Thursday, October 31, 2019

Ten Days of Terror!: Donnie Darko

Film: Donnie Darko
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

Everyone has a few movies that are on the list of films that they really should have seen but having. Years ago, former blogger and my ex-podcasting partner Nick Jobe spent a year watching movies that he figured he should have seen and spend another year with people recommending additional movies for him. Hell, I did the 1001 Movies list initially because there were so many that I hadn’t seen and I felt like a poser. But still, there are movies that slip through. There are tons I haven’t seen that I certainly should. Up until yesterday, Donnie Darko was on that list and was probably the most recommended film in my unseen list.

So, now I’ve seen it, and it was fine. It was almost certainly overhyped to me, and I fully understand why people like it a lot. It feels like one of those movies that needs to be watched at a certain age. It’s a movie that feels like it was made for white males in their mid-20s, with a character around whom the world might legitimately revolve around but who doesn’t care about his own potential importance. It feels like a cinematic version of nihilism, and while that’s interesting, it’s also bleak in a lot of ways, and thus difficult for me to fully get behind.

Ten Days of Terror!: Creepshow 2

Films: Creepshow 2
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on The New Portable.

I think there’s a reason that when you think of an anthology film, you almost always think of horror. Oh, sure, there are comedy anthologies out there, many of which are truly terrible, but horror seems to be the go-to for the filmed short story. Asked to name one, there are plenty of places you could go (Black Sabbath, XX, The ABCs of Death, etc.) but Creepshow is probably the immediate though of plenty of people. It’s certainly my first thought. It managed to present us with carnival spook show-style “scares” that are more fun than really scary. It’s fun and scary in the way a rollercoaster is fun and scary, so it was probably inevitable that there would be a Creepshow 2.

And here’s the thing: I could effectively review this movie by the end of this paragraph. If you’re familiar with Creepshow and like it, your thought about the sequel is almost certainly what mine was. You almost certainly hope that it manages to keep that same, goofy comic book feel where the scares are more fun than scary and the gore is more clearly latex than really gory. And while you hope that, you also almost certainly realize that it’s ultimately going to be a disappointment. The best story here will probably be better than the worst story from the original Creepshow, but there’s no way that it will match the highs of segments like “The Crate.” And…well…that’s pretty much all true.

Ten Days of Terror!: Razorback

Films: Razorback
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

When Spielberg made Jaws, he changed a great deal of things in the movie industry. The first thing he did was create the idea of the summer blockbuster. Whether that has been for good or ill I leave up to the individual. The other thing Spielberg did was create a series of Jaws knock-off films involving other elements of nature going berserk. These sorts of stories certainly existed before Spielberg. The ‘50s were rife with giant insect and creature films. But Jaws gave use a world where the reality didn’t need to be changed; it was just a really big shark. From that we got movies like Grizzly and Piranha, and we still get them in films like Anaconda and Lake Placid. Razorback, from the mid-‘80s, is an Australian Jaws that replaces the shark with several tons of aggravated and presumably delicious wild pre-bacon.

The film starts with our introduction to the creature. Kangaroo hunter Jake Cullen (Bill Kerr) is watching his grandson when his house is literally run through by the razorback in question. It runs off with the child, presumably to eat it. What follows is a trial where Jake is found not guilty because of a lack of evidence, but has his reputation and life destroyed. In no small part, this feels like the story of dingoes running off with a baby that led to A Cry in the Dark.

Ten Days of Terror!: Final Destination

Film: Final Destination
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on The New Portable.

I checked Final Destination out of the library multiple times before I pulled the trigger on watching it. I’m not sure what it was the kept me from wanting to watch it, but multiple times, it sat on my desk for a week before I took it back unviewed. This time it was only slightly different—I had it until it was due and finally watched it. As someone who watches horror films, there’s something incomplete in me at having not seen a film that produced four sequels. So, finally, I guess I just decided I was tired of bringing it home and doing nothing with it.

Chances are that you know the basic story behind the film. If you don’t it’s one of those movies that can be described in an elevator speech. As a group of high school students prepare for a field trip to Paris, one of them, Alex Browning (Devon Sawa) has a bizarre nightmare of the few minutes leading up to the take-off, a nightmare that ends with the plane exploding. When Alex wakes up, the events of his dream play out exactly. He panics and is dragged off the plane along with a few others. The plane takes off and explodes, which puts Alex in the position of being grilled by FBI agents Weine (Daniel Roebuck) and Schreck (Roger Guenveur Smith). The other survivors—students Tod Waggner (Chad Donella), Clear Rivers (Ali Larter), Carter Horton (Kerr Smith), Billy Hitchcock (Seann William Scott), and Terry Chaney (Amanda Detmer) as well as teacher Valerie Lewton (Kristen Cloke) are now dealing with survivor guilt…and a lot more.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Ten Days of Terror!: 30 Days of Night

Film: 30 Days of Night
Format: Starz via On Demand on big ol’ television.

Typically, I watch a movie and write up the review the same day or the next day. That’s true even in cases where I might wait months (or even longer) to actually post the review. In the case of 30 Days of Night, I have been waiting days to actually write this up. I’d seen this before, so I knew what to expect going in. What that means in this case is that I knew exactly where and how I’d be disappointed. I so desperately want to like this movie and I just can’t.

So here’s the deal: 30 Days of Night has a tremendously good premise and a great take on vampires and it screws the pooch by having the stupidest execution possible. The movie it reminds me of the most in this respect is Snowpiercer. So many people love Snowpiercer, but when I look at it, I can’t get behind just how dumb the execution actually is. It’s a film where the premise makes so little sense that it actually makes me mad. 30 Days of Night has a great premise, but how this is actually revealed in the film is so head-bashingly dumb that I just get frustrated and lose focus. Because of that, I haven’t wanted to write about it.

