Thursday, November 30, 2006

Bad Dreams

(1988) ****

Dun-duh-NUH!  My last review.  Now I can finally say: Hey JPX - finish your damn reviews!   Seriously, it's December now for chrissakes.    

Bad Dreams exceeded my expectations even after reading this and this.  And Roger Ebert's self-righteous rant sealed the deal. For a film which could accurately be described as an Elm Street by-product (mass murderer continues to kill from beyond the grave by getting inside the victims' minds), it still sticks out as one of the few horror chestnuts from the 80's.    

Yes, Bad Dreams is first and foremost a midnight movie with special effects that are good *ahem* for the time. It's primary goal is jolting a younger audience with shocking death sequences. But it also has much more than that. As a Horrorthonner, If I were to judge these movies by how much they linger with me into the month of November then this would be near the top. Richard Lynch's portrayal of the charismatic Harris is entirely convincing and ultra-creepy. He speaks with a comforting air of wistfulness and benevolence. It's easy to see how his followers are reduced to a collection of vacant-eyed bodies who can no longer identify right from wrong.

Better yet, it touches upon how a how these people with good intentions could reach the point of joining a cult and intentionally lighting themselves on fire. At the mental institution, Cynthia's support group initially insults and rolls their eyes at her naivety. She explains to her snickering audience that her cult deeply believed that if they were selfless enough, they could greatly change the world for the better. One girl in the group immediately sympathizes with this idea and subsequently falls victim to Harris's reign of terror. It begins with the inherent evils of altruism. Those with no self esteem can easily be convinced that self sacrifice is noble but the negation of the self is ultimately the negation of life.

The deaths in Bad Dreams are graphic and grossly unnecessary but I'm not one to see this as a negative thing.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Dementia 13

(1963) **

While cruelly bickering during an evening canoe ride, John Haloran suffers a fatal heart attack much to the chagrin of his opportunist wife Louise. Louise, you see, is not upset about the untimely passing of her beloved, she is pissed off because his demise means that she will not receive a large inheritance once her wealthy, battleaxe of a mother-in-law kicks off. Driven by greed, Louise quickly hatches a plan to ensure that she gets her dough. The first part of her plan involves getting rid of the body, which she handedly achieves by dumping it over the side of the canoe.

The second part of her plan involves forging a letter from John that is designed to convince his family that he has been called to New York on urgent business. The third part of her plan, the complicated part, involves traveling to her deceased husband’s ancestral home, Castle Haloran, to meet his family and to figure out a way to ensure some inheritance.

Upon arrival Louise quickly learns that John’s sister, Kathleen, drowned in the pond abutting the family castle seven years prior and it is now the anniversary of that tragedy. Louise witnesses the family mourn this loss in a bizarre annual ritual, which her mother-in-law insists upon. While watching the machinations of this ritual Louise hatches a plan; drive her mother-in-law, who already believes that her dead daughter haunts the castle, into insanity by using the deceased daughter as leverage. Her plan, which is complicated, involves taking some of the deceased little girl’s toys, diving into the pond where she drowned, and arranging them underwater is such a manner that they will eventually rise to the surface creating much creepiness. She decides to do this at night, of course. Much to her horror she discovers a shrine to Kathleen on the bottom of the pond, and Kathleen’s perfectly preserved body, which freaks her out.

As if this isn’t stressful enough, as soon as she attempts to climb out of the pond someone tries to behead her.

Louise’s attempts at chicanery stir up old family secrets, kind of like poking a beehive with a stick, or publishing anti-Muslim cartoons. It seems that Kathleen’s death was not accidental and someone is going through great lengths to protect the secret of this “tragedy”. Soon family members begin to die and deeply buried madness emerges.

Dementia 13 is mostly notable for being Francis Ford Coppola's first film. What you get is b-movie material by an up and coming a-list director. Marginally entertaining, the “whodunit?” mystery is really not that difficult to unravel. The murderer is fairly obvious and is telegraphed early on. The discovery of the underwater shrine is effectively creepy, yet it’s one of those situations where you’ll say to yourself, “How could she see that clearly…underwater…at night?” In real life the “shrine” would be at most a blurry dark spot. Meh, it’s okay.

Watch the entire movie here.

Dentist 2

(1998) **1/2

In the sequel that no one asked for, snow globe enthusiast* Corben Bernsen reprises his role as Dr. Caine, the notorious psycho dentist from the first one. After a daring escape from a mental institution, Dr. Caine forges a new identity for himself in the small Midwestern town of Paradise. Determined to overcome his demons, the good doctor starts a new practice, falls in love and briefly leads a life of peace. After being exposed to some poor Midwestern hygiene though, his mad dentist instincts resurface. The threat posed by his girlfriend's ex soon sends him over the edge and a new killing spree ensues.

To his credit, he does manage to make it through his first routine checkup without murdering the patient, offering a glimmer of hope that things could work out. But the second guy is not so lucky... Like the first installment, the closeups of Dr. Caine poking, clamping and drilling around in people's mouths were more than enough to satisfy my twisted horror needs and if Brian Yuzna's goal was to make me never want to set foot in a dentist office again; he did a damn fine job. One scene that still bothers me introduced a game called "Truth or Tooth", which he played with an unsuspecting bank teller.

As a '98 B-movie, Dentist 2 is somewhat passable, even watchable. But it eventually boils down to: does this Bernsen guy make a good psycho? And the answer is - no, not really. He tries too hard and he giggles too much. And the giggling is only a symptom of a much grander problem that I am only just grasping the magnitude of.

I can't in good conscience recommend these Dentist flicks. But I'm pretty sure I'd watch a third one.

*I'mNotMarc's Corben Bernsen research led to the discovery that the actor is an avid snow globe collector. I thought there might be something interesting about that hobby but our extensive research led to nothing. Octopunk felt that snow globe collecting is for unimaginative people who want to collect something but just don't know what. It's a hard point to argue. The most expensive snow globe on Ebay is this Luis Vuitton "rarity" going currently for $480:
For more information on how to collect snow globes visit:

In Dentist 2, a door-to-door snow globe salesman character is introduced in the beginning. He seems relevant for a while but then he just disappears a third of the way into the movie. What the hell is that about? Lame life imitating lame art? Is that even really a job? Would anyone buy a snow globe from a door-to-door salesman?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Halloween II trailer

Halloween II

Jordan has a great memory.

Halloween II opening

Halloween II dramatic opening clip

Here's the opening of Halloween II with the new footage inserted. I've always wondered why Laurie stayed in the house rather than leave with the children?

Listen to Carpenter's tweaked music after Loomis says, "You don't know what death is". Good stuff.

Halloween II

(1981) ***1/2

“More of the night he came home” (lamest tagline ever)

Utterly unnecessary, Halloween II is best viewed as another example of early 80s Hollywood-horror-sequelitis-avarice (see Jaws 2, Psycho 2, Friday the 13th 2, etc). According to my research John Carpenter agreed to help out on Halloween II only after stipulating that he would not direct. Instead Rick Rosenthal was handed the reins. Nerd rumor suggests that Carpenter actually ended up directing a few sequences after viewing Rosenthal’s initial cut of the film.

