Monday, October 27, 2014

Halloween Week 4: Bloodline

I'm going to need to find another naming convention for the future.
At this rate, I'm bound to run out of horror series that got up to five movies with subtitles attached.

But that's a concern for another day.

Again, I realize this year took a bit of a hit thanks to a mix of balancing other writing obligations and life's calling. Fortunately, the universe works on balance and this weekend gave me a GREAT chance to play catch-up in that regard.

With last week somewhat lagging, I got the opportunity to fill in several titles care of the good folk at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline (who may be invoked here for a future article). This year I decided to check out their all night Halloween horror movie marathon. Twelve hours, seven films (officially it's six, but this year had extra time so we got a bonus screening at the end.)

For the record,  not all of these are films they ran. Part of it was from films I had borrowed and already watched for this week going in, and part was also because one of the films featured this year I've already covered.

But, five of these seven were tag-ins, so big thanks to the folk at Coolidge.

"Suddenly very glad I just put these controls into the eerie green passage. Even before getting there, I'd have a hard time telling the others about the service entrance in the Hall of Face Ripping."

10/18 - Event Horizon

I'll just say this outright -I probably shouldn't enjoy this movie, but I do.
It's got problems: the crew nicknames are cutesy enough that they annoy rather than endear, clunky dialogue, and some of the CGI has NOT aged well. At the same time, it's not really an awful movie. In fact, it's actually a pretty fun ninety minutes. Even with the fact the sci-fi setting really is mostly just window dressing to make a very stylized haunted house movie, I don't find myself minding it.
As far as horror goes, it does deliver a couple of particularly memorable moments, and an atmosphere that's arguably one of the movie's best strengths. The shocks are delivered fairly well on top of that - in particular the infamous log tape documenting what happened to the original crew, which provides a brief but iconic bit of graphic horror.
Upon researching the film, I was actually kind of surprised to realize it was considered a flop when it came out. I mean, a lot of people I've known speak well of it, so it seemed odd to hear it fumbled that hard. It's not a masterpiece, but for what it wants to be, it's still a pretty damn fun spookhouse ride.

Pictured: My suggested alternative for how to resolve custody battles.

10/19 - Aliens

This is a film I'm of two minds on.
I'll just get the grievance part out of the way now, since it's a bit more of a meta grievance. There's a lot of back and forth over which of the first two Alien movies is better. I used to vote Aliens, but the more I look at it, the harder it is for me to compare them. The original Alien is a creepy, atmospheric thriller that banks a lot on suspense and fleeting glimpses of its monster. Aliens, meanwhile, is more of an action film with some horror elements to it. It's a different film, and arguably a bit more of a crowd pleaser, but that's a point I'll come back to shortly. In terms of horror, I do have to give the game point to Alien. Aliens has some good creeper moments, but it never really fully captures that sense of dread from the first film. My other big grievance-and this is the more meta-is in regards to the long term impact on the brand than an issue with the film itself (hence why I'm getting it out of my system now before getting into the film). I don't dislike Aliens. I think it's a great movie on its own, even if it's a very different sequel. My issue is more with the fact that fans have taken that to be the face of the franchise - the point where the majority of the media throughout the 90s and even 2000s was labeled Aliens rather than Alien. What started as a monster that was like a slimy psycho killer in space became a teeming monster horde to be mowed down. Still a threat, but of a different sort.
...sorry, I have some strong feelings about that.
Issues aside, this is still an enjoyable movie. Again, the tone is quite different, but that doesn't detract from its merits. In some ways, I do have to concede that the tone shift was a bit inevitable in terms of escalation- eventually, acid blood or no, the question of shooting would have to be addressed. I think mostly I just find it odd that one individual alien shows more cunning and brutality than the drones we see in the later films. I'm not sure if any one has attempted to speculate if this is a result of the numbers (heightened survival instinct with fewer numbers) but it's a curious question I found myself pondering on this sequel.
Probably one of the biggest hurdles this movie has taken on its own that it handles is having to juggle a larger cast and setting. The first film had a small pool of characters and could keep all its focus on them. With Aliens, James Cameron had to recap from where things left off and then set up to get everyone back there. For the fact many characters don't really get chances to establish much in the way of personality, he and the cast (with particular shoutouts here to Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, and Jeanette Goldstein) still manage to make their roles memorable. In fact, probably some of the best writing in this movie actually goes to before the aliens are even in the story proper: the banter between the marines as they prepare for arrival all flows well and everyone has a good chemistry. Likewise, returning for another turn as Ripley, Sigourney Weaver manages to both revisit and reinvent the character, particularly with regard to her interactions with lone colony survivor Newt (Carrie Henn).
That, of course, is part of what helps keep viewers invested in the action as all Hell breaks loose. There's a few really memorable sequences here- if nothing else, the power loader duel at the end is still a classic, and they make the movie's over two hour running time fly by. There's not as much horror this time around, but there are still a few particularly grim sequences that pay off here, such as the reveal of the now iconic alien queen, and the first assault, as we hear marines being picked off while not seeing many of the enemies.
One of these days I may cave and just do a separate writeup/rundown of the series, but in the meantime, it is weird taking a step back at this entry and its legacy with regards to how it influenced the installments that came after. Just taken on its own though, it's still a film Cameron can be proud of - a tense action thriller with some great creature work by H.R. Giger.

