Friday, November 19, 2004

The Ring


(2002) *****

At last. My final flick, which I'd planned days in advance. I took a break to catch my breath and started her up at about 11:45. Man, what to say about this movie...

“All you need to make a good horror movie is a little boy walking up some stairs.” How’s that? Not enough? Okay.

I feel like the key to this movie's horror is handed to us very early on, in a line that doesn't come across as very insightful. It comes from the hapless Katie, and it's some girl babble about the millions of magnetic waves that are hitting your brain all the time. That right there is the dark core of Samara's influence. Not so much that she has the ability, both alive and dead, to burn thoughts and images directly into your mind, but that these thoughts and images come from somewhere else. I feel liked Katie's comment suggests that we are all receivers of these broadcasts in the ether -- something like a semblence of mysticism tailored for the West. The only signals that are dangerous are the ones whose point of origin is wherever the hell Samara came from.

And where is that exactly? Is it the realm of the dead? Is it Hell? Whatever it is, it's beyond horrible and it's real. Part of the trick of The Ring is to ground this phenomenon in a hard, real world that doesn't seem open to other realms. By doing that, the movie imbues the horrible influences of Samara with more solidity and, because we're so real in our thinking, we've got absolutely no defense. (I think the movie Unbreakable does something similar, although not nearly as effective, by infusing a land of cold reality with something fantastic.) Of course, that heightened reality is an illusion, and so the cinematography also manages to evoke the feelings of a grim, grey dream. The perfect setting.

I don't want to turn this into a "Ring is better than Ringu" article, because I'm going to have to watch both flicks again to vivisect that idea properly. I will point out that everything I just said about Ring is completely neutralized in Ringu, thanks to the clumsy psychic phenomena displayed all throughout and, most importantly, the wispy reference to Sea Goblins. Sea Goblins? Are you shitting me?

So, being on Samara's hit list is the scariest thing in the world. For a whole week you know it's coming, not so much because of the phone call, but because your head just gets more and more stuffed with the dark ichor of her wrath. I'd say it's almost a relief when she climbs out of the TV, but Jesus Christ do we know that's not true. After I got in a fender bender last year, my shrink pointed out that a bad thing happening is made so much worse when you can see it coming and you can't stop it. When the oncoming car is some unknown, unstoppable doom emerging from the cracks in reality, well, that there is some fine-grade horror.

Okay, here I go again, but: One of the Ringu gripes I hear about Ring is that you actually see Samara's face. But I wanna say, fuck, that little reveal is nothing compared to the stuff Ringu decides to drop on you. Even if the exact nature of the Sea Goblins (which I can't even type without rolling my eyes) is left murky, look how much better it is to not have that in there at all! And, we get a big honkin' flashback about how Sadako has the ability to give people brain hemmorages from across the room. BOOORRRING!!!

One really masterful plot angle that Ringu does employ is keeping our attention off the girl for a huge chunk of the movie, and I love the way they do this in Ring, too. We're so ready to place Anna Morgan as the creepy face from beyond, since Samara's hardly even in the video.* It's a deft switch, and when it comes it comes like a tidal wave. Suddenly Brian Cox is muttering about "the things she shows you" and how she won't be whispering things to him anymore. His demeanor may be all I’m-a-farmer-getting-things-done, but his ghastly suicide makes it clear that she got to him as much as anyone.

* God, thinking about Samara’s brief appearance in the video is giving me chills as I type this. Okay, mad props to Ringu for the scary face hidden by hair thing. It’s totally dope. But I still don’t think it’s the right move to make hiding her face some kind of rule.

The trick to tapping into fear of the unknown isn’t not telling, it’s telling just enough. H.P. Lovecraft was enamored with Not Telling; tons of his stories rely on a slow, mysterious build that saves the reveal until the shocker final sentence (which modern readers often see a mile off). Personally, I always need to be in just the right mood to absorb his writing properly. When he works, it’s a uniquely tasty experience; when he doesn’t work, it feels like he’s being too miserly with the details. There’s the times when they don’t show you enough (Lovecraft, Blair Witch also comes to mind), and times when they show you too much (cough! cough! seagoblinscough!), or a wrong thing that, even in a deliberately foggy context, just doesn’t make any sense (Xtro is full of moments like this, where each subsequent action taken by the aliens kind of rewrites their whole nature.)

And then there’s times when they do it just right, like the quick cut that shows us what Katie’s mother found when she got home. Why is she so mutilated? Who cares, it’s freakin’ terrifying. And she hid in the closet! That’s the stuff of nightmares, when the menace is something lurking right there in your room, by the corner of the dresser. Bob from Twin Peaks was great at that. It’s the vibe made from the bad dreams you’d have when you were a kid and you were sick, and it’s the raw stuff of fear. Hiding from Michael Myers in the closet is damn stupid, but with Samara you might as well.