Although filmed 3 years after Halloween, Halloween II picks up immediately after the original. In fact, as the film begins we’re shown the ending of the original (in case we forgot), with Michael falling from the second story of Tommy Doyle’s home. For reasons unknown, Rosenthal actually re-shot this scene. We now see Michael hit the ground from a new angle, accompanied by that cartoon sound that’s used whenever something heavy hits the ground. Perhaps he was attempting to better mesh this scene with new footage of Loomis running out of the house to look at the imprint of Michael’s body in the grass? Halloween II follows Michael as he slowly works his way to the hospital where Laurie Strode is now being cared for. Along the way he makes the requisite kills and we learn that Laurie is his sister. Meanwhile Loomis is still being yelled at for “letting him out”, which never made any sense to me. Halloween II climaxes with Michael stalking Laurie through the empty halls of the hospital.

Given that the original is a stand-alone horror masterpiece, I know I’m not supposed to like Halloween II, yet I can’t deny that I’ve always found it to be a solid sequel. The first half of the film is completely forgettable, mostly plagiarizing its predecessor; however the latter part of the film, which focuses on Michael-stalking-Laurie through the halls of the empty hospital to Carpenter’s chilly score manages to evoke some of the terror replete in the original. One notable shot, Michael walking through a glass door as if it does not exist, is particularly effective. Carpenter has been quoted as saying, “I had made that film once and I really didn't want to do it again.” Although this sequel offers nothing new, it still manages to suggest the spirit of the original, something none of the other sequels in the franchise have been able to do. Also, for those demanding an “ending” (or at least a happy one), Halloween II does complete the story, although it effectively neuters the terrifying conclusion of the original.

One final note, I found this small blurb during my research,

“A small controversy surrounded the film after its release. Richard Delmer Boyer, of Fullerton, CA, murdered an elderly couple while on drugs. In court, he claimed that the drugs caused him to flashback to HALLOWEEN II, and thus commit the murder. It became known around Fullerton as the "HALLOWEEN II" murders, according to TNT Monstervision host Joe Bob Briggs.”

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Thing

(1982) ****1/2

Now we're talking! John Carpenter's The Thing is one of the staples of my pre-driver's lisence teens, and it still holds up. This was an early video rental for us (probably early 1983), and I recall my dad and I watching this one really late with all the lights off. By the end of the third Thing manifestation, this movie had done what no other movie has matched -- it made me tremble.

Gone is James Arness or even a hulking figure in a torn flight suit -- this creature is a shapeshifter and this movie's take on shapeshifting will make you wince. The transformations are hideous displays of truly chaotic flesh, the old forms bloodily ripping themselves apart, giving way to a wet fireworks display of writhing tentacles, sprouting insect legs and gooey viscera. The imagination and skill of the effects team is a major character in this film, not only for the many blink-and-you'll-miss-it gore moments, but also for the sculpted set pieces on which the camera can linger, like this dead beauty below that has forensic scientist Wilford Brimley groaning in disgust.

The set-up to this story boasts all kinds of good weirdness. It opens with two men in a helicopter chasing a lone dog across the Antarctic tundra. The starkly beautiful scene is offset by the fact that the men are desperately trying to kill the dog. When the pooch reaches an American science base, its pursuers' mania to kill it results only in their own deaths and a big puzzle for the Americans. Investigating the Norwegian base the strangers came from, Kurt Russell and company find forboding clues to the mystery. The base is destroyed, and a man sits with his wrists slashed, the blood a ragged red icicle dropping from his hands. There's a large block of ice resembling an empty coffin, and a specimen of twisted human flesh frozen in the middle of a baffling transformation. Even before we know what happens, one thing is quite clear: it was really, really bad.

While they're sifting clues, however, their own bad scene is much farther along than they know. The Norwegian's dog wanders all over the place before being put in the kennel and going all monsta, so when the good Dr. Brimley figures out the Thing's methods, he knows they're way past Far Too Late. This alien only needs to infect a host with one cell, and eventually the host has completely transformed. It's a whole different ball game.

Like the orginal, the remake has a brooding sense that the Thing is always somewhere on the compound. I kept careful track of the cast this time, and sure enough spotted one character who goes out in the snow and just never comes back. It's bad enough that the Thing is out there in the cold, lurking, but the shapeshifting takes it even further. It's always someone on the compound. Gone is the human camaraderie from the original, in this movie it's all these guys can do not to shoot each other in the head. Their grasp of the situation is constantly slipping further away; by the time they devise a way to detect who's human, their numbers have been winnowed down considerably.

A couple things about this movie fascinate me. One is the amount of crazy stuff that's going on off-screen. The original had that going on, too, but a lot of that was about the logistics of keeping the monster effective. The remake isn't afraid to get its stuff right up in your face, but still it's smart enough to not show us everything. Near the end the remaning humans investigate the power outage and discover the generator's gone. "Well, can we fix it?" asks Kurt Russell, not understanding. "MacReady, it's gone." Which means the Thing can either be that strong in human form or, more likely, shaped itself so it could haul off the generator. Isn't that weird?

The other thing I dig is the notion of an organism that carries in a single cell the knowledge to construct a flying saucer out of spare parts. Like the original, we never really hear the alien talk -- only roar and howl and gurgle in frightening ways (the creature sounds in this movie are fantastic). Sure, we hear it say lines when it's acting human, but it's never clear what the alien's point of view is, whether its separate manifestations help each other, how smart it is when it's in dog shape, etc. Like the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the main drive seems to be expansion. Beyond that the motives remain a mystery, and we're stuck with just the transformative exploits to think about. At least the Thing uses its imagination in these oozing, malevolent performance pieces, never more so than with the incredible head bug here.

As the last strains of the Ennio Morricone sountrack played over the dark image of the burning camp, I sadly ushered out another year's beloved Horrorthon. My Thing double feature was a perfect way to go out, but still my list of intended viewings stretched out ahead of me. Ah well, that's for next year.

Great contest, guys. Some top-notch stuff churned out this year. This event remains one of my favorite things on the calendar, and it's a priviledge to compete with fans and writers such as yourselves.

That's fifty for me. I'm pretty sure JPX is already past me.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Thing from Another World

1951 ****

This movie's Horrorthon appearance may come as a bit of a surprise, since I myself have often said, while trying to define what would be an acceptable contest entry: "the Thing remake counts, the original doesn't." Then during this year's contest my father sent me the following story.

"I think this original with James Arness as the 'Thing' made back in the early 1950's was one of the scariest movies of the time. I probably told you the story, but here goes:

They didn't allow kids to attend an evening movie unless accompanied by an adult and the last showing was coming up and I wanted to see it. It was at a time when UFO's were in the news (much before Sputnik was launched in 1957, when I was a freshman in college), so the public was excited about the possibility of space travel and more so if an alien was orbiting earth. My Uncle Roger said that he would take me after dinner. The movies repeated themselves then, so if you missed the beginning, you could stay to see it when they played it again. There was a song popular at the time called The Thing in the Hat, sung by a comedienne Phil Harris, so Roger thought the movie was going to be a comedy. We came in late and just as we are sitting down, for the first time the audience sees the 'Thing' on the screen and everyone screams with the terror of the moment. Roger almost has a heart attack and says, "What the hell did you bring me to watch?"