Ten Days of Terror!: Freddy vs. Jason

Film: Freddy vs. Jason
Format: DVD from Bertolet Memorial Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

I suppose on some level Freddy vs. Jason was inevitable. We live in a world that gave us Alien vs. Predator and Dollman vs. Demonic Toys, so pitting two of the more popular supernatural killers against each other. Evidently, something like this was in the works for ages and wasn’t viable until New Line attained the rights to the Friday the 13th franchise. It is also alleged that the original treatment was to include Bruce Campbell’s Ash from the Evil Dead movies, but the rights couldn’t be acquired.

The conceit here is that Freddy Kruger is more or less forgotten on his old Elm Street haunts. The parents know about him, certainly, but the kids who are his victims no longer know or fear him. Since Freddy kills essentially through fear by infecting their dreams, there is no way for him to kill anymore. His plan, therefore, is to resurrect Jason Voorhees to instill the fear back into the Elm Street teens, which will then give him enough mojo to restart his own killing spree. I agree that this doesn’t make a great deal of sense. You kind of have to go with it.

Ten Days of Terror: Jeepers Creepers; Jeepers Creepers 2

Film: Jeepers Creepers; Jeepers Creepers 2
Format: DVD from Wilmington Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

I go to strange places sometimes for this blog. There are times when I go places I really don’t want to. I mean, I did watch Salo, after all. With the They Shoot Zombies lists, there are some places I almost certainly won’t go; there are movies here that I desperately do not want to see. There are a number of reasons for that. In the case of Jeepers Creepers and its sequel, my reticence had nothing to do with the movie or its plot. It had everything to do with its director, Victor Salva.

The Me Too Movement has changed a lot of things and a lot of how we look at movies. Acclaimed actors and directors have had their careers ruined because of their past actions. Victor Salva is someone whose career legitimately could and should have been ended on these grounds. After his first film, Salva was accused and convicted of molesting one of the stars of his film. He served a year in prison for it. His first film afterward, Powder, could be seen as something like an attempt to explain or even excuse his behavior. So, with the Jeepers Creepers movies, I’m in the position of watching something made by a guy who admittedly molested a 12-year-old. Has he paid his debt to society? Does he get forgiven or even a second chance? I don’t know.

Ten Days of Terror!: Bubba Ho-Tep

Film: Bubba Ho-Tep
Format: DVD from personal collection on The New Portable.

I’m not sure what coherent can be said about the films of Don Coscarelli except that they are consistently bizarre in the extreme. Bubba Ho-Tep, a film that features Elvis Presley playing the part of an Elvis impersonator with penile cancer, JFK as a black man with sand replacing part of his brain, and a cowboy boot-wearing mummy, certainly fits his oeuvre. This is the guy who made the Phantasm series, Beastmaster, and John Dies at the End after all, so Elvis in an East Texas nursing home is par for the course.

And yes, this is exactly where we are going here. Sebastian Haff (Bruce Campbell) is actually Elvis Presley, and he lives in an East Texas nursing home more or less waiting for death to overcome him. He reveals eventually how the King of Rock and Roll came to this sorry state. Desperate to get out of the life that fame has created for him, Elvis tracked down a successful impersonator named Sebastian Haff. The two sign an agreement. Haff becomes Elvis and Elvis becomes Haff, an arrangement that Elvis can switch back whenever he wants. Sadly for him, he loses his copy of the contract in a trailer explosion, and then Haff-as-Elvis dies. The real Elvis, still performing as Haff, falls off stage during a concert and breaks his hip, and he winds up in a coma, which eventually puts him in the Shady Rest Retirement Home.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Ten Days of Terror!: The Frighteners

Film: The Frighteners
Format: DVD from personal collection on The New Portable.

Evidently, I love horror comedies, because I appear to have a lot of them in my personal collection. Of them, The Frighteners is one of my favorites. It does just about everything right. Additionally, aside from a making-of documentary, The Frighteners stands in the unique position of being the movie that Peter Jackson made immediately before he made the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sure, there’s a world of difference here, but there are a few spots of similarity, even if the effects aren’t that great in places.

The Frighteners starts with the premise that ghosts are real and can be seen by people who have had a traumatic experience. In this case, our ghost seer is Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox), a former architect who now runs a paranormal investigation company. This company consists really of just himself essentially scamming the people in his area. However, Frank really can see ghosts. His scam requires the assistance of actual ghosts who invade people’s houses, cause some paranormal activity, and, when Frank is called in, disappear so that Frank can “clean” the house. Frank’s first assistant is known as The Judge (John Astin), but the two handling most of the work as the film beings are Cyrus (Chi McBride) and Stu (Jim Fyfe).

Ten Days of Terror!: Housebound

Film: Housebound
Format: DVD from personal collection on The New Portable.

I’ve been on a bit of a horror/comedy kick lately, which is odd in a way. There are a number or horror comedies that I like, but I think it’s not an easy genre mix to do well. More often than not, a lot of these movies still want to keep a foot in the horror genre, which means the comedy doesn’t really come through. Housebound is one that I remember liking the first time I saw it. On a rewatch, I liked it more. It has a great mix of horror and comedy, and a big part of this comes from the fact that it doesn’t sell the horror short at all.

Kylie Bucknell (Morgana O’Reilly) is, in the parlance, troubled. As the film opens, she and an accomplice attempt to rob an ATM, but the accomplice knocks himself unconscious. In attempting to get away with the money and he friend, Kylie ends up caught. Because of her history, she is sentenced to eight months of house arrest under the eye of her mother Miriam (Rima Te Wiata) and her step-father Graeme (Ross Harper). Kylie isn’t too pleased with this arrangement. She has a great deal of resentment stored up for her mother and nothing really to say about Graeme other than that they have nothing really in common.

Ten Days of Terror!: The Cottage

Film: The Cottage
Format: DVD from East Moline Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

Horror comedies are hard to do well. Most of them spend far too much time on the comedy and not nearly enough time on the horror. In fact, there are a lot of them that more or less forget that they half of their name is “horror” and end up providing horror moments that are neither very scary nor very funny. The Cottage attempts to do something different in this respect. It follows a path a lot more similar to a movie like The Frighteners in which the first half is essentially a comedy film, with the second half being a slasher.