Everything in this movie is painted with the deftest of strokes. I remember the first time I saw it, how wowed I was when she pulled the fly off the screen, and then right on cue the blood rolled out of her nose. I said “nice” out loud. And nothing beats the second nosebleed cue, when Aiden sits up and says “you helped her?” Oh, what a moment. I was ready to accept the happy ending, that this was all about righting a terrible injustice. Turning it around like that is one of my favorite cinematic twists. I cherish every second of Noah’s encounter with Samara, and I love the glimpse you get of her face. She’s not just a dead girl, she’s a fucking monster. Whatever it is that’s driven her since her unnatural birth is finally in the open, and it literally kills you to look at it.

Compared to that, Sadako’s eyeball left me pretty cold. I’m just sayin’. I certainly like what they were doing, that the curse is activated by something you see. Your eyes are the curse’s gateway to your head, and so the “ring” turns out to be in Samara’s eye, perhaps burned there by looking up the well for seven days. The idea of seeing something deadly works perfectly with a little girl whose face is obscured by hair (thankyou Japan! thanks Ringu!), I just feel that in Ringu they pull an H.P. Lovecraft with the reveal. Too little.

By the end of the movie, the idea of Samara and what she's become is a thing of perfect horror pitch. I think of her as a free-floating burn -- not a fire, but the raw potential of a horrible burn wound, out there somewhere, never sleeping. While alive, she was a representitive for something so terrible it drove horses mad just to be near it. Now she is that thing, whatever it is, and she's merciless and invincible.

This is the scariest American movie ever made. Period.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

The Fly


(1958) ****1/2

Johnny Sweatpants reviewed this last year, but I'm giving it a whole star and a half above his rating. This movie is a freakin' great horror movie and I'll tell you why: Patricia Owens. With her wide, horrified eyes, she evokes the full measure of the unique brand of madness, terror and humiliation this story has to offer.

The only way to appreciate this flick is to forget that you already know what happens. The precise nature of the horror is drawn out with skilled slowness. A night watchman hears a noise, sees Helene Delambre running away from the industrial press -- and sees what's left of Andre Delambre, his upper body mercilessly crushed. It's a satisfyingly bloody scene.

The nature of the act is further spelled out for us: how could this happen? Who loved each other more than those two? Helene's calm demeanor makes the reality of it even more mysterious, and then she spots a fly and freaks out. And she really freaks out. I actually watched this flick recently to screen it before my friend's five-year-old checked it out, and it was the level of her rabid misery that made me decide to say no.

When she agrees to tell the story, at first I was put off by the happy music and the sunny dispositions, then I remembered that they're heading for a fall. We see the development of the transporter, and then Andre gives his "I love life...and science" speech in a lawn chair and you just know he's doomed.

Each touch that builds from there is a perfect step to horror. First Andre is shoving typed messages under the door of the basement lab, saying his life is in peril and he can't talk. When she's inside, his head is hidden under a black cloth and his arm shoved in a jacket pocket; he gestures that she read his messages in the next room while he slurps a bowl of milk. Through it all you see her brittle strength holding tough in the face of this oddly intimate mystery. Then she catches sight of his hand...

The part of this story that's so unique is how domestic a horror story it is. It's like Dad lost his keys somewhere in the house, but instead it's his freakin' head -- he literally lost his head! And poor Helene has to lead the maid and her son (terrible kid actor, just terrible...every single line sucks) on this mad search to catch a fly, looking crazier all the time. Can you imagine? How humiliating is that, to have your life and your happiness depend on a damn fly?

Meanwhile, Andre is not doing well. Whatever combination of intelligence came with the fly head is changing, turning him into something else. He types out the eerie message "Can't wait. Can't think easy since morning. Brain says strange things now." Brrr! Chilling, seriously. It's a little silly that his human hand and fly hand sometimes fight each other, but the concept is solid.

The kicker is when the cloth comes off, naturally. This is where the carefully sculpted scare that's been building falls flat, because JSP was right when he said in his review that the guy with the fly head is hysterical. He looks more like a hairy black relative of Greedo's than a fly, but without that expressive mouth (clearly part of the problem is that they wanted to keep the head size normal, so that no clues would show through the cloth). As he lays down his fainted wife and trashes the lab, I was looking hard at him, trying to find that nugget of scare that had been so carefully tended, and I just couldn't do it.

Thankfully, there's Patricia Owens. She wakes up and he dons the cloth, and they proceed to the industrial press. From the moment she sees his head to the clamp of the press, she never says a single word. It's all in her eyes, the trance-like acceptance that her beloved husband is a monster and must be destroyed. It's genuinely powerful.

For all the ineffectiveness of the fly head, finally seeing the human-headed fly in the web completely makes up for it. Not just the pitiful, buzzing "help meee!" but worse, the fly entreating the spider to "go awaaay! go awaay!" Damn, it's great. Whew!