It was a great flick back then and the opening shot of the scientists making a circle on the ice to estimate the size of the object( the saucer) under the ice was most memorable. The remake was also well done, but the first one was a grabber for a kid in junior high. Try to catch it if you can."

So I was thinking of submitting The Thing from Another World before the council when I noticed that both Netflix and Imdb had it listed as a horror movie. "Screw the council!," I thought, tossing my goblet of brandy in the fire. I promptly made my plans to view both versions as a Halloween double feature, and then very un-promptly forgot to figure the Netflix turnaround time and had to rent a VHS copy at the last minute. See my C.H.U.D. II review for that story.

Pay attention here's the thick of the plot: Hearty American Air Force guys investigating a crashed "plane" find instead a flying saucer, trapped beneath the ice that melted on impact and then re-froze. Trying to free the craft, they accidentally destroy it, but get the consolation prize of the pilot, frozen in his own block of ice nearby. Once they get him back to the arctic science base, a debate ensues: Snooty intellectual Dr. Carrington wants to wake him up and rap, sure that any being advanced enough for space travel would be a source of limitless wisdom. But the even-tempered Captain Hendry is more cautious, ordering the ice block kept frozen and under constant guard. The second man on watch dislikes the creepy gaze of the visitor, and covers the block with a blanket, which naturally turns out to be the first watch's electric blanket. And the beast is loose!

I read that this is actually the first movie to ever portray an alien arriving on Earth (beating The Day the Earth Stood Still by several months), and it is deserving of the honor. Much like the original Halloween, it displays an almost puzzlingly high level of quality when viewed against the films that followed in its wake. In your typical 1950's horror/sci-fi flick, there's the obligatory "boring part" that often takes up half the movie, laying down the clunky pseudo-science and stiff character relationships before we see the good stuff. Sometimes there's a booming narrator for this part. The Thing from Another World doesn't ever feel that way; it's got sharp, snappy dialogue that's briskly layered, the characters often talking over each other in a staccato patter. This isn't Robert Altman's "point the camera at three simultaneous conversations" method, this stuff flows together perfectly. It's a signature technique of Howard Hawks, who is considered an uncredited director on the movie. I'm not an expert on his work, but he directed such classics as Bringing Up Baby, The Big Sleep and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Far more sophisticated fare than the flying saucer movies that were to come.

With this engaging direction going on, the film emerges as a great horror flick. The Thing itself gets very little screen time, but it never fails to be a menacing presence on the compound, as our heroes try to track it with geiger counters and guess its next move. I've heard that there were unused close-ups of the Thing that were shot and then cut because they diminished the creature's fright factor. That's one of those decisions that makes the horror fan in me jump up and down -- such an early example of the "don't show too much monster" technique (as seen in Jaws, Halloween, and Alien to name a few), and they didn't overdo it, either. With the shadowy shape comes some inspired sound design; the Thing's deep howls ring across the snow, telling of a brutish rage that belies its intelligence. Of course nutty Dr. Carrington, bless him, believes in the Thing's wise benevolence right up until it patonks him on the head.

The Thing also used one of my favorite features this year: good guys who aren't nigh-useless in a crisis. You couldn't ask for a more sympathetic portrayal of the military: Captain Hendry with his smooth, effective command of his men, each one of them capable, adaptive and brave. It's 1951, so even the nerdy journalist can brag about being shot at in Europe. The sense of post-war comaraderie is palpaple, it's all "We won! And we'll do it again!" It's very Cold War, of course, with the implication that we'll whup those commies just as good as we did that spaceman...but I found the whole thing infectious. I mean, it's hard not to like a movie that's got one of these on the front of it:

The Thing from Another World comes highly recommended. It won't scare you like it did my great uncle Roger, but it will surprise you.

For more good chitchat on this movie, check out And You Call Yourself a Scientist's excellent review here.

Friday, November 24, 2006

zombie roundup

Here are a few extraneous points I wanted to make about zombies, Romero's zombie movies, and the Dawn of the Dead remake.

1) I added this to the bottom of my review of Dawn of the Dead (2004) directly below, but I don't think anyone saw it, so I moved it up here:

ADDENDUM II: Dawn of the Dead joins an impressive roster of fantasy/sci-fi/horror movies that follow the unwritten rule that, before the end of the world, the protagonist must fall asleep and re-awaken. Tom Cruise does it; Sarah Polley does it; Cillian Murphy does it. Sometimes it's a full night's sleep and sometimes it's just a catnap, but it's somehow necessary: you doze off, and when you wake up, everything's different. You may not realize it yet, but the phonograph needle of the universe has skated off the edge, and the nightmare has begun in earnest. It's a deeply Freudian, deeply primal motif that's been serving the purposes of apocalyptic fiction for decades: the original Dawn of the Dead begins with Fran waking up against a wall of blood-red carpet with an associate (also awakening) uttering the movie's first line: "I'm still dreaming." Examples: War of the Worlds (2005); Miracle Mile (1988); 28 Days Later (2002); 12 Monkeys (1995). Any others you gentlemen can think of?

2) I missed a cameo/homage in my first roundup (also below): the WGON helicopter from the first version makes an appearance right before the opening titles, in one of the nine or ten heavily-digital shots of Ana fleeing her neighborhood (right before she gets temporarily stuck behind the bus whose panicked driver attempts to take her car from her). Look!

WGON helicopter

I hasten to add that I missed this more than once: it took the director's commentary for me to catch on. (You can see the heathaze and fumes coming off the helicopter in the new shot, which corresponds to footage I've seen of helicopters filmed from above: I point this out only by way of admiring the work done on the digital helicopter. That's a hell of a lot of effort just to create an homage that even I missed twice! Way to go, guys.)

3) Thinking about the Zombie Rules and the question of whether they change from Romero to the new movie, I suddenly realized that I can't think of a single character in any of the Romero movies who dies a non-bite-related death and then comes back as a zombie (Unless you count the very first zombie in the graveyard in Night, but we don't really know anything about him, do we?) Ignoring that zombie for purposes of argument, every other character who becomes a zombie gets bitten by a zombie (including Stephen in the elevator, above) so it might as well be the new rules. I'm not sure what I'm getting at, but the 2004 zombie plague spreads about ten times faster than Romero's zombie plagues, and this may have something to do with a) the new fast zombies as well as b) yes, you have to be bitten, but (as octopunk pointed out before) how close are any of us to hospitals, morgues, funeral homes, graveyards etc. anyway?

4) Kyle Cooper, oft-imitated but never-equalled film design guru extraordinaire, did the opening title design for 2004's Dawn of the Dead. He's the guy who did the titles to Se7en (which was his first claim-to-fame); He's done a number of title sequences in this style before, so I was glad to discover that they went and got the real McCoy for this movie.