The Cottage starts as a crime movie. Brothers David (Andy Serkis) and Peter (Reece Shearsmith) have kidnapped Tracey (Jennifer Ellison), the step-daughter of a crime boss. They have gone out to the middle of nowhere to make their ransom demand. We discover eventually that David is familiar with the criminal underworld while Peter is not. The ransom will be split by David and Andrew (Steve O’Donnell), Tracey’s stepbrother. Rather than money, Peter will get the undisputed claim to his and David’s late mother’s house.

Ten Days of Terror!: The Snowtown Murders

Film: Snowtown (The Snowtown Murders)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on The New Portable.

Horror movies come in any number of varieties. One of the clearest distinctions is between movies that are based in the supernatural and those that are based more in reality. A movie like The Silence of the Lambs is clearly horror and purely within the realm of possibility, which makes it that much more terrifying for me. Contrast that with, say, A Nightmare on Elm Street, which is terrifying in the moment, but then stops affecting me the moment the movie is over. Snowtown, also known as The Snowtown Murders is very much a film of the first variety. In fact, this is based on a real case of the most notorious serial killer in Australia and the young man who he influenced.

That summary really is what Snowtown is about; the rest is really just the details. Those details focus on Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway), a young man who lives in poverty with his family in a poor suburb of Adelaide, Australia. His mother (Louise Harris) does the best she can, which honestly isn’t that great for her kids. Need evidence of this? At one point, Jamie is raped by his older brother Troy (Anthony Groves) and her boyfriend takes indecent pictures of all three of her sons. A gay, cross-dressing neighbor named Barry (Richard Green) introduces her to John Bunting (Daniel Henshall).

Monday, October 28, 2019

Ten Days of Terror!: Midsommar

Film: Midsommar
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on rockin' flatscreen.

On my recent visit to Rockford, I stopped by one of the branches of the library to see what they had and was pleasantly surprised to find a copy of Midsommar. I’d heard about the film, of course, both good and bad, and assumed that, since it was mostly good, that it will appear on the next iteration of the They Shoot Zombies list. Nothing like knocking something out ahead of time, right?

Anyway, Midsommar stars a bunch of people I don’t know and Florence Pugh, who I like quite a bit. The box art (and the best-known poster) features Pugh wearing a floral crown and crying. Based on that, I figured we were going to be looking at something along the lines of The Wicker Man, and there are certainly some real similarities here. Midsommar is ethnographic horror in the same way as The Wicker Man, or films like The Green Inferno or even Cannibal Holocaust. What we’re getting is the horror of a culture, and specifically the horror that stems from the beliefs of that culture.

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1943

The Contenders:

Joan Fontaine: The Constant Nymph
Ingrid Bergman: For Whom the Bell Tolls
Greer Garson: Madame Curie
Jean Arthur: The More the Merrier
Jennifer Jones: The Song of Bernadette (winner)

Ten Days of Terror!: Damien: Omen II

Film: Damien: Omen II
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

One of the more interesting aspects of certain horror movie franchises is when there are respected actors involved. When The Omen was made, the married couple in charge of the Antichrist Damien were played by Gregory Peck and Lee Remick and features actors like David Warner. The sequel has a cast list that I still can’t quite get my head around. And it’s for a sequel that happened two years after the first movie, but takes place seven years later. I’m completely staggered by this. There are multiple Oscar winners and nominees in this and I can’t figure out why.

Damien: Omen II temporarily picks up immediately after the conclusion of the first movie. Archaeologist Carl Bugenhagen (an uncredited Leo McKern) has learned of the survival of Damien Thorn (played eventually in this film by Jonathan Scott-Taylor) and has become convinced of his identity as the Antichrist. The main reason for this is the existence of Yigael’s Wall, a mural allegedly drawn by an insane monk who had visions of the Antichrist at various points in his life, including as a child. Bugenhagen shows his friend Michael Morgan (an also-uncredited Ian Hendry) the wall, but such is the power of the Satanic forces at work that the tunnel they are in collapses and kills them both.

Ten Days of Terror!: Darkness

Film: Darkness
Format: DVD from River Valley District Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

One of the joys of watching horror movies from the past is that you can sometimes see someone at the start of his or her career. Think Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street, for instance, or perhaps Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th. It’s a lot more fun when it’s someone who ends up with a great career but appeared in some terrible early horror films—Mila Kunis in American Psycho II, for instance. So when an odd little horror movie has an established cast, I find it fascinating. Darkness, a relatively unknown film from 2002 has a surprising cast, and these are not unknowns. Featured in this film are Anna Paquin, who had won an Oscar a decade previous; Lena Olin, Oscar nominated in the previous decade; and Giancarlo Giannini, nominated back in 1975. An Oscar winner and two nominees in an unknown, amateurish horror film. That’s pretty exceptional.

It took me longer to get this film than I would have liked. I ordered it through interlibrary loan and was sent the wrong film. Instead of Darkness from 2002, I was sent The Darkness from 2016. Oh, those wacky librarians!

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Ten Days of Terror!: The Fury

Film: The Fury
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on The New Portable.

In 1976, the release of Carrie based on Stephen King’s novel probably started what would become a series of horror/science fiction movies about or involving psychics. Dreamscape, Firestarter, The Shining, Scanners…all of these were variations on a theme. Many of these centered on government plots to produce or strengthen psychics through one means or another. While Carrie might have been the first killer psychic movie, it was The Fury that gave us a governmental twist on the proceedings. It’s not a coincidence that Brian De Palma directed both Carrie and The Fury.

Because The Fury was directed by Brian De Palma, we’re going to get the joy of a bizarre thriller with the sort of cast list that someone like De Palma could arrange in his prime. This means Kirk Douglas, John Cassavetes, Charles Durning, and Carrie Snodgress. It also means that we’re going to get Amy Irving, etched forever into public consciousness as the girl who goes to Carrie’s grave at the end of Carrie.