What I thought was kind of funny was the whole "tampering in God's domain" theme Andre and his wife got into when things went bad. I wanted to say "no, dude, teleportation is a good idea -- you just screwed up." Screwed up indeed.

Totally slamming. I just watched a few weeks ago, and it was even more fun this time around.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Phase IV

(1974) ***

After some unspecified sort of cosmic phenomenon occurs, all the ants in a particular region of Arizona start getting smart. Really smart. Two scientists are sent to investigate, setting up a geodesic dome stuffed with what counted for high tech in the 70's. And the fun begins.

This movie was directed by Saul Bass, who is perhaps most famous for designing the title sequences to some of Hitchcock's biggest films, including Psycho. Phase IV feels almost exactly like a moderately clever sci-fi short story put to film. The best thing about it is that the ants are suddenly building structures with right angles and geometric designs, digging perfectly straight rows of perfectly round holes. That in particular was effectively weird. There were certain exterior shots of such structures that had the same alien feel (and indeed, some of the same ambient sound effects) as the animated movie Fanstastic Planet. There are notably few special effects at work; all the ant action is handled with footage of actual ants, several hundred of which were probably harmed in the production. I think they even injected some live ants with dye.

All in all the story holds itself together nicely, delivering the kind of mild, slightly stylized stinger ending you'd expect of a decent short story. And, because it's Saul Bass, there's a clever thing going on with the credits. A decent entry.

Monday, October 04, 2004

A Frightful School of Horror

(2001) *

This film was a holdover from last year’s horrorthon. I decided to watch it in at 11pm in an effort to salvage my day of crappy horror. What a mistake! Clearly made with the hope of raking in the big bucks by riding in on the coat-tails of successful urban-legend tales such as The Ring, A Frightful School Horror is without a doubt one of the limpest, most horror-free, and most boring films it's ever been my punishment to have to sit through. The box on the DVD states that the film cannot be shown to anyone under 18 years of age, which is the really confusing to me, because this movie was obviously targeted at an age range of 13-16 year olds. Gore-free, fear-free, uninspired, completely non-visual, with perhaps the cheesiest soundtrack ever, this film is a complete waste of time and money. I knew I was in trouble the moment I popped it into my player because it was shot on video. Now, I for one have never enjoyed daytime soap operas for 2 reasons, (1) they’re really, really dumb, and (2) I can’t buy into the reality of video. That is, when I look at a soap opera I am completely aware at all times that I’m watching something fake. Worse, A Frightful School of Horrors is shot with this weird soft-focus lens that makes it look like you’re watching a Hallmark commercial. This film fails on all levels and I will never watch it again.

FeardotCom


(2002) **1/2

Man, my day of watching sub par horror continued with this Ring ripoff. Basically a police detective, Mike, is assigned to investigate a mysterious rash that leaves its victims bleeding out of the eyes. He works with a Department of Health associate, Terry, who suspects at first that it is some sort of weird virus. Once they confirm that it is not a virus, they begin a murder investigation. They soon figure out that the common link between all of the victims is that they all visited the site feardotcom.com (I did not type that wrong, it is really that stupid.) They also notice that all of the victims have died within 48 hours of visiting the site (somehow not as creepy as, “7 days”). Now, most intelligent people would conclude that you shouldn’t visit this site if they already have proof that it kills you. Do they visit it? Of course! First Mike visits it, starts getting the strange visions (including the very tired horror movie cliché vision of a freaky little girl) and warns Terry NOT TO VISIT THE SITE! Of course, in horror movie-speak that automatically translates into OKAY, I WILL VISIT THE SITE!, which she immediately does. What happens from then would ruin the plot, but let’s just say it is a bunch of weird stuff that makes no sense and defies logic. In all fairness, there are some effective creepy images stemming from the site itself. Ultimately I once again found myself in the position of questioning my comprehension abilities. I just didn’t get it. I mean, there was this evil internet snuff site and there was also this vengeful ghost floating around. I’m still not sure how it’s all connected. Sigh.

Don’t Look Now


(1973) **

The reason I purchased this film is because it was on many Top 10 lists and laden with descriptions such as, “Few films can as efficiently induce an attack of the screaming heebie-jeebies as Nicolas Roeg’s classic supernatural thriller. Based on a Daphne du Maurier short story and made in 1973, it’s one of the most haunting, enigmatic and, in the final moments, bloodily shocking movies ever made. . .” Well, I’ve seen this movie now and I beg to differ. Quick plot summary; After the tragic drowning death of their daughter, Laura and John Baxter take a trip to Venice in an attempt to save their marriage. While there they encounter a strange couple of old ladies, one of who claims to have second sight. Meanwhile, John catches a glimpse of a figure in a red coat, as Venice is terrorized by a serial killer. Okay, the opening death of their daughter was very effective. From there the film becomes very long and tedious. Often there are hints that something bad is about to happen and then nothing happens. There’s a majorly long sex scene in the middle that was so long I actually became bored with it. This was based on a short story and it shows. It’s amazing to me that this film has been embraced as much as it has been; it’s really quite sucky.