5) Octopunk and I have had a few conversations about the intriguing inverse relationship between the enjoyment levels on either side of the movie screen. With sci-fi and horror movies specifically, the worse things are for the characters in the story, the better they are for us, watching the movie. Trailers for upcoming summer movies understand this and work like travel brochures in reverse: they keep tantalizing you with how BAD things are in the place they're talking about. The final "stinger" shot in the trailer is usually something truly, deeply awful like the tanker truck slamming into the windshield (and your face) in Twister or the Alien drone moving its head to nuzzle Ripley's in Alien 3.

So, along those lines (bad=good) I think it's fair to say that the true charm of the zombie threat is that it's just way, way worse than anything else. I refer you to my comments about the "automatic end of the world" below; when I was discussing zombie movies with a few friends who were over at my house the night before Thanksgiving (to look at the balloons) and we watched the openings of both versions of Dawn of the Dead, I said, "Against vampires, you've got a chance. Against Aliens [Scott/Cameron/Fincher] you've got a chance. Against 'body snatchers' [e.g. "pod people"] you've got a chance. Against "the machines" [Terminator or Matrix] you've got a chance. Against "Martians" [H. G. Wells] you've got a chance. Against zombies...forget it." When we got back from the title sequence and Ving Rhames was holding the shotgun on Sarah Polley, we agreed that it was clearly game over already.

There are some interesting ideas here, I think. Why are they so damned unstoppable, especially given that they don't have amazing powers (like vampires) or super-advanced technology (like the machines) or the ability to blend in (like pod people)? I can think of a couple of reasons. First of all, unlike other threats that take over the identities of the good guys, the zombies do this very quickly and indiscriminately. Remember how Veronica Cartwright came outside and noticed that pods of Donald Sutherland and the others were forming, and woke them up (thus cancelling the lengthy pod-forming process)? Major setback for the pods, right? (Because they were creating duplicates, which is apparently a painstaking job.) Well, had those been zombie bites instead of pods, forget it. It would have only taken a few minutes (Romero) or a few seconds (2004) for the protagonists to be permanently out of the game (or rather, playing for the other team).

So speed's important and communicability is important but what's most interesting about the zombie threat is something that octopunk hinted at with his phraseology about how the zombies "get the upper hand and never lose it" (which implies a determined struggle on both sides): for such a deadly, unstoppable threat, they're incoherent. Unlike every other threat I mentioned two paragraphs above, they don't have any kind of master plan at all. They're not trying to do anything per se, so they can't be reasoned with or fooled or delayed or outwitted. The Warchowski's "machines" used us for food, too, but their technique for doing so was very sophisticated, and, unfortunately for them, allowed a narrow window of human consciousness and tactical breathing room (the "matrix") in which we could mount a subversive rebellion and inculcate a subsequent military revolution out in the real world. Vampires get fixated on individual prey or get overcome by hubris and make mistakes. The aliens will be canny; they will negotiate with Ripley ("Tell those drones to back off or I'm torching the eggs") to even the odds; human ingenuity prevails. But the zombies are pure animal force; pure Darwin, and they can't be reasoned with or out-schemed. So they take over the world, every time, as noted. It's got to be an especially galling defeat, because losing to "the machines" or the body snatchers at least means there's going to be something left that you can respect a little bit ("This is our time," Agent Smith tells Morpheus), but the zombies just turn the entire world into shit irreversibly (as we see in the opening of Day of the Dead -- nice "Brave New World" you guys created there...makes it all worthwhile), which makes them scarier and more deadly by an order of magnitude.

6) I went back and re-read "Home Delivery" by Stephen King (now that I've seen all the Romero) and I think it's terrible. I stress that the outer space sequence is scary as hell and well done, but he should have just made up his own story and not grafted that idea onto Romero's. I'm completely convinced that the one thing the zombie story shouldn't have is a coherent explanation. It ruins it somehow. Besides, how much scarier is it if we just never find out what the hell happened? It seems much more realistic to me. (It must have taken a long time, in both Wells' version and Spielberg's, to figure out what suddenly happened to the invading aliens, even though the narrator understands immediately.) So "Home Delivery" combines a needless explanation, a mediocre retelling of the "zombies taking over, as seen on television" concept, and then a boring graveyard-shootout in a little island town. Yawn.

I can't even think about zombies on an island now without going back to the extreme end of the 2004 Dawn of the Dead (which was added much later, in Los Angeles, when test-screening audiences objected to the suddenness of the "gunshot/blackout" ending. It's like Schrödinger's Cat, isn't it? "Are you sure you want to see what happened?"). In the DVD commentary, the director etc. refer to the looming shadow through the mist in the camcorder footage by saying, matter-of-factly, "there's Zombie Island" and not even discussing it, as if there was never any question for the filmmakers that the survivors were on their way, deliberately, to a place known as "Zombie Island." They really should have stayed at the mall, if you ask me.

7) The opening of 2004 Dawn follows a specific pattern that I really like, which compares with the opening of Revenge of the Sith and the Bathtime at Clerkenwell animation: first you focus quietly on a SINGLE item (spaceship, singing bird, zombie) until you get the basic idea, and then you pull back or open a door or glide past the edge of a battlecruiser and suddenly see the entire thing. (Wouldn't Sarah Polley and her husband have HEARD all of that shit going on outside their house? Helicopters; sirens; gunfire; burning houses and vehicles; car crashes; explosions; screaming—yet the bedroom is so quiet you can hear the tiles on the old-school digital clock flipping over.) It's a great technique. The Romero movies get the idea across with verbal explanations, each time. (You don't even understand the zombie in the 1968 graveyard until Ben explains it.) But the 2004 version teaches you what's happening by showing you the husband's instant tranformation so you can't possibly misunderstand or get confused.

8) I quickly got tired of hunting down reviews of 2004 Dawn of the Dead because even the positive ones hasten to add the caveat that the new movie "lacks the depth/social commentary" of the original, which (they point out) was so shrewdly knowing in its equasion of mall-shoppers with zombies. I think that's bunk: First, the new movie has plenty of "depth" of its own as I've noted; it's about 9/11 and AIDS and CNN and consumerism and guns and other pertinent themes, and, anyway, there's just no way to conclude that a story so primally evocative is without depth unless you're looking for categorical excuses to dismiss it because of its formal identity as a bloody horror movie. (Apparently the original was "a satire," which is news to me.) Where were all these critics when the original came out? The only review I can find from 1978 that praises Romero's Dawn of the Dead is by Roger Ebert, who basically gets it right. Being on the cultural vangard is easy when it's twenty-six years later; it's getting things right at the time that's hard because you've got to think for yourself, and not mindlessly follow the herd in search of sustenance, like a...well, never mind.

That's it for now! Truly outstanding material all around. Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Dawn of the Dead

Well, this was the dessert course that nobody expected, wasn't it? A big slice of cappucino cheesecake sent over compliments of the chef and on the house—with brandy, espresso and a Cuban cigar. Yeah.

