Chris Moore mainly just does an Okay job on the movie. otherwise. It's the idea that really makes his OK work stand out as something more, and makes it worth giving this one a watch.
Plus, if nothing else, it stands to inspire some interesting ice breaker discussions afterward.


10/31 - Alien

And so we come to it. The big day...
And out of this year's spread, I couldn't have asked for a better film out of the assortment to get the 31st.
This is one of those rare films I liked the first time I saw it, and I find myself liking even more on subsequent viewings.
As for why...oh man, that would be impossible to go into everything and still keep this short.
This is one of those movies it feels weird to rightly classify as a singular type of horror, for one thing. Yes, it's a monster movie, but given the atmosphere of the ship, and the ways the Alien operates within it, this also has some overlap of sorts with the haunted house movie (albeit a house that's essentially impossible to leave) and the psycho killer story.
In fact, on the latter note, this is one of those things I like about the first Alien that never came back after Aliens came along. Watching how the creature operates in the first movie, it doesn't feel like an animal. At least, not like any animal we'd be familiar with. It methodically hunts the crew of the Nostromo one by one, learning the ship and using its surroundings to its advantage.
Which is part of what really makes it so ultimately scary as an enemy. Yes, there's the claws, fangs, and acid blood, and those are all disturbing as well, plus the fact it's a biology designed by the brilliant H.R. Giger, and those are all parts of it. But the truly disturbing element is never being entirely sure of its mentality beyond its will to survive. The aliens in the sequels are still disturbing, but that is largely born out of their sheer numbers. Much of their mindset is definitely more of a hive-driven mentality. In the first, we have no such point of logic. This creature simply is. It can't be reasoned with, its logic makes it hard to outsmart, and it has been learning the layout of your ship as well as you know it. It is almost the perfect threat.
It's appropriate that it takes an act of desperation to truly stop this thing as it outwits every other tactic they can throw at it.
No, I don't mind invoking the line here: in many ways, I do admire its purity.
Of course, this isn't to say the Alien itself is the only thing in this movie worth praising. The victims are all well-portrayed as well, with director Ridley Scott gathering a great cast including the likes of Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, and Ian Holm together to try and survive this perfect killer from space. Alongside Weaver (whose work as Ripley had so defined the character that she remains as much an iconic part of the franchise as the titular creatures themselves), the other standout I find myself being impressed with on this watch is Holm as the ship's new science officer, the mysterious Ash. Everything about the way Holm plays the role shows a very controlled personality that fits perfectly with the secrets he winds up revealing as the movie goes on. It's one of those things that, the first time seeing the movie, one would not think to look for, but knowing it's there, it's a very nice touch to see maintained.
Further adding to the film is the direction by Ridley Scott and the script by Dan O'Bannon. The two have created a tight, tense story involving a small cast and a big ship (that looks both lived in and incredibly foreboding thanks to set design by Michael Seymour and Ian Whittaker.) Despite the giant hallways, they still maintain a distinct sense of claustrophobia as the crew are hunted, and the mysterious nature of their enemy is revealed. Probably one of the strongest demonstrations of this coming during the sequence when Skerritt's Captain Dallas goes into the ship's air ducts to flush the creature out. We see most of the sequence played out on a radar screen, but thanks to the editing and seeing the cast responding, the tension is palpable, and the big reveal is still a shocker to this day.
With this rewatch once again confirming it, I will again say for the record - this remains one of my favorite horror films. A genuinely creepy tale of a small group in the cold isolation of space who find out in the worst way possible that they're not alone. It's a right mix of elements that three sequels, two semi-sequels, and a sort of alternate universe prequel have never been able to recapture sense and I love every minute of it.

Whew...that was...that was a sprint.

Keep an eye out tomorrow. We've got another project lined up for next month.

Yeah, yeah, keep groaning.

In the meantime, a Happy Halloween to all, and to all CANDY TIME!

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