Kiss me, Kill me


(1973) *1/2

Isabelle, an anorexic-looking fashion photographer, meets Baba Yaga, a witch, one evening on the street and is invited to Baba Yaga's house sometime. She takes her up on the offer and discovers in the house a bottomless hole in the floor. Baba Yaga gives Isabelle a doll, donned in an S&M outfit, that she says will protect her (from what we never learn). Baba curses Isabelle’s camera, which then seems to cause bad things to happen whenever someone is photographed with it (i.e., people act as if they have been shot). Throughout the movie Isabelle has dreams that are filled with eroticism and violence. A lot of these dreams are shown in very grainy film or as a set of grainy stills. There’s a lot of T&A in the movie and also a dominatrix-style whipping scene. I never really understood what the hell was happening in this movie and I felt frustrated for (a) committing to watch it and (b) because it made me feel stupid. It was pointless and stupid. The climax lasted all of 1 minute with the witch being easily dispatched (guess how, the answer lies in the review). Avoid at all costs. I would’ve given it only 1 star, but it gave it an extra half point because of all the nudity.

Pieces

(1982) **

The tagline for this film is, “It’s exactly what you think it is!” And you know what? The tagline perfectly captures the spirit of this film. In the prologue a mother catches her son making a jigsaw puzzle of a pinup girl. The mother freaks out, throws the puzzle across the room, and screams at him, “You’re just like your father!” The little boy leaves the room, comes back with an axe and promptly hacks her to death. These are the days before forensic evidence would’ve easily solved this crime so the police assume that the boy couldn’t have committed this atrocity. Fast-forward 40 years in the future. We cut to a college campus where an oblivious co-ed skateboards into a windowpane. Apparently the sight of the shards of glass (resembling puzzle pieces maybe?) is what triggers the killer’s rampage. For the rest of the film be are shown scenes of the killer’s hands (in large, black, latex gloves) slowing putting together his childhood puzzle. Each time he completes a section of the puzzle (e.g., the head, the arms, the torso, etc), he goes and kills a woman who possesses the best of that particular body part. Slowly he assembles his “perfect” dream girl. The killer is shrouded in darkness but it’s not too hard to figure out who the killer is (although I must admit that I was initially on the wrong trail). The film is pretty bad. It’s only saving graces are a cool Goblin-rip off soundtrack and plenty, PLENTY of T&A. Every single coed is killed while in some state of undress.

Ryeong


(2004) *** (aka “The Ghost”, “Dead Friend”)

Sociology undergrad Ji Won suffers from a strange form of amnesia after a camping accident in high school. She can't seem to remember anyone or anything prior to that event, but can create and retain new memories. After an old classmate visits her, she begins to have quick flashbacks. Haunting nightmares about drowning in water begin to take over her life. Soon, her friends from high school begin to die one by one, with their lungs getting filled with water. Ji Won begins to investigate her past for an answer as to who or what is behind the murders of her friend. Although I haven’t been too impressed with other Korean horror efforts (e.g., Possessed), I decided to take a chance on this one because it came with good recommendations and was frequently compared to The Ring. Given all the similarities to The Ring, and some direct plagiarism (i.e., think of The Ring climax), this should’ve been called The Ring Redeux. This film had a decent look to it and a few really good scares. Although most of the scares were of the “cheat” variety (e.g., cat jumping out), there were some truly nerve-wracking moments. My one main problem with this, and many of the other Asian horror films that I have reviewed in the past is that I can’t keep the characters straight. At the risk of sounding racist, all the pretty Asian girls look almost identical (especially when wearing their school uniforms) and I frequently became confused as to who was doing what. Also, if you don’t pay close attention to the names (e.g., Ji Won, Sui On, etc), the climactic revelation does not pack as much punch, as it should’ve. Yes there is a twist to this story, but I’ll be damned if I understand it. I would recommend this film. Knowing that you need to pay closer attention to detail than I did will make it more of an enjoyable experience.

Shaun of the Dead


(2004) ***

I was really looking forward to this movie. I’ve read numerous positive fanboy and non-fanboy reviews for this British comedy/homage to the zombie genre. Here’s a description of the film that I clipped from someone else: In the middle of the British contemporary society Shaun (Simon Pegg) works for a small electronic company in order to make enough money for the weekend and rent. Shaun does not have any dreams or expectations on life more than walking down to the Winchester, the local pub, and gulping a pint of beer. This is something that annoys and bores his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), as she gives Shaun one final ultimatum to change his life perspective and do something with his life. This is easier said than done as Shaun quickly realizes when Liz drops him like a bad habit.