For me, these zombie movies turned out to be a roundabout re-introduction to what makes right now, the present moment, such a great time in the history of movies. To go from the doldrums of the mid-eighties -- a time during which, in my opinion, everybody did their worst work (Garry Trudeau, Woody Allen, Elvis Costello, everybody) -- straight to 2004 (beautiful, digital 2004) was an exhilarating reminder of how far movies have come. The technical artistry and visual sophistication that goes into even a mid-budget, B-list-actor horror movie like this is so stunning, so far beyond anything possible in the previous decades that it boggles the mind. Additionally, the de rigeur collection of "average" people in each film reveals something interesting about the modern era -- at least on film, a randomly-selected group of Americans (and, by extension, the audience watching and grooving on them) are many degrees smarter, more sophisticated, more culturally savvy and just cooler than their counterparts in the previous decades' films.

Summerisle called Romero's dismissal of this movie "sour grapes," but I think it's more than that. On the 1978 Dawn of the Dead DVD commentary, Romero and Tom Savini talk at great length about how they disapprove of CGI and don't like digital film in general. They make a lot of arguments about how it's not "natural" and how CGI "throws you out of the movie" (all of which remind me of Bob Dylan -- not the sharpest knife in the drawer -- talking in 1987 about how he disliked "unnatural" audio CDs). Watching revered directors like John Schlessinger try to make modern thillers (Ronin) reinforces the argument that the art of cinema is just moving forward at great speed, leaving older artists and their talents behind. (The only '70s director who has managed to fuse the best of his '70s sensibility with the cutting edge of today's film techniques is, of course, the man himself, Steven Spielberg.) So, I agree with Summerisle that this movie marks a fundamental advance over the original, and, more significantly, a movie that Romero himself could never have made.

So it's the end of the world and zombies are taking over (with the threat spreading out subjectively from the characters' experience, as other reviews have noted) and the material available on television and in the montage that frames the opening titles quickly make use of the best techniques available for conveying the magnitude of the crisis: from Romero's black-and-white television with the man in the horn-rimmed glasses explaining the "civil unrest" (in the '60s, when "civil unrest" was actually something people talked about), we've come forward thirty-five years to the CNN era and a wobbly Betacam showing a press secretary in front of the Capitol Building flanked by secret service machine-gunning zombies. Nurse Sarah Polley and cop Ving Rhames run through a ten-minute "mini-28 Days Later" (evading the new, FAST zombies) and end up in a shopping mall, where, once again, the walking dead surround the entrances because "this was a special place to them" and, once again, it's the perfect place for a showdown: us vs. the walking dead (and, once again, we lose).

The end of the world 2004-style hits an American population that seems considerably more ready for it. There are those who say that The Two Towers and Attack of the Clones (and Revenge of the Sith) are commenting on the Iraqi war; I tend to agree, and, along the same lines, the Americans in the new Dawn of the Dead face the global disaster with a hardened, knowing resignation and fortitude that obviously has something to do with these times we live in. (Our generation has its own uneasy relationship with the literal, biblical Apocalypse as well; the characters were obviously already thinking about the "End of Days" even before the zombies hit.)

I compared zombie movies to vampire movies before, but there's a crucial difference: call it the "Kenny factor" or the "Aeon Flux" factor. What can this possibly mean? Basically that, unlike vampire stories, which run the gamut from a single Vampire and its direct spawn (Dracula) to an entire town ('Salem's Lot) to larger populations (Blade), the zombie story always involves a threat that grows without boundaries, as long as there are people dying anywhere, so, ergo, "zombie story" = "world overrun by zombies" no matter what. There's just no such thing as a "limited" zombie story; the world dies each time, like Kenny in South Park or Aeon Flux in her early animated adventures. Romero understood this and never bothered to try to tie his various stories together as one narrative; he just comes in at a later stage each time: we see the beginning of the catastrophe that ends the world in 1968 and then the middle of the catastrophe that ends the world in 1978 and then the end of the catastrophe that ends the world in 1985; the world just ends, over and over, each time, like Kenny's death, because the zombie story itself is a one-of-a-kind yet endlessly repeating fable that applies to each era with equal force.

The group of survivors who gather here are likable and interesting, and, more significantly, deal with their differences of opinion rather quickly and efficiently (for a change). As I said above, they seem smarter than their counterparts in earlier zombie movies (they're certainly more tolerant of each other and more innovative). In fact, everything happens with a speed and economy that's tremendously refreshing after the shambling chaos of the '60s, '70s and '80s versions. The speed of the story has its drawbacks: the one thing I feel this movie lacked was a coherent framework for depicting the horror of good people turned into bad zombies; in each case it all happens so fast (death-awakening-snarl-headshot) that there's no time for anything like the woman in the tenement who embraces her dead husband only to have him sink his teeth into her shoulder. But the business with Matt Frewer and the ending on the dock more than made up for that.

And how about those homages/cameos? Look!

Tom Savini

Scott H. Reiniger

Ken Foree

Gaylen Ross

BP (A Qualpeco Company)

Yes indeed, it's the details that count. Speaking of details, Summerisle went bananas over the Andy tape (which I haven't watched yet) but holy shit, did you guys watch the fucking closing credits? The camcorder "found on the boat" with old footage on it? The movie ends like the Beatles' "Helter Skelter"-- you fade out in with reasonably presentable set of conditions, assuming the best, and then peek behind the curtain to watch it all fall apart "after" the ending. That horrible boat ride...and the island of zombies...and the camera's still God, it's good. (If you freeze frame in the final burst of video static, you can catch a few frames of two bimbos kissing from the tape's original content as the camera heads skip until you're back with the zombies advancing on the lens.)

A fine piece of work all around. And I think I'm pretty much "zombied out" for now, but man, what a ride! Now I've got to go watch Howard's End or something to cleanse my palette.

ADDENDUM: They changed the rules, didn't they? Only zombie-bite-victims get zombified? I hope I've got that wrong, because it screws up the premise. (How could it start without corpses rising from the grave?)

The Changeling

(1980) ****

When his wife and child are killed in a car accident, a grieving John Russell (George C. Scott) moves to a haunted house in Seattle. Did I mention... that the house is haunted? Oh yes, I already did cover that, pardon me. After witnessing the obligatory door slams and piano-plays-itself gags, John gets the point that the house is trying to tell him something. How refreshing! It bothers me when people are in denial about their house being haunted. None of that "it's only the wind" or "it's the floor settling" crap here. George C. Scott instantly moves to the "Ok, it's haunted, well what am I going to do about it?" phase. In a delightfully eerie seance, the ghost reveals himself as a child who was brutally murdered in that very home. John sees it as his duty to help this ghost find peace and conducts a thorough investigation into the crime. Clues surface and a horrific vision details the specifics of the deadly events.

With the possible exception of the slasher film, haunted house movies are more often than not the most uninspired and predictable of the horror lot. Rarely do they stray far from the House on Haunted Hill template. The Amityville series did it's best to kill the genre altogether and may have ultimately succeeded. The Changeling is light years ahead of its peers and most of its descendants. Driven by a gray and somber overall mood, George C. Scott plays the role with a stoic determination that kept me captivated by the mystery until the very end. His performance offers something that most "scary" movies don't dare go near - level-headedness. This is an extremely dangerous choice because when making a movie intended to frighten, it's not in one's best interest to have your main character immune to fear. Somehow the Changeling pulled it off.