Fraternity initiations back in the day were considerably more demanding and, to degrees, much less legal.

10/20 - Frankenstein

Multiple Universal Monsters classics in a year - good times!
I will admit that this is the first time I've seen this in ages. Showing it on the big screen is the kind of treatment it needs. Like King Kong, this is one of those movies that's become so embedded in the culture on the strength of a few moments. In this case it's largely the climactic windmill scene, the sequence with the Monster and the young girl (another one of those moments arguably just as remembered for its Young Frankenstein parody), and, of course, Colin Clive's iconic "It's alive! IT'S ALIVE!" Even beyond those famous moments, the movie has held up well. One of the things that I was surprised I'd forgotten on that 'image vs actual film' front was how much the image of Clive's Henry Frankenstein as the mad scientist has been played up in popular culture. It's still there to be certain, but the greater film also dials the madness back after the experiment itself. To the point where once he's proven what he can do, he becomes fairly level-headed again. Likewise, it's also strange realizing how much people tend to forget a lot of the second act to this movie. Granted, some of that's because it's not as memorable as the above mentioned scenes, but it is still fairly well done, even if the middle segment as Henry and his mentor Dr. Waldman try to cover up Fritz's death feels almost like a macabre pre-riff on the old sitcom gag of 'cover up this ridiculous thing so the fiancee doesn't find out.'
Of course, credit has to be given to the late Boris Karloff as the monster. Between the number of things he went through in terms of makeup and acting on this movie (and being a trooper for doing so) he still manages to do a lot with a little here, conveying a human element to the character under a lot of makeup and no dialogue. Really, there's a reason this role is considered one of the ones that made Karloff a household name. To this day, it's STILL a good performance.

Submitted: An illustration from my entry into the 'Worst Non-Pornographic Fan Fiction' contest, in which Jack Bauer and Bill S. Preston become vampires and join a gang.

I got third place!

10/21 - The Lost Boys

While we're traveling back through the ages, what say we pay a visit to a more recent time, but still one that may seem incredible to some younger readers out here - the year 1987, when Joel Schumacher directed a surprisingly entertaining movie. Entertaining on purpose, even!
This is another I hadn't seen in years before getting the chance to rewatch it this weekend. I was struck right off the bat by two main thoughts: the first was that the movie was screamingly 80s on so many levels- the cast, the aesthetics, the soundtrack, even some of the set design and direction. The other was that the movie is still a lot of fun to watch nowadays. Yeah, it's not a master class in acting or deeply involving writing, but it really wasn't trying to be. Instead it's part of the grand tradition of updating and riffing on the vampire mythos, and even though Schumacher changed it from what the writers initially had in mind (initially the cast were meant to be younger to play to the Peter Pan reference in the title), he still hit on a good take on the myth all the same. One element in particular that feels refreshing to this one nowadays is how this movie completely does away with the notion of romanticism in the vampire myth: in this case, the appeal being offered isn't a matter of beauty, and more about the freedom that David (a young Kiefer Sutherland in probably one of his most memorable roles to this day) and his followers can grant with their abilities. Meanwhile, the feeding in this version, like the same year's Near Dark is as far from the stylistic erotic aspects of feeding as you can get - these are savage acts of carnage, and while this movie only briefly shows them, they still do a decent job of capturing the shock value. It's not a completely original take, but it's one that's still done well and nice to look back on nowadays.
Of course, the human side of things is also pretty watchable, most notably in seeing the birth of the 80s 'Two Coreys' phase. As main character Michael (Jason Patric)'s little brother Sam, Corey Haim strikes a good middle ground between the two main storylines of the movie, acting as the human element between Michael's story and the somewhat more comedic teenage vampire-hunting Frog brothers (wherein we get Corey Feldman in one of his more memorable roles as well.)
This movie just works. It hits a good balance with the silliness while playing the silliness with just enough straight face to keep it from feeling too out there. As a bit more an all-audiences breed of horror, it's a fun ride to go on. Not exactly scary, but still just an enjoyable trip all on its own.

...the real horror comes when I realize this means my completionist side is now entering the sequels into the candidate pool for future years.

So begins typical Monday morning in the life of Bruce Campbell...