Troubled Shaun tries to find a way to fix his relationship with Liz, but it is all in vane as she wants nothing to do with him. In the backdrop of Shaun's love issues he misses crucial news, as he usually does, relating human attacks on other humans are taking place where they try to bite or eat each other. Instead Shaun and his best friend, the freeloader Ed (Nick Frost), who spend the days at Shaun's place playing video games, go to the Winchester to drown their sorrows. Simultaneously as London is stricken by an outbreak of zombies, Shaun gets drunk, works on his hangover, and goes to the local convenient store for a soda. Shaun's first contact with the zombies is hilarious as they assume that the person is excessively drunk as the zombie is moaning and stumbling towards them. However, when the two slackers are attacked, the film turns both gory and bloody. This film started out great. The opening few minutes are hilarious as we’re introduced to the main characters. The camera work is great (think Sam Rami) and the British humor is really funny. Something strange happened along the way, however. About halfway through the film I kind of forgot I was watching a comedy. The film evolved (or is it devolved) into a standard zombie-shoot-‘em-up. I wouldn’t have minded, except I was really in the mood for a comedy and the zombie thing has already been done to death (pun intended). All in all it was a fun movie but not the “cult classic” I was hoping for. The reviews were so overwhelmingly positive that I think I set my expectations a bit too high.

Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan


(1989) **1/2

Arguably one of the weakest entries of this lackluster series. The law of diminishing returns definitely applies here. I started out this year’s horrorthon with this lame film because I needed something short to watch before going to Shaun of the Dead (see below). Jason Takes Manhattan should’ve been titled, “Jason Takes a Long Boat Ride and Gets to Manhattan During the Final 30 Minutes of the Movie”! Yep, that’s right, for those who don’t remember this movie; the title and ad campaign were very misleading. The TV commercials would have you believe that Jason rampages through Manhattan. No such luck! Perhaps budgetary concerns or lack of city access prevented this idea from being fully realized. The plot is simple (isn’t it always?); a group of high school students are going on a graduate cruise from wherever they reside to New York City. Of course, prior to the events of this film unfolding, the writers needed to figure out a way to bring Jason back, again. As you may recall when we last saw Jason in “The New Blood”, Tommy wrapped some heavy chains around Jason and pushed him into Crystal Lake. It’s amazing that the cops never found Jason. I mean he’s in a fucking lake! That would be like Jason being on the bottom of Brickyard Pond. Do the cops operate under the out-of-sight-out-of-mind principal? I can just see Tommy saying, “Seriously, he’s right over there, all you need to do is stick your head in the water and look down, he’s only in 10 feet of water for crying out loud!” Anyway, I digress. Part VIII opens with to teens having sex, of course. We’re immediately rewarded with T&A within the first 5 minutes of the movie. Oh wait, I almost forgot! Before the boobs we’re treated to the LAMEST opening credits ever for a Friday the 13th. The movie opens with a montage of shots of Manhattan sunk to the worst kind of 80s music. You know what I mean. Okay, back to the teens. After sex the male decides to pull up the anchor. In doing so he accidentally lifts up a large power wire, which of course sends off sparks and rejuvenates the chained, dormant Jason. The teens are quickly dispatched. One final comment about this opening; while the teens are fooling around the male remarks that the lake they’re currently floating on was the site of all the previous Jason killings. He provides a long narration presumably to educate anyone in the audience who is a Friday the 13th virgin. Couldn’t the writers have assumed that anyone watching PART 8! of a series probably has so me familiarity with the previous outings? Damn, I’m sorry I keep digressing. Once again we are subjected to Jason’s past history. The funny thing is that the female has never heard any of this! I mean, if all the events in all of the films really happened, do you think there would be anyone in the United States who hadn’t heard of Jason??? He would be the most notorious serial killer of all time! Also, why wouldn’t Crystal Lake be paved over? Why leave it as a functioning camp? Okay, okay, I’m digressing again. I didn’t mean to write such a long review this film doesn’t deserve it. As noted above, the next hour of the film takes place on a luxury yacht. It seems that one of the rich students has offered his father’s boat for the senior trip to New York. Of course, what would a trip like this be without inviting their irritable principal? Why do the Friday the 13th films recycle old cast members from Three’s Company (e.g., see Part 7)? Okay, I can’t keep writing about this stupid film. As I’ve done previously, I will recount all the deaths, all of which were unoriginal and pretty weak. Let’s see, there was a harpoon to the stomach, harpoon to the back, and one “rocker” was killed with her guitar. One jock was killed by having a hot coal stuffed into his stomach as he relaxed in a sauna (okay, this was a bit original even though the stomach look like it was made out of rubber!). One chick was stabbed with a mirror shard. Another dude was harpooned (again) in the back. There was the usual throat slashing and strangulation. One nerd was electrocuted and one guy was thrown from the top of the ship only to land on some antennae. Once we get to Manhattan we see a rapist get a syringe in the eye (Jason’s justice), a head smashed against a pipe, and in the silliest kill of the film, a boxer getting his head literally knocked off! Oh yeah, a cop gets strangled with his CB wire and the Three’s Company reject gets shoved in a drum of toxic waste. By the way, these drums are apparently everywhere in NYC. Another gets killed with a wrench to the head. All in all there was a lot of death in this film. I could go on complaining about this movie, but it’s already too long and besides, you know what you’re in for when you see a Friday the 13th film.