I was stunned to learn how much Ringu/Ring borrowed from the Changeling. Not only was an integral plot development blatantly stolen (but made better), the look and feel of the movies also shared much common ground.

Saw II

Very clever indeed. This definitely kept me guessing until the end, and (unlike its predecessor) was put together with a cinematic flair that actually justified a lot of its more garish features (like those stacatto montages that octopunk complained about so hilariously). I'm glad somebody decided to just write James Wan a check, thank him kindly, and then escort him from the premises and bring in a professional director, because the filmmaking is much snappier and more alert and the difference is clear immediately.

The Saw movies (so far) are fun but don't have much depth, which is too bad, since they're overtly trying to convey an idea. I don't necessarily agree with octopunk in his scathing dismissal of Jigsaw's purposes and methods: the man has a sadistic streak, obviously, but his underlying thinking is reasonably sound, in my opinion. In round two, his "traps" lack the precision and clarity of the ones we saw last time, but I think that's clearly because you're supposed to zoom back to a wider view and understand the grotesque trick that he and his new protégé are playing on Detective Matthews.

(We don't do "spoiler warnings" here on Horrorthon, right? I certainly hope not, because I've been "spilling the beans" left and right.)

As I mentioned, I don't believe these movies to have much depth, which is why they tend to evaporate in the mind like bloody cotton candy mere hours after you've seen them. I think the real problem is a rather insurmountable debt to David Fincher (which Saw can't overcome any more than countless sci-fi movies like Outland and Event Horizon never migrate beyond the margins of the Ridley Scott material they're mimicking). Octo pointed out that Saw is built out from the Tyler Durden gun-to-the-head sequence in Fight Club; this film draws its entire essence from the final twenty minutes of Se7en, which is too bad, because (just like Peter Hyams is no Ridley Scott) these people are not Fincher, and cannot imbue the material with the same majestic savagery and existential nihilism as Fincher's movies have.

The comparison is especially unkind to Donny Wahlberg, who, I think, is very good in the movie, but he's burdened with the problem of not being Brad Pitt, who (as I'm saying) already played exactly this role and did it so well that nothing Wahlberg does can possibly eclipse Pitt's searing performance. ("What's in the box?") Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and all that, but there's only one Brad Pitt and Wahlberg ain't him.

Other points:

1) As good as Wahlberg is, Dina Meyer is awful. She's obviously kept herself sharp-faced (as all Hollywood women must) but she's no better here than she was in Starship Troopers and her huffa-puffa acting weakened her sequences considerably.

2) Some of the traps don't make sense. I lost track of all the hidden syringes; we never find out what's in the first safe ("What's in the safe?"); the concept of piecing together a lock combination from seven or eight digits makes no sense (there are a million permutations); nobody takes the antidote; the big huge guy turns into a raving maniac and stops making any sense (his desire to kill the others is incoherent); and, in general, the scheme lacks the precision of the similar business in the first movie.

3) Like I said, the "twists" are terrific.

4) With the exception of Ms. Meyer, all the actors are good. I particularly liked Glenn Plummer ("the black guy") but I've liked him ever since Speed. Also, the Italian-looking girl is hot.

5) I forgot to mention Cube, another movie that this one resembles.

6) What's the point of the oven trap? What can you possibly do besides get inside and get cooked? And what was the deal with that fantastic graffito of a smirking devil next to that valve? Or am I missing the point entirely?

7) Somebody is going to have to sit me down and explain in simple terms what the hell the deal is with the room in Part I. Why is the guy who wrote the movie dead and mummified in there? I thought he prevailed in the end (and the script wasn't that bad!). Why is there another dead body in the center of the room? Why does everybody end up getting into the bathtub?

I'm picking on the movie but I certainly found it watchable and engaging. You have to understand I'm not used to the "torture film" genre (if there is such a thing) so I may be expecting more than can be delivered. I'm definitely looking forward to the third one (although I'll miss Tobin Bell) and I have to give the franchise credit for intelligently piecing the chapters of the story together. Fun stuff, like I said, but fairly weightless, and less intellectually engaging than it might have been in the hands of more accomplished artists.


(1978) *****

I’m not going to review Halloween again. Yep, that’s right, I’ve reviewed it before and so have other thonners, I mean, what’s really left to say about it? It’s my favorite horror film of all time and it scared the shit out of me when I first caught it on television at age 11. So instead I’m going to answer the question, “How should you watch the Halloween film series?" With 8 films to choose from (so far) there are a variety of ways to get to know Mike.


1. Watch the original Halloween and no others. As a stand-alone film that was never intended to have a sequel, Halloween is bar-none the scariest film I’ve ever seen. The reason it works is because of its simple premise; the boogeyman is going to get you and he can’t be stopped. Michael Myers’ blank mask is the perfect symbol of terror. Every kid fears the boogeyman at some point in childhood and Carpenter captures the purity of this base fear. Additionally, the ending of Halloween leaves one with goose bumps the size of the zits on a nerd; Michael is still out there and he’s going to get you. I can’t imagine what it was like to see this film in the theater when it was first released.

2. Watch Halloween and Halloween II. Despite my assertion that the only way to watch the Halloween series is to only watch the original, I do concede that Halloween II is an acceptable sequel. Although Carpenter isn’t directing this time, he still wrote the sequel and it feels like a natural extension of the original. Carpenter’s creepy music, albeit tweaked a bit, is still driving the film. Halloween II has an “ending”, which makes the first 2 Halloween films a complete story. Also, this is the last time that Michael’s mask looks good.

3. Watch Halloween III: Season of the Witch and no others. Having nothing to do with Michael Myers, Halloween III attempted to reboot the Halloween franchise as an anthology series with self-contained stories. As a stand-alone story I’ve always enjoyed this silly film, which harkens back to the mad-scientist films of the 30s and 40s. It should have been simply titled “Season of the Witch”, which would have avoided pissing off millions of Michael Myers fans.

4. Watch Halloween, Halloween II, and Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. Not nearly up to snuff with the original 2 Halloween films, Halloween 4 nevertheless gets the Halloween series back on track with, well, with the return of Michael Myers.
Loomis is back, scarred from his last battle with Michael in Halloween II. The music now sucks and rather than chasing his sister, Michael is now in hot pursuit of Laurie’s daughter, “Jamie” (get the homage there?). Despite my hatred of little kids in movies, Jamie is bearable and Halloween 4 is pretty fun.

5. Watch Halloween, Halloween II, and Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, and Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers. Well the mask looks pretty damn sucky at this point, and the film is a just-okay sequel, but still, it flows nicely from Halloween 4. Michael is still chasing Jamie, Loomis is still chasing Michael, and we’re introduced to the mysterious man in black. I’m not a big fan of Halloween 5.

6. Watch Halloween, Halloween II, and Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, and Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers (theatrical edition). One of the worst films in the franchise, Halloween 6 is difficult to describe. Jamie has been missing for 6 years, having been kidnapped by a group of satanic druids who care for and protect Michael. After escaping her captors Jamie heads back to Haddonfield in order to obtain Loomis’ help (Loomis doesn’t live in Haddonfield, so this doesn’t make much sense, how presumptuous). Jamie’s adopted family lives in the Myers house (wouldn’t you move given everything that's happened?). Michael begins chopping up the family. We learn that those evil druids control Michael and make him kill his family, which is necessary for some reason that I’m forgetting. It’s up to Tommy Doyle, from the original Halloween, to save the day.