Ten Days of Terror!: 1408

Film: 1408
Format: DVD from personal collection on The New Portable.

Once upon a time when I podcasted regularly, I watched 1408 because Nick Jobe picked it for me to watch. I remember liking it; I can’t remember if I picked up a copy on the cheap because I had to watch it or because I had just watched it, but nonetheless, I do own a copy. But there’s a reason that I rewatch films I’ve seen before to review them. I completely forgot that, like virtually every movie in history, 1408 has no idea how to really write a skeptic character. Honestly, the makers of Scooby-Doo got it right and no one else understands that skepticism and cynicism are not the same thing and that it’s possible to be a skeptic without suffering some major loss in the past.

For what it’s worth, that does genuinely damage my opinion of the movie. As someone who considers himself a skeptic and who does not consider himself a cynic, it bothers the hell out of me. It is the philosophical equivalent of racial profiling, something especially true since the skeptic label is paired with atheists more than with anyone else. What this means is that 1408 is yet another film where our central atheist has become a non-believer not because of rationality or philosophical inquiry but because he or she (he in this case) got mad at God, and specifically the Christian god. Look, the philosophical position isn’t hard. Get it right.

Ten Days of Terror!: Needful Things

Film: Needful Things
Format: DVD from Cortland Community Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

Say what you will about Stephen King, but he’s certainly varied in the sorts of horrors that he concocts. There was a time when I read a great deal of Stephen King. In fact, there were a good many years when one of my sisters, one of my brothers, and I traded King’s books among ourselves. And, naturally, a lot of those books were turned into movies. Needful Things is an odd one both in terms of the story and the movie. This is a film with a surprising cast, for instance. It’s also perhaps King’s most aggressively mean-spirited story.

I don’t mean that as a positive or negative judgment; I mean that as a simple fact. There are plenty of King’s books that involve terrible violence, pain, bloodshed, and even torture. The hobbling scene from Misery is one of the few movie scenes I’ve never been able to watch a second time. And yet Needful Things is spiteful and belligerent. There are plenty of movies that go for the audience’s jugular by killing off a friendly family pet, for instance. In Needful Things, we’re not going to get a family pet killed. We’re going to get a family pet killed and then skinned. And all of this is going to be done by average people, not by monsters.

Ten Days of Terror!: It Came from Outer Space

Film: It Came from Outer Space
Format: Turner Classic Movies on big ol’ television.

There’s a particular vibe when it comes to 1950s science fiction, specifically when it comes to alien invasion movies. While there are some rare exceptions, the vast majority of alien invasion films are going to feature aliens dead set on attacking, destroying, or enslaving the human race. I mean, I get it. On a visceral level, Independence Day is more interesting than E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Movies where the aliens aren’t evil are really rare. Movies where the aliens are neither evil nor good are vanishingly scares, but that’s what is on offer from It Came from Outer Space.

So, there’s a lot to cover here. We can start with the fact that It Came from Outer Space is based on a Ray Bradbury story, and that’s going to boost it a lot in my estimation. I’ve been a fan, perhaps even a fanboy, of Bradbury for a touch more than four decades. One of Bradbury’s many gifts was having a unique ear for dialogue. No one in the world really speaks like a Bradbury character, but the poetry of those lines is something really special. About half an hour into the movie, our hero, writer and amateur astronomer John Putnam (Richard Carlson) questions Frank Daylon (Joe Sawyer), a telephone lineman, about anything he might have seen. How Frank responds, talking about 15 years of working in the desert and the wind getting into the wires and talking is goddam beautiful even if no telephone lineman ever talked like that in the history of things.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Ten Days of Terror!: Detention

Film: Detention
Format: DVD from Peotone Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

I go into every movie hoping that I’ll like it. I think that’s only natural. I’m not someone who revels in bad film or who celebrates movies that are “so bad, they’re good.” I mean, I’m not immune to the charms of such a film, but I don’t tend to seek them out. With Detention, we’ve got a film that I classify as “so bad it’s not even good.” Words defy how much I hate this movie, but for the next 800-1000 words, I’m sure as hell going to try.

Detention bills itself as a horror/comedy. There are two problems with that: it’s not scary and it’s not funny. And it starts pretty promising. The problem here, and I’m not going to pull punches on this, is that Detention has ADHD. This is a movie that is all the hell over the place. Detention desperately wants to be Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and for as much as I disliked that movie, Detention can’t carry its book bag.

Ten Days of Terror!: Copycat

Film: Copycat
Format: DVD from personal collection on The New Portable.

Pardon me for a minute while I gush. I’m not going to say that Copycat is an underrated movie. That word implies that I’ve found a particular value in a film that other people have not; it can be seen as an attempt to give myself a cache that I don’t have and didn’t earn. Instead, I’m going to say that Copycat is underknown and underappreciated. It’s a movie that I wish more people knew about. While it might be presumptuous to suggest that it belongs in the same sentence as The Silence of the Lambs, it’s not at all out of bounds to say that it belongs in the same paragraph.

In reality, Copycat probably isn’t quite as good as I think it is, but it’s got a couple of aspects that I find recommend it tremendously. The first is that it has a great cast, particularly Sigourney Weaver and Holly Hunter in roles that rank among my favorites for their careers. It also features Harry Connick Jr. as a serial killer, which turns out to be inspired casting. The other thing connects to the first; these are great characters. It would be easy to create these characters as one- or two-dimensional for the sort of “catch the serial killer” movie this is. Instead, we get characters that have real dimension and depth and history. I love that about Copycat and it makes the film so much better in my opinion.

Ten Days of Terror!: Hellbound: Hellraiser II

Film: Hellbound: Hellraiser II
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on the new internet machine.