10/22 - Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn

Suffice it to say, this marathon started off with some strong picks.
Like Aliens, this is a film where I have a hard time comparing it to its predecessor simply for how different it winds up being in terms of tone and style. For as low budget and goofy as the first Evil Dead could be, it was a movie that you could tell was trying to take itself seriously. That was undercut by its low budget and amateur acting and production values wasn't really planned for. It's just what happens. And to Raimi's credit, some parts of that first movie do still work pretty well despite that.
Anyway, Evil Dead II marked the transition of the brand into the style people are now more familiar with - their now signature splatter slapstick. On the one hand, this makes me feel a bit disingenuous to judge its earnest predecessor against it. On the other, it works here. It works VERY well here.
There are two things that really help this one work. The first is Raimi's sense of humor goes a long way in making this tone shift work. Even before we learned of the phrase 'fake Shemp' anyone could tell Raimi as a Stooges fan just for some the physical humor he pulls off in his films.
Which also brings us to Bruce Campbell in this. Bruce wasn't bad in the first movie, but he really finds a solid niche playing up the luckless Ash Williams as a comedic punching bag this time around. It's one part that he can take the hits, but it's also a much bigger part that he knows how to play the responses - he can serious up when a scene calls for it, but when he's doing a moment like, say, having his own possessed hand beat the everloving Hell out of him, he works the scene for all it's worth. To that end, arguably some of the strongest parts of this particular installment are just within the first half hour or so when it's Ash left to his devices inside the evil cabin. Between his dead girlfriend, his possessed hand, and just the various disembodied voices, he has a lot to play off here for comedy, and he's living it up.
Again, this isn't a movie you go to for terror, but if you're just looking for something this Halloween to unwind and enjoy with, there's a reason this is still a favorite for a lot of people.

This was around the point when Wes Craven realized his original backstory for Freddy Krueger really didn't make sense with his injuries or geography, and so he wrote in the boiler room.

10/23 - Eaten Alive

Two words sum up my thoughts on this movie: What happened?
Not what happened in the movie. That I can see. No, what I'm asking is what happened to director Tobe Hooper on this one. I mean, the man goes from making The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a movie that worked in large part because it kept it simple and tightly paced, and he follows it up with this mess of a movie.
To his credit, it does have a few things in its favor. Like the earlier TCSM, the movie does have a pretty good sense of atmosphere to it. Here, the feeling of a grim abattoir is instead traded for the grimy setting of a rundown hotel by a swamp, and you feel it. The lead role by Neville Brand as a murderous hotel owner with a hungry alligator as his partner in crime, is a pretty solid performance. There's even a decent sense of grand guignol to some parts of this (Mel Ferrer's fate comes to mind here), but that's about as much good will as I can extend this movie. The big problem of this movie is, where Hooper's last work had a small cast, straightforward narrative, and a tight pace, this movie is all over the place. It introduces several storylines that never really gel together, with the exception of Brand, most of the rest of the cast are fairly unremarkable here (including wasted turns by Marilyn Burns and Robert Englund), and the ending is anticlimactic as Hell. This was another where I decided to check some other reviews to see if maybe I was missing something in the appeal here, and I'm still not seeing it. I know some people have compared this to Italian horror pieces in that it's more in the art and the horror over the narrative. Which I could accept, but this film never really seems to excel on that front as well. In fact, with one or two kills excepted, a lot of the deaths in this are fairly repetitive (it's a man with a scythe and a gator, your options are admittedly limited, but come on, for some of these characters, it feels like you could go an extra mile). On top of that, this never really builds enough of a sense of investment for the proceedings to even get much of a sense of dread. It mostly just meanders through the bulk of its ninety minute run time, occasionally stopping as it remembers to feed the gator.
It's a shame. I feel like this could have been a good movie with some rewrites - a sort of Psycho on the bayou situation. Instead, it's a lot of wheel spinning with one or two good death scenes.
There's some speculation in some circles that Hooper was actually let go from the film partway into filming. I'm not sure how much truth there is to that (though the fact he's absent from the DVD's commentary track does raise eyebrows), but if that is the case, it may actually explain a lot about the weird aimless feel this movie gained.
Would also make me curious to see who they popped up in his place to make this mess.

If someone has more info here, feel free to let me know. In the meantime…again, what happened?

Pictured: The only surviving still from my rejected 'Discover the Magic of the Forest' TV spot.

10/24 - The Incredible Melting Man

Oh WOW. As the final official entry in the marathon, Coolidge picked a great movie to wrap things up with here.
Not because it's good - oh sweet Lord, this was laughably bad. But it was also a great light note to wrap things up with.
There's a certain sick meta humor to this movie - as the stories go, this was initially conceived of as a parody of horror films, with the title and premise being a pretty overt riff on 1950s B-grade horror. Then the higher-ups decided the movie would make more money as straight-up horror, the more humorous elements were cut, and so it was shot over a space of two weeks on a low budget.
The results of which, despite their best efforts, were hilarious.
This movie is just so wonderfully terrible that it becomes a parody despite itself. The wooden acting, the clunky dialogue (the highly repetitive nature of leads me to wonder if Sachs decided to leave the dialogue in parody mode and simply cut the more overtly comedic scenes at studio behest), scenes that are just left running to pad out for time and moments like the movie's ending - where a janitor finds the remains of the title monster and goes back and forth for the better part of a few minutes over whether to clean them or not- all add up to an accidentally brilliant homage to the most z-grade of old horror movies. That this film then got featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 just completes the cycle of its strange life.
To its credit, it DOES also feature a pretty good early makeup job by Rick Baker providing the titular melting, which I think is really the one concession this movie can still claim in terms of trying to take itself seriously.
So props to Rick at least. For the rest of the film...well, it was entertaining anyway. Just not for the reasons intended.

Seven more to go in time for this Friday. I'll say this now, it's actually a pretty good spread lined up for this one. So keep an eye out on the big day.

Till then.

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