7. Watch Halloween, Halloween II, and Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, and Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers (Producer’s edition). Believe it or not, there exists a completely different cut of Halloween 6, which is far superior to what was released in the theaters. This version has never been officially released, but being an intrepid investigator (nerd) I was able to score a copy at a collectibles show years ago. According to my bootleg box, “After the original completion of Halloween 6, the producer was replaced and over half of the film was reshot, including a new ending. This is the never before seen original version of Halloween 6." Okay, I’m going to be a bit lazy here and refer you to this summary I found about Halloween 6 (Producer’s cut).

“While the theatrical version has more gore, and longer suspense scenes, it cuts large amounts of character and plot development that were present in the producer's cut. The worst examples of these cuts involve Loomis and Doyle. Most of Loomis' scenes are truncated, and we are given little exposition about his relationship with Dr. Wynn. In the producer's cut we are given additional background, and there is a plot point involving Wynn's retirement and his desire to see Loomis replace him as the head of Smith's Grove Sanitarium. Because the film's biggest surprise (in either version) has to do with Wynn, it makes no sense to cut this material. Important info about Tommy Doyle is lost in the theatrical cut as well. In the producer's cut Doyle has figured out the significance of the Thorn rune, and he has a plan to use positive runes against the evil influence it represents. So long as you can keep your suspension of disbelief intact, these elements combine to form a somewhat logical plot.”

For those interested in more about the history of the Producer’s cut go here (where the above quote was taken from):

8. Watch Halloween, Halloween II, and Halloween: H20. To capitalize on the 20th anniversary of the original Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis agreed to reprise the role that made her famous in order to complete her character’s story arc. Suffering from Posttraumatic stress disorder (wouldn’t you?), Laurie, who has changed her identity, now runs a prep school where her eager-to-be-free-from-mom’s-overprotective-behavior son attends. Meanwhile, Michael discovers some papers that identify Laurie and her whereabouts (how fortuitous). Once again Laurie finds herself fighting for her life as she battles the Shape one last time (until Halloween 7). Despite being way too short, Halloween: H20 is a terrific send-up of the Halloween series with a satisfying ending. How many other film franchises put out a superior sequel 7 films in? James Bond?

9. Watch Halloween, Halloween II, Halloween: H20, and Halloween: Resurrection. Halloween: Resurrection is an awful film notable only for the completely unnecessary death of Laurie, which immediately rendered her 20+ year struggle and survival pointless. If you must watch this film just watch the first 15 minutes, which completes the Laurie storyline. For a good review as to why this film sucks more than a toothless hooker I refer you to I’mnotmarc’s excellent review here (Octo).

So there you have it, folks, I hope this guide was helpful. Rob Zombie is remaking the original Halloween for a 2007 release date. It will be interesting to see how his version stacks up against the rest of the franchise. Cheers.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Day of the Dead

The zombies are better. There's no question about that.

Day started very strong, with the helicopter-level view of the blasted-out landscape and the much-improved zombies staggering around. The subsequent portion introducing the setup in the underground base was intriguing and suspenseful, and the mad doctor trying to "domesticate" the zombies (having tacitly given up on solving or understanding the underlying problem) was an interesting concept.

But the movie started to lose my interest about halfway through, when the scenery-chewing Joe Pilato starts laying down his ultimata to everyone. It wasn't so much tht the narrative cohesion got sloppy (although it did, for the first time in a Dead picture, in my opinion) but the complete stupidity of the military personnel grated on me as being simply not plausible. Romero (like Stephen King) has proven himself as having a masterful skill at conveying how panic and disorder overtakes the discipline of human behavior, and he showed this brilliantly in the first two movies, but here, it seemed to fall flat. Compare the solders in The Stand, throughout the entire first third of the book, in the "Ray Flowers" sequence as well as in the underground base, to see a vastly superior handling of the same idea.

The freaked-out soldier who sabotages the elevator and lets the zombies in made no sense to me. It seemed like pure plot device. In general, the behavior of everyone in the movie was bothering me. How far along in the zombie crisis do you have to be before you get this level of anarchy and chaos? It's interesting that Day of the Dead came out a year before Aliens, since the two movies have a more than passing resemblance (with the group of ineffectual military types and the tough female civilian who out-classes them in various ways). But the soldiers in this movie make the soldiers in Aliens look like the world's most perfect commando team -- and the whole point of Cameron's movie is that the military order breaks down almost immediately and it takes a civilian mind to organize them into a fighting force that has some kind of a chance. Captain Rhodes and his cronies are miserably stupid fools, and come off like reluctantly conscripted bums rather than the kind of trained personnel you'd find in circumstances like these.

I liked "Bub" until he got angry over "Frankenstein's" corpse, because I just felt that was really pushing it. If they're that smart, intrinsically, the entire premise starts to wobble and come apart. I've watched the climax of Dawn a few times and the final ten minutes of Stephen's ("Flyboy's") existence (like the last minute of David Naughton's werewolf-life, where it seems for a moment that he recognizes Jenny Agutter before jumping towards her) is heartbreaking and shocking at the same time. Stephen retained just enough of his marbles to tear through that wall they'd built, which (like almost everything in Dawn) resonates with symbolism and tragedy and horror. "Bub's" confrontation with Captain Rhodes was of the far-more-conventional "just deserts" variety, designed to get the audience cheering as an unlikable character gets his.

Other points:

1) There weren't nearly enough "good guys" coming back as zombies! In fact, were there any? It seems to me that that's the whole point (or at least a major portion of it), just like in vampire movies. I kept waiting for one of the two murdered male scientists to come out of the woodwork, but they never did.

2) Can you really tear someone's skin off with your fingernails? Or decapitate a man just by giving his head a good yank? Can a human body be pulled apart like that, just using one's fingers? The zombies aren't super-strong or anything; that's proven every time a live person shoves them away or hits them with a plank to immobilize them. But, somehow, they manage to completely disembowel and dismember living people with just a few pawing motions. (Captain Rhodes in particular comes apart about as easily as a badly-made sandwich.)

3) In general, the visual production wasn't nearly as fine as it was the last two times around. Granted, the Savini effects were vastly superior (despite the "easy-open" people mentioned above) but the compositional flair and masterful cutting rhythms of the first two movies seemed much more mediocre here.

4) When someone's spraying machine gun fire at a crowd of advancing zombies (and, inevitably, going "Yeeaarrghh"), why don't they spray the bullets at the zombie's heads rather than across their midsections, which doesn't even slow them down?

5) The entire world has been overrun by zombies and the movie has to resort to dream sequences to scare me? Maybe I'm overreacting but I hate surprise dream sequences. (I mentioned Aliens, which has its own unnecessary dream sequence at the beginning). There's just got to be better ways to scare me than that. (I give a break to An American Werewolf in London because the dream sequences are so good, and because they convey something important to the story.)