If memory serves, I saw Hellbound: Hellraiser II (which I’m going to call Hellraiser II from this point forward) before I saw Hellraiser. This wasn’t by design. I think I walked into my living room when a college roommate had just started watching this first sequel (there are 10 total Hellraiser movies with the tenth released in 2018! Who knew?) and I sat down and watched it, too. It’s plenty gory, far more extreme in that respect than the original film. And because it doesn’t have to do a great deal of world building, it gives us a lot more of what we’re hoping for in a film from this series.

Hellraiser II picks up pretty much immediately after the conclusion of the first film, although we do get a little prequel of British military officer Elliott Spencer (Doug Bradley) opening the Lament Configuration and becoming the Cenobite Pinhead. From there, we jump back to the film’s present with survivor Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) in a mental institution because of her wild stories of the dead returning, skinless humans, and monsters from another dimension. Her boyfriend from the first movie will not appear in this sequel—somehow he’s managed to escape dealing with puzzle boxes and Cenobites.

Ten Days of Terror!: Dressed to Kill

Film: Dressed to Kill
Format: DVD from Peotone Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

I’ve never seen Dressed to Kill before now and yet I have distinct memories of it. Primarily, I remember that my sister loved it. She was at the age to go to the theater just about every weekend and had the desire to see anything vaguely horror related. She loved this movie, and now having seen it, I get why she was there when she was about 20. Of course, I’d need to put myself in 1980 mindset to get there, and that’s a little harder to do; Dressed to Kill hasn’t aged very well.

The truth about Dressed to Kill is the truth about Brian De Palma in general. De Palma spent a great deal of his time picking the bones of Alfred Hitchcock for any scraps of meat that he could find. When he was at his best, he found more than just scraps and was able to do quite a bit working in Hitchcock’s milieu. In the case of Dressed to Kill, the bones he’s picking in earnest are those of Psycho. Hell, there’s even a shower scene.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Ten Days of Terror!: Arachnophobia

Films: Arachnophobia
Format: DVD from Geneseo Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

I remember when Arachnophobia came out because I remember hearing about how people liked it and I remember specifically not going to see it. This is not because I was not yet a horror movie fan. By 1990, I was very much a horror fan. It wasn’t because my girlfriend at the time (now wife) wouldn’t go with me because she is not a horror movie fan. No, it’s entirely because I was and am freaked out by spiders.

Before I get into a full look at Arachnophobia, I feel like I should more fully explain my own fear of arachnids. Before you, faithful reader, get on your high horse telling me about how useful spiders are and how important they are to an ecosystem, and even how many harmful insects they eat, I get it. I really do. I’m in full agreement. If there’s one in my house, I try not to kill it and get it outside instead. I understand their importance. They just freak me the hell out. I know intellectually that they are important and useful and beneficial. And they still make my sphincters clench.

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1930-1931

The Contenders:

Richard Dix: Cimarron
Lionel Barrymore: A Free Soul (winner)
Adolphe Menjou: The Front Page
Fredric March: The Royal Family of Broadway
Jackie Cooper: Skippy

Ten Days of Terror!: Curtains

Film: Curtains
Format: Streaming video from Amazon Prime on the new internet machine.

There are specific rules for slasher movies, or at least specific things that we expect from them as members of the audience. One of them is that we expect there to be actual slasher deaths within the context of the film. In this respect, Curtains has some real issues with calling itself a slasher. This is probably the most bloodless “slasher” movie I’ve ever seen. I mean I’ve taken a stance against gore for the sake of gore plenty of times in the past, but this is ridiculous.

It starts out well, too. We’re given a director named Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon) and his frequent muse Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar). Stryker has long wanted to make a movie called Audra, and has finally come to the point where he’s going to make it. To prep Samantha for the role, he has her committed to an insane asylum, a move with which she agrees. What she doesn’t agree with is the fact that Stryker decides to leave her there, because he wants to take his movie in another direction. Don’t worry; she’ll be playing a part in all of what is to come.

Ten Days of Terror!: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Films: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Format: DVD from LaSalle Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

Everyone has holes in his or her viewing history. A lot of those holes will never be filled, of course. There are just too damn many movies for anyone to see them all. That being said, there are some viewing holes that are more embarrassing than others for any number of reasons. For me, one of the big holes I had until now was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Chalk it up to timing. My wife doesn’t like anything that smacks even a little of horror and in 1992, we were recently married. That’s going to make it tough for me to see it.

Anyway, Buffy is far more well known as a television show than it was as a movie, even if the movie came first. Still, it’s pretty well beloved, so I felt like I was missing something by not having seen it. After all, it’s alleged that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is everything you want in a horror comedy, right? It gives us an ass kicking female protagonist who is substantially different from the stereotype. In this case, our undead slayer is a bubble-headed cheerleader (at least initially). That’s the sell here—rather than a classic warrior against the undead, we get the leader of the cheer team.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Ten Days of Terror!: The Raven (1963)

Films: The Raven (1963)
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on The New Portable.

I said not that long ago that horror comedies aren’t that difficult, or at least don’t have to be. There are more or less two basic ways to do it. The first and most impressive way is the make the film equal parts horror and comedy. Plenty of movies have done this and done it successfully. The other way to do this is to make no real pretense about the horror part of the film and instead create a comedy that dances on the edge of horror—something that implies horror without actually being horror or anything like it. The Raven from 1963 follows this second path. It wants its audience to believe that it has something to do with the well-known poem by Poe, but in truth, aside from a few hints at the start and an overt mention at the end, they’ve almost nothing in common.

Not content to stick with something contemporary with Poe, we’re going to jump far into the past, into something like the 15th or 16th century. Dr. Erasmus Craven (Vincent Price) sits in his study when he is visited by a raven, eventually letting the bird into his house. It turns out that this raven is actually a person named Dr. Bedlo (Peter Lorre), who has been turned into a raven by a magical rival. Bedlo is convinced that Craven is also a practitioner of magic and should have the ingredients on hand. Craven denies this, but then claims that his father was a wizard and would have such ingredients like dead man’s hair and evaporated bats blood. Two concoctions later (the first one brought back Dr. Bedlo but left him with raven wings), and our two magicians have decided that they must pay a call on the man who transformed Bedlo.