Dr. Phibes Rises Again


(1972) ***1/2

"What kind of madman are you?" "The kind that wins!"

I first experienced Dr. Phibes when I caught this movie at random late one night in the lounge of my freshman dorm. Not quite as good as the original (there's a notably different actress playing Vulnavia, for one thing), it follows Dr. Phibes to Egypt, where he plans to use a once-every-2,000-years lunar convergence to access the River of Life, thereby reviving his dearly embalmed Victoria. Challenging him on his quest is Darius Biederbeck, a man of letters who must access the River of Life to maintain his fragile immortality.

Phibes himself refer to Beiderbeck as "the only foe worthy of Phibes" (which was echoed by the copy on the dvd case), but I didn't really see it. Mostly he just acted the cold bastard when he won't interrupt his quest to contend with the trail of corpses Phibes is leaving behind.

While the overall style of the sequel is outshined by the original -- and there are fewer murders to enjoy, the elaborate unfolding of some of the fancier deaths are definitely the highlights of the series. I'm thinking mostly of the dreaded Scorpion Chair, but I've already said too much. You get even more of Vincent Price gesturing and widening his eyes as his disembodied voice echoes about the room. Definitely good stuff.

Unfortunately, most of my valuable weekend time was taken up with an out-of-town guest and a party, so those are the only movies I completed. I'm glad I got my gloating in early.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes


(1971) ****

"It's the pyschic force that drives him...this maniacal precision!"

This might become my favorite Vincent Price movie ever. Taking place in 1930's-ish England, Dr. Phibes and his beautiful, mute assistant Vulnavia perform a series of murders (based on the Biblical plagues of Egypt) on the surgical team that failed to save Dr. Phibe's wife Victoria from death some years ago, at exactly the time Anton Phibes was allegedly killed in a fiery car accident.

It's the unbelievably ambitious style that makes this movie so great; these ritual murders are so elaborate they make the killings of Seven look like a lead pipe to the back of the head. Sitting in Dr. Phibes's lair is a wax bust of each of the intended victims, which Phibes gleefully melts with a blowtorch after each successful outing. He and Vulnavia will periodically waltz to the tunes of his mechanical band before heading out to do their nasty work, and she will occasionally play the violin in the background while Phibes carries out the death du jour. I started to wonder if there was a waiting list to get killed like this.

Dr. Phibes has a penchant for devices, so the flick's a Gothic festival of trap doors, jeweled catches, pulleys, cages, costume changes and spiralling tubes of acid. Since Phibes's accident prevents speech, we only hear Vincent Price's famous tones, sounding their craziest, when Phibes plugs a tube in his neck that connects to an old fashioned gramaphone. Watching the pasty-faced, dark-eyed Price emote without moving his lips while his voice is broadcast is a singular delight.

This movie is more funny than scary, but can boast some moments of genuine freakiness. I was quite impressed by the actor who let that tropical bat crawl on his chest; they certainly couldn't pay me enough money to do that.

One post on imdb called this "horror as it should be." I don't know about that, but The Abominal Dr. Phibes is operating out of that rare strata of stylistic vision in which you find Barbarella or Yellow Submarine, but with a delicious penny dreadful tone. Great fun.

Jeepers Creepers 2


(2003) **1/2

While this unwarranted sequel is much better than the original (a rare horror feat, see the Omen), it still falls flat and hard on many levels. Ray Wise has proven that he can convincingly mourn the loss of a child (see Twin Peaks) as well as play the role of a crazy psycho (also see Twin Peaks) and he is the best reason to watch this. It's also nice to see a busload of football layers get their come-uppings. The plot is not worth getting into (OK fine, a weird monster feeds on humans for 23 days very 23 years) but what we should focus on is the monster himself. I've got to say he's a pretty cool badass gargoyle looking
freak, but suffers from the often made mistake of too much screentime. While JC2 is certainly mindless fun, it gets bogged down by unoriginality and reality TV Survivor mentality.

The Legend of Hell House


(1973) **1/2

A rag-tag team of specialists from different fields are hired to investigate Hell House by an eccentric millionaire to investigate life after death. This movie is one in a long line of haunted house movies, none of which have ever really haunted me. Both the scientific and paranormal discussions are ludicrous and start you off with a bad taste. The scares are relatively cheap and standard (broken dishes, objects flying around etc.) and Roddy McDowell is just plain annoying as the only man who survived the last deadly encounter with Hell House.