6) So it's November 4th. (Final shot of the film.) So what?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is basically the kind of thing I was expecting from Romero movies in general (before I saw the first two zombie pictures): a series of set pieces designed to show off Tom Savini's talents at making anatomy come messily apart. I think the people who say "no thank you" to this kind of movie are picturing something like this.

By contrast, I have to emphasize again just how brilliant and innovative (and meaningful) the first two movies are. Night and Dawn are landmarks, each deserving its place in cinema history in its own way. This movie is something altogether different. Yes, we get more of the story, and the essential concept (underground bunker where they're desperately trying to solve the problem) is sound, but a little more Andromeda Strain and a little less Friday the 13th would have made a tremendous difference.

Deadtime Stories

(1986) ½ star

Inspired by Horrorthon 2006 conversations regarding horror anthology films (e.g., Creepshow), I decided to check out Deadtime Stories, a film I recall being advertised in the 1980s.

Do I really have to summarize the 3 stories that comprise Deadtime Stories? If ImnotMarc (dude, you really need to change your name) can describe all the Leprechaun films I guess I'm obligated to. Sigh.

Like most horror anthology films, Deadtime Stories is bookended by a framing story. In this case a lazy uncle is forced to keep telling his bratty, afraid-of-the-dark nephew bedtime stories in an effort to get the little shit to sleep (I kept thinking that a punch in the mouth would’ve been equally effective and so much more satisfying for me, the viewer). Don’t even get me started on how much I hated this kid. Okay, so the 3 stories go something like this,

In “Peter and the Witches” two withes have enslaved a young fisherman in order to help them resurrect their dead sister. He ultimately betrays them after falling in love with a virgin he helped kidnap to sacrifice. In “Little Red Running Hood” a fat red riding hood ends up in battle with a pill-popping drug addict after his anti-werewolf prescription is mixed up with riding hood’s grandmother’s prescription. In the final, and worst of the bunch, tale, a trio of homicidal maniacs (The Baers) encounter Goldi Lox, a “sexy” young woman who shares their penchant for dismemberment (and whose boobs we see at one point). Sorry, that’s the best I can do in describing this terrible exercise in tedium. The best part of this film is the title. It’s always sad to me when a good title gets wasted on a bad film or when a great film has an awful title (I’m sure Jordan will be able to whip up examples from both categories).

Every Horrorthonner inevitably stumbles across a film that’s so awful, it’s physically painful to watch. For me, that moment occurred when I popped in Deadtime Stories. About 10 minutes into it my ass really started to hurt. You know the kind of ass hurt I’m talking about; the kind you’ll get pretty quickly while suffering through a Catholic mass, waiting for your number to be called at the DMV, or watching young children play any sporting event. Now, my ass pain mighhhhhhhhht have been from sitting on a really uncomfortable chair at my desk while watching this film on my computer (the DVD wouldn’t work on my player), but most likely it was my body’s way of saying, “You’re making me sit through this? Screw you!” It's one of those times where you think, “Okay, this sucks and I really want to shut it off but I’ve already watched 10 minutes of it and I’ll have to start over again with a different movie and I’ll be losing precious Horrorthon movie watching time…” For those of you who have not yet experienced this inner-dialogue, take it from me, it’s worth it to start another film. Otherwise, if you’re like me, you’ll spend the entire time swearing at the film and your decision to keep watching it. In Deadtime Stories, there’s not a single scare, laugh, or anything for that matter. Even the one shot of 1980s boobs could not fix this. The only satisfying scene is the ending, where the brat's fear of the dark is ultimately justified.

A brief list of other horror anthology films:

Freakshow (1995, William Cooke, Paul Talbot)
Creepshow (1982, George A. Romero)
Tales From the Darkside: The Movie (1990, John Harrison)
The House That Dripped Blood (1971, Peter Duffell)
Creepshow 2 (1987, Michael Gornick)
Cremains (2000)
Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965, Freddie Francis)
Cradle of Fear (2001)
Body Bags (1993, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper)


Saturday, November 18, 2006

Dawn of the Dead

(2004) *****

After 28 Days Later planted the seeds for the Great Zombie Renaissance (2004-2005), the Dawn of the Dead remake took the genre a great leap forward, unexpectedly justifying its very right to exist. I know I'm not the only one who walked into the theater snickering - "Why would they feel the need to drag a masterpiece through the mud? I'm sick of remakes, why can't anyone come up with a new idea anymore?" etc. O'well, I was just happy to be watching a new zombie movie. Two hours later I remember, in an overexcited frenzy, putting forth the notion that Dawn of the Dead '04 surpassed the original. (Only recently have I calmed down enough to retract that claim.)

[I'm going to come clean now. My friend Chopper had an extra ticket through HJY to the sneak preview and I went with him without batting an eye, knowing full well that I agreed to see it with JPX a couple of days later. It was an extremely painful experience pretending I hadn't yet seen it, particularly because every sentence I wanted to say to JPX during those days started with "Omigod, there's this one part when..." I'm not sorry I went to the preview but I do regret not telling JPX and have been carrying the burden of guilt for over 2 years now. This seems like a good time to clear my conscience.]

The biggest achievement Dawn '04 made was in capturing the time period between when the zombies first arrived on the scene (in Night of the Living Dead) and when they had already taken over the world (in the original Dawn). After a narrow escape from her zombified husband, Sarah Polley drives directly through the emerging chaos without yet comprehending the full extent of what was happening. Nobody can be trusted and she makes the impossible choice of abandoning neighbors pleading for help for the sake of her own safety. As she speeds off into the unknown, the overhead camera drops back to reveal mass hysteria, explosions and the suggestion of the apocalypse. Incredibly powerful stuff that fuels the rest of this ultra-intense movie.

George Romero admitted to liking the remake but brushed it off as an action movie instead of a proper zombie flick. Sour grapes could have contributed to his assessment, though this stance has some merit. But while the movie does move at a breakneck pace and carnage lurks behind every corner, it still faithfully delves into the satirical and philosophical aspects of Romero's films.

As Dawn '04 has already been discussed at length, I thought I'd give some attention to the 15 minute DVD bonus feature documenting Andy the gun store owner's last days alive... or.. you know. In the movie, Andy was a scene-stealing survivor holed up in the building across from the mall. Though little attention was spent with his particular situation, he served well to remind Ving Rhames and co. that although things were dire, they at least had the luxury of human contact, something they had taken for granted.

The opening blurb of the feature is interesting because it alludes to a glimmer of hope for humanity: "In the aftermath of the undead epidemic, survivors traveling through Everett, WI found a videotape at a store called Andy's Gun Works." The videotape begins with Andy relaying the details of his escape. He begins with pure optimism as he still has food, Jack Daniels and a helluva lotta guns at his disposal. As the days pass and the streets become completely swarmed with zombies, he begins to lose his hope and sanity. Split seconds of his ex-wife and daughter are thrown in as he is presumably recording over old home movie footage. It culminates with the failed rescue mission from his point of view.

Cool bonus feature and much appreciated, but overall nothing to vomit too much blood over.

[Previous reviews by I'mNotMarc and Octopunk.]

Dawn of the Dead - Intro