Ten Days of Terror!: Dracula (1979)

Films: Dracula (1979)
Format: DVD from Moline Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula is almost certainly one of the most adapted stories on film, not unlike Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This is not even including stories that are more or less the same thing as Dracula (or Hamlet) under different names. Of all of the various Draculas that exist, the 1979 version, titled simply Dracula as many of them are, is probably the first filmed version I ever saw. I would have been 11 going on 12 when it was released, and I’m also pretty sure that I’d seen the stage play before this time (or potentially around this time—this is decades ago, so the time is a bit hazy). Certainly I knew the story going into this.

What this means, like it or not, is that at some level, this version of Dracula is formative for me. It reminded me a great deal of the staged version that I saw in Chicago, which further cemented the idea that this is what Count Dracula should be and look like. Looking at his IMDb page now, I’m a bit gobsmacked that Langella didn’t have a long-standing career in horror after this role; I genuinely thought he did, because I associated him with horror movies for years, such is the strength of this role.

Ten Days of Terror!: Invaders from Mars

Films: Invaders from Mars
Format: DVD from Peotone Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

There’s a part of me that loves 1950s science fiction because it has so many qualities that I admire. It’s so often campy without trying, meaning that it’s the sort of camp that has a chance of actually being good. It’s also so often earnest. Science is respected as being the source of American (and thus, in the mind of these movies, human) strength and power. The aliens generally want to destroy our civilization and enslave us or take over our planet. And, since this is pre-Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we get a good variety of aliens to attack us. Invaders from Mars, as the name implies, is right in that sweet spot of alien invasion, campy characters, weird special effects, and boostering for the American military.

One night, young David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt) sets an alarm for himself to do a little stargazing. After a mild, good-natured rebuke from his parents, (Leif Erickson and Hillary Brooke), David is awakened by a thunderstorm. Looking out into it, he sees a massive spacecraft descending not too far from the family home. He wakes up his father (again), who puts the boy back to bed and decides to go take a look. When he finally comes back the next morning, Dr. MacLean is angry, short, sullen, and otherwise unemotional. He’s almost, dare I say it, a pod person. David notices a strange puncture mark on the back of his father’s neck.

Ten Days of Terror!: Student Bodies

Films: Student Bodies
Format: DVD from LaSalle Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

When I look at a film like Student Bodies, I think there are only a couple of possible reasons it exists. The year before it was released we got Airplane!, a genius film that contains at least two jokes on screen at every moment and frequently more than that. It was perhaps natural then that Student Bodies would be released, since it appears to be Airplane!, but a horror movie instead of a disaster movie. There is clearly an attempt to make this far more of a comedy than it is a horror movie. There’s nothing like gore or even blood here. There’s a moment in the middle of the film where the producer, sitting at a desk, swears at the audience so that the film can earn an R-rating.

The idea here is exactly that, though—it’s a movie that desperately wants to be the Airplane! of horror movies. Nothing is serious, everything is played for a joke, and every character on screen is uniquely stupid in real ways. The issue is that beyond the idea of doing a spoof of slasher movies, virtually nothing here works at all.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Ten Days of Terror!: The Plague of the Zombies

Films: The Plague of the Zombies
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

There’s something rather charming about Hammer horror films. They tended to go for that Gothic feel, meaning that the horror is much more along those classic lines and probably isn’t going to be really scary. It’s all about that Victorian feel, putting a damsel or two in distress, killing off a few people, and eventually getting rid of the monster or monsters by the end. What makes The Plague of the Zombies particularly interesting to me is that this was released a couple of years before Night of the Living Dead. That means that this may well be the last movie made before “zombie” became synonymous with flesh-eating ghouls.

What that means is that with The Plague of the Zombies we’re going to get actors playing 19th century dress-up, “scares” that aren’t that scary, and emphasis on story, which makes it kind of refreshing. That the story is kind of nonsensical is kind of beside the point here—it really is focused much more on the story than on anything like gore. Once again, it strikes me just how different this movie is from Night of the Living Dead despite a mere two-year difference.

Ten Days of Terror!: Body Snatchers

Films: Body Snatchers
Format: DVD from Cordova District Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

One of the first movies that I can think of that scared the hell out of me was Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the first one, which I saw when I was a kid. It’s a great set up for a film, and one that is so effective at what it does that the idea of “pod people” has entered cultural consciousness. Even if you’ve never seen any version of this story, you probably know what a pod person is. It’s one of the most adapted non-Shakespeare stories around in the sense that it has been done as a direct version of the book four times. Body Snatchers is the third version of the story, and while it doesn’t have the power or impact of the original or the first remake, it’s better than you might guess and far better than its obscurity would indicate.

One of the main selling points of the book by Jack Finney is that the base story and the concept of pod people is endlessly adaptable. In the 1950s, the original version of the story was accused of being both pro-communist and pro-McCarthyism. The 1970s version played in a similar sandbox, working at least in part as Cold War allegory. This third version in the post-Reagan years, seems to attack military culture in a world were enemies were suddenly fewer and further between.

Ten Days of Terror!: A Cat in the Brain (Un Gatto el Cervello)

Films: A Cat in the Brain (Un Gatto el Cervello)
Format: Streaming video from Kanopy on the new internet machine.

Lewis Black used to do a bit about candy corn. He hates candy corn (as everyone really should), but finds that every year, he approaches it as if the concept is entirely new to him only to rediscover every year how much he doesn’t like it. This is almost exactly my reaction to most Italian horror films. I always desperately want to like them and usually end up disappointed and confused. So it is with A Cat in the Brain (or Un Gatto el Cervello), a film that makes this worse by having a truly great name and at least one poster (the cat looking out of a human skull) that ranks among the greatest of all time. It’s probably asking too much for the film to live up to either of these things, and it really, really doesn’t.