Bride of Frankenstein


(1935) ***1/2

Frankenstein is captured by the angry mob and put in a prison cell which he escapes in about 5 seconds after they close the door. While Frankie wanders around and is greeted everywhere by screams (each one louder and more piercing than the last). A rival scientist - Dr. Petoria (who had great success creating little men the size of Star Wars figures) coerces Dr. Frankenstein into creating a female monster for some reason. Meanwhile, the monster makes a great friend with a lonely, pitiful blind man that prays daily for any kind of company. At this point the Frankenstein monster inexplicably learns to talk. The friendship is shattered when a couple of people that can see knock on the door and ruin everything. The lesson learned in this movie - matchmaking is hard enough between humans, do not attempt to match monsters together.

Horror Express



(1972) ***1/2

OK, how to summarize, how to summarize... Christopher Lee is Professor Saxton who has discovered a key
evolutionary link frozen in time in Manchuria. He locks it in a cage, puts it in a crate to transport him back to England to study. Grand Moff Tarkin plays Dr. Wells who just HAS to know what is in the box so he hires someone to look into it for him. The monster escapes and goes on a killing spree. As it turns out, the monster is some form of parasitic alien that creates zombies. A fantastic concept that's as ridiculous as the fake mustache that Christopher Lee adorns. They just don't make movies like this anymore... Funniest line- Man: What if one of you is the monster? Dr. Wells: (outraged) Monster?! We're British!

Stepford Wives


(1975) ****

Loved it. A happy couple moves out of the city to the pleasant suburb known as Stepford. On he surface everyone is happy but on closer inspection, the women of Stepford seem almost vacant and robotic. We all know what's really going on here but it is a joy to see how it plays out. Katharine Ross is excellent as the wife that watches her
husband slowly distance himself from her after joining a men's club. She refuses to accept this way of life and watches in horror as one free thinking woman at a time is replaced by a cheerful robot. It's the perfect type of movie - 70's, funny, satirical and scary. Men are bastards.

Two Evil Eyes


(1990) ***/****

This film consists of 2 hour long stories loosely based on works by Edgar Allen Poe and I'll review them separately. The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar *** This is a slow building tale directed by Romero. A waitress trophy wife and her lover hypnotizes her ailing elderly husband while he's on his death bed to get him to leave her his fortune. When he dies suddenly, they are forced to pretend that he is alive for a month in order to successfully transfer the funds. So they do what anyone would do, put his body in a freezer in the basement. Bada-bing-bada-boom. Problems arise when the ghost of the old man, who is trapped between 2 worlds haunts them and begs to be released. 1990 was really a dark time for horror movies and this has a 90's TV look to it that distracts you but overall it a fun little Hitchcockian tale. I much preferred the Black Cat **** directed by your friend and mine - the great Dario Argento. This vicious little tale begins with the police
discovering a naked woman sawed in half by an spinning blade in a torture chamber. Harvey Keitell plays a disturbed photographer that photographs morbid acts of violence. He has a creepy girlfriend that chants in her spare time and owns an evil black cat. This cat may or may not force him to do unspeakable things. Without giving away anything else I'll only say that this is the best horror I've seen thus far although the month is young. Like all Argento films, this one is filmed with style and verve. Tom Savini makes a nice little guest appearance as does music by Goblin.

Frankenstein


(1931) ***1/2

Let me start by saying that I refuse to hold old crap to a lower standard just because it's deemed "classic". A good analogy would be rock music. I love the Beta Band and the Beta Band cites the Beach Boys as a main influence. I can even hear some of this influence in their work so therefore I should listen to the Beach Boys. Wrong! I just don't like the Beach Boys and I'm not going to pretend I enjoy their music simply because they're in the history books. So I admittedly went into Frankenstein with a bad attitude. I find most horror classics to be about as interesting and scary as an infomercial. Having said that, I
found myself really enjoying Frankenstein simply because it's a great story centered around the age old debate of science vs. religion (the correct answer is science). The monster never asked to be brought to life but is forced to live in a world of fear and hatred, eventually fleeing from an angry mob. On a personal note, the scene where Frankenstein threw the little girl into the pond reminded me of the time Jay and I threw Matt into Brickyard pond. It was a great day.

Freddy Vs. Jason


(2003) ***1/2

Picture a boardroom of suits discussing how to save 2 dying horror franchises. They put every available man on the job and sift through hours and hours of film to extract what works in these movies and what failed miserably. They then decide to combine the two to raise maximum interest level and pit the maniacs against eachother for the ultimate showdown. Can't miss, right? The first half of the movie is solid. Time has not been kind to the Elm St. flicks and they realized this and ignored the hokiness and bad jokes that defined every Elm St. since the first one. (Wes Craven's New Nightmare, the one innovative development played itself out in the Scream trilogy.) So Freddy was scary again or at least, scary enough and they spent some time reminding you why you should fear the goofy bastard. For the Friday the 13th spects, they stuck to what has proven to work time and time again- namely stupid teenagers getting stalked, gratuitous T and/or A, clever deaths, and a worthy scream queen. The problem with this movie is the epic battle when Freddy and Jason
duke it out to the finish. While there is certainly no lack of violence and gore, I could never really give a shit about the outcome simply because THEY NEVER DIE no matter how many times over you kill them. So a 20 minute battle is virtually pointless when you have nothing invested in it. And sure enough, the ending-that-leaves-it-open-to-a-sequel emerged proving my point.