I’ll give this all the credit in the world for creativity, though. A substantial amount of this film was produced in post-production using scenes and clips from previous Lucio Fulci films. In this one, Fulci, playing himself, starts to have real-world visions of some of the atrocities that he is filming. So, he spends the day filming a man hacking up a body with a chainsaw and then cooking and eating part of the corpse. That day, he’s unable to eat meat at lunch and pictures a handyman with a chainsaw suddenly using it on people.

Ten Days of Terror!: Shivers

Film: Shivers
Format: Internet video on the new internet machine.

I have seen a surprising number of David Cronenberg’s films without really going out of my way to see them. This isn’t to say that I’ve specifically avoided his work; I haven’t. I like Cronenberg quite a bit, and I especially like where his career seems to have gone in the last decade, still making disturbing movies without making them explicitly horrific. That’s not where we are going with Shivers, which I think is his first feature-length film. It’s at most his second, and it predates all of those films for which he became famous.

It’s important for me to remember that Shivers came before films like Rabid and The Brood, since it’s going to cover a lot of the same territory. The problem, and it’s reason I need to keep that in mind, is that the territory we’re going to cover is generally covered better in Cronenberg’s other films. That’s to be expected. This was early in his career, after all, and there’s evidence of the director he’d become in this early, weird movie.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Ten Days of Terror!: Lovely Molly

Film: Lovely Molly
Format: DVD from Putnam County Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

Sometimes I don’t know how to start a review. In the case of Lovely Molly, the problem is that I don’t know where to start. There’s absolutely a story here and an atmosphere of strangeness and dread. The problem is that I’m not sure I understand the entire story. It’s an interesting set of choices that come together in Lovely Molly that make the film slightly more realistic in a certain sense, but also more frustrating. We’ll get to that before the end, I promise.

Most of the film is going to be told in flashback. It opens with the titular Molly (Gretchen Lodge) talking to us on a video camera. She’s desperately trying to kill herself, but tells the camera that she is being prevented. We’re not quite going to get back to this point, but we’ll get close to it through the rest of the film. We are going to go back to the beginning of the tale, though, when Molly doesn’t look quite so feral.

Ten Days of Terror!: Piranha (2010)

Film: Piranha (2010)
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on The New Portable.

The success of Jaws caused a lot of copycat films in the years that followed. There were all sorts of “wild animal starts eating people” movies, some of which stayed in the water. It’s how we got movies like Orca and the original Piranha. With the 2010, 3-D version of Piranha, we’ve reached the point where the low-budget derivatives of classics are worth remaking. That’s true at least hypothetically. The reality is a bit different.

Piranha starts with a great joke. We see an older guy on a boat singing to himself, drinking beer, and fishing. It’s soon evident that it’s Richard Dreyfuss and he’s singing “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” Then an earthquake happens, opening up a rift in the bottom of the lake. Out swims a horde of prehistoric piranha. Soon, Richard Dreyfuss is eaten. That’s what we’re here for, after all.

Ten Days of Terror!: Island of Lost Souls

Films: Island of Lost Souls
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

There are some classic stories that continue to be made and remade over and over again. Consider, for instance, just how many versions there are of Dracula or Hamlet. One of the stories that seems to show up every now and then, is The Island of Dr. Moreau. The earliest version (I think) is Island of Lost Souls from 1932. There are some real joys in this version, although it does have a drawback or two. But it’s worth noting that this is a more entertaining version than the Val Kilmer/Brando version from the 1990s and has the distinct benefit of both Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi.

Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) has been shipwrecked and is picked out of the water by a cargo ship that is on its way to deliver animals to an unnamed island in the middle of nowhere. The captain (Stanley Fields) is a drunk and mistreats M’ling (Tetsu Komai), the servant of a passenger named Montgomery (Arthur Hohl). When Edward reacts badly to this, the captain forces him off the boat when he delivers his cargo to the uncharted island.

Ten Days of Terror! (Late Start)

So I've been busy with a few things over the last couple of weeks and completely forgot that today would be normally the start of my ten days of horror movie reviews. What this means is that I've got to put up a few tonight very quickly and then brace myself for the days to come.

Fortunately, I have plenty of reviews already done. I apologize for what will be the spamming over the next couple of hours, but then we'll settle down into a nice rhythm of 3-4 per day.

Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Wednesday Horror: Eight-Legged Freaks

Film: Eight Legged Freaks
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on The New Portable.

I don’t like spiders. I mean, I understand that spiders are useful and eat a lot of annoying insects. I get that they’re far more helpful than harmful, but they genuinely freak me out. I try my best not to kill them, but move them outside when I find them. Still, I find them…unpleasant. It’s made some parts of some movies difficult. The Aragog portions of the Harry Potter films, Shelob in The Lord of the Rings. Arachnophobia was difficult despite it being a comedy. And now I can say the same thing about Eight Legged Freaks.

Before I launch into my typical look at the narrative, there are a couple of things I need to bring up regarding this film. The first is that I’m not a huge fan of David Arquette, who is going to be the closest thing we have to a heroic main character. I’m not sure what it is; there’s something about his face that makes me want to punch it. Second is that his romantic interest/the female lead is played by Kari Wuhrer, a name that I knew I recognized when I saw it. It turns out that Kari Wuhrer, among other things, played Tanya, the bad-ass secret agent in Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2. As it happens, I wrote the official hint book for that game, and it’s one of the best games I ever got the chance to work on. In that sense, her presence balances out Arquette’s.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Off Script: The Taking of Deborah Logan/The Taking

Film: The Taking of Deborah Logan (The Taking)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I don’t know why it was so difficult for me to find The Taking of Deborah Logan (also known as simply The Taking). I mean, it’s certainly a movie I’d heard of when it was released, and it’s only a few years old, but it’s not available in the entire network of my local library, not at the local university library, and not evidently owned by NetFlix. So, when I found it in a library that I’m able to go to only about once a month, I snatched it up.

The Taking of Deborah Logan is a film that is going to be thought of as found footage despite the fact that it kind of isn’t in the sense that the footage wasn’t lost and recovered as in films like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield. What it is more than “found” footage is “unedited” footage. This isn’t me being snarky, because the movie was certainly edited. It’s designed to look like the unedited footage of what was to be a documentary, though. This means a lot of non-professional-looking camera shots, some shakiness, and what comes across as unrehearsed dialogue.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

A List Update

It seems a little late this year, but the new version of the 1001 Movies list is out. As tends to be the case these days, I've seen most of the entries already. The 2019 version includes 12 new listings. I've seen eight of them and have posted reviews of seven, so I guess I'll be watching Avengers: Infinity War again.

Anyway, here's Wonderwall:
The Greatest Showman (2017)
Phantom Thread (2017)
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
BlacKkKlansman (2018)
Capernaum (2018)
Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
Hereditary (2018)
The Favourite (2018)
Roma (2018)
Sorry to Bother You (2018)
A Star is Born (2018)
Vice (2018)

A few thoughts--

It's nice to see another superhero movie make the list that isn't a Batman film, but I'd have genuinely perferred to see Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse on the list rather than Infinity War. This is not because I've posted a review of the former and I have to rewatch the later now. It's because it's genuinely a better movie, and arguably the best MCU-related film so far. But, The List has always been biased against animation, and that's not going to change this year, evidently.

I haven't seen the latest version of A Star is Born (it's sitting on the table next to me), but I'm a little disappointed that it's here. Maybe it's great, but do we need another version of this story? It'll be the third version I watch for this blog, and while I was going to watch it anyway, it seems that there's plenty of space for movies that tell a new story here instead of something we've all seen before. Honestly, I could say the same thing about Crazy Rich Asians. It's a fine movie, but aside from the all-Asian cast in an American-financed movie, this is nothing that hasn't been seen a hundred times. It feels a lot like the sort of "rich people romance" movies that were so prevalent during the Great Depression. It's a fine movie, but is it really required viewing in any real sense?

Off the top of my head, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, A Quiet Place, Annihilation, and Won't You Be My Neighbor? all seem like better choices. But hey, who am I to tell the Listmakers what to do (other than once a year at Christmas)?

It's also interesting to see that, as far as I know, the previous Best Picture winner did not make the list. Green Book is not here, and that feels off. Then again, I wouldn't choose to have it here, either, so maybe this is a good thing.

So, assuming I can find Capernaum by the end of the year, I should be able to knock these out before New Year's.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Wednesday Horror: The Mummy's Hand; The Mummy's Tomb

Film: The Mummy’s Hand; The Mummy’s Tomb
Format: DVDs from Cortland Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

My friend Dawn is a librarian at the public library in the town just east of where I live. The Cortland Public Library is tiny, just two rooms, but it’s got a fantastic movie collection in no small part because of Dawn’s work. For the last few months, Dawn and I have had a movie night on the first Saturday of the month. She brings snacks, I bring beer, and we invite the public. We ask for a $1 donation, the idea being that we’ll use that money to help improve the library’s movie collection. Well, we made our first purchase recently—the entire Universal monster collection. It hasn’t even been put into the catalog yet, but they let me walk out with the Mummy collection—three discs holding six original movies. It’s good to have connections, after all. I’ve seen the original, of course, so I took this opportunity to start watching the rest of the series, starting with The Mummy’s Hand.

This is pretty standard stuff, and like many of the early horror movies, it’s barely long enough to qualify as a feature-length film. It comes in at a mere 67 minutes, which is just to give us a plot, a few close-ups of the mummy in question (Tom Tyler) and the obligatory romance that isn’t really necessary but seems to be a part of every film of this era.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Off Script: La Cabina

Film: La Cabina (The Telephone Box)
Format: Internet video on laptop.

It feels like ages since I’ve actually written about a specific film at length. The few reviews I have posted recently are ones from an archive I created months ago, there to fill in gaps when I didn’t feel like I had much to say. Even then, it’s been difficult to motivate myself to post. I’m trying to correct that, working my way out of whatever malaise I’d fallen into about four months ago. It’s not even the writing that has felt like a chore to me; it’s all of the bookkeeping that accompanies it. Anyway, I figured a short film might be a good start in getting back to regular posting, so I tracked down La Cabina (The Telephone Box) on Vimeo and had a watch. It’s worth noting that this appears on YouTube as well, but without subtitles. If you speak Spanish, knock yourself out. Turns out there’s not a ton of dialogue, and even if you can’t understand what is being said, you’re not missing a great deal in terms of story.

A man (Jose Luis Lopez Vazquez) and his son (Antonio Moreno, I think) are walking to the bus. The boy’s soccer ball bounces into a phone booth and he retrieves it, then gets on the bus and rides away. The man, needing to make a call, enters the phone booth and discovers that, despite the fact that it’s new, the phone doesn’t work. The door closes behind him, locking him in.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Wednesday Horror: The Last Exorcism

Film: The Last Exorcism
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

I wanted to like The Last Exorcism. I really did, even though on its surface it’s evident that it’s going to go somewhere that’s really going to bother me. There are a lot of great ideas in the start of this film and they are carried through, more or less, for the first two acts of the film. Everything falls apart in the third act, though, when rather than finding an interesting way to handle the end of the film, we’re dropped into a series of clich├ęs that are, sadly, exactly what you’d expect from a film called The Last Exorcism.

Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is a fire and brimstone preacher in Baton Rouge from a long line of preachers. The difference with Cotton is that he’s not merely started to have doubts, but has embraced those doubts and wants out of the ministry. Rather than simply signing up for The Clergy Project, he decides to call in a film crew to openly display his lack of faith. In fact, he wants to provide a clear demonstration of just how wrongheaded he now finds his earlier beliefs. What he wants to do is accept a random plea to perform an exorcism, demonstrate that it’s all smoke and mirrors, and then go on with his life.