Horror Hotel


(1960) **1/2

Horror Hotel is a predictable satanic cult movie boosted by the always classy Christopher Lee. An absolutely
clueless, trusting blonde woman finds herself in an eerie town characterized by more fog than a Cure festival. You just know that she's in for a brutal death involving a bizarre satanic ritual, the only question is when. I'm being extremely careful this year to avoid movies that stop my momentum dead in its tracks but Horror Hotel is both watchable and somewhat fun.

Shaun of the Dead


(2004) ****

I couldn't help but be a tad disappointed with Shaun of the Dead, mainly because my expectations were sky high from the enormous accolades it received from Romero, Tarantino, Rodriguez, Stephen King and everyone else that saw it. Like From Dusk till Dawn, this flick was made by a huge fan of the zombie genre and takes careful time to develop the characters before throwing them into complete chaos.

Zombies are a perfect metaphor for the banalities of 9:00-5:00 living and Shaun is flawless as the underachieving slacker/drinker forced into heroism by ridiculous circumstances. The movie is hilarious mainly because it explores the awkward, boring and unpleasant side of life much like the Office series or the Christopher Guest movies. The zombies themselves are the standard slow moving ones (pre-28 Days Later) which suits the pace of the movie very nicely. Shaun of the Dead will innevitably be a zombie staple worthy of repeated viewings but I can't help thinking it would stand out much more if the Dawn of the Dead remake wasn't so goddamned brilliant.

The Crazies


(1972) ***1/2

I was hoping to start off with a nasty old 70's splatter-fest courtesy of George Romero. While the back of the box promised unlimited violence and gore, it actually delivered a more bleak, depressing scenario that explores what happens when a paniced government with too much power is forced to deal with the horrific problems that it created. So for all of the paranoid people like myself, it is a very appropriate time to watch the Crazies. Basically, the US government
developed a new germ warfare weapon codenamed Trixie. The virus accidentally gets into the water supply in a Pennsylvania community which threatens to spread mercilessly throughout the entire country if it is not properly contained. Those who get the virus either die painfully or go irreversibly insane. What I love about Romero movies is how he takes them so damned seriously and if nothing else, the Crazies helped him set up a concise template for his crowning achievement - Dawn of the Dead. The government soldiers sent in to round up the masses and control the outbreak wear creepy white suits (that of course, get covered in blood). Because time is of the essence they violently kidnap and kill the innocent people in the community without ever explaining to them what is going on. The town is forced to flee or fight while more and more people are losing their minds. The film itself dragged at times but the story is solid and begs a remake.

Friday, October 01, 2004

The Return of the Fly


(1959) ***1/2

"What if Phillipe does not have the mind of a human, but the murderous brain of a fly?" That's Vincent Price talking, being a little harsh on flies.

Since the original movie was about a guy who inadvertently swaps his head and one hand with that of a fly, and this movie was about his son who somehow does the exact same thing, I was getting ready for the doozy of all plot contrivances. I was thinking I might have to make this review all about decoding the gay undertones of the relationship between the visionary scientist Phillipe and his assistant Alan, a smarmy British guy with a ridiculous thin mustache.

However, imagine my delight when it turns out the assistant is really Ronnie Holmes, one of those electronic expert/crook types, bent on stealing the transporter idea for himself. He hides a corpse by disintegrating it while there's still a disintegrated guinea pig in the machine's workings, and when they reintegrate, the corpse has big furry white hands and the guinea pig has little human ones. Yes! And then he steps on it. Even better, after a rough confrontation leaves Phillipe unconscious on the floor, Ronnie pulls the same disposal stunt. As an afterthought, knowing of his friend's phobia of flies, and what will happen, he tosses a fly in there on purpose! What a bastard!

This is just the way a sequel should behave, I think: broaden the concept, expand the cast and the plot. Ironically, the search from that point is not for the fly with the guy's head, but for the guy, proving you can sneak around downtown Montreal even if your head's the size of a hoppity-hop. In close quarters, the monster is pretty darn creepy, thanks in part to the fly foot he's also got that provides an eerie dragging sound. From a distance he looks kind of silly, but at least the head looks like an actual fly's head, which isn't really true of the first one.

Unlike The Fly, Return of the Fly is in black and white. It was only released a year later, I assume on a thin budget. Nevertheless, it delivers. An excellent entry out of the gate.

I know it's not going to last even another day, but I can't believe I'm in the lead at all. Eat my dust!