Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween!

For the Linus in us all...

Monday, October 29, 2007

"Two More Days 'Till Halloween...Halloween...Halloween"

We all define ‘horror’ differently; for most it carries the connotation of violence and mayhem, but I would actually describe it in more general terms. To me, horror is something that we just can’t bear to watch. Evil always has a touch of banality, but true horror comes right up to you and forces you to throw your hands up and scream “No, not me! Not this!” So in preparation for Halloween, I give you the following (special thanks to Jonathan Barnett at Mobius for the find).

Your senses will never be the same.

Some discussion points:

1. What is Mandom? Aftershave? Cologne? Some strange hybrid?

2. Is the doorman crazy? Why does he have that look on his face when Bronson walks out?

3. Where does the girlish flourish with which he rips off his shirt come from? And where exactly does it go?

4. Is Mandom only meant to be applied upon returning home after a night out?

5. Is that the official dosage, or did Bronson just go nuts after getting a whiff?

6. Are the quick cuts to “Cowboy Bronson” meant to show his state of mind during the application, or is that a representation of his soul attempting to battle Mandom?

7. Imagine the Mandom puddle on the floor.

8. Mmmmmm…Mandom.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Forgotten TV Horrors vol.4, subsection 5: Horrible Halloween Howlings

Airing in 1972, Moon of the Wolf was one of the numerous horror programmers put into productions by the networks after the phenomenal ratings success of The Night Stalker in the previous year. Young, impressionable minds would have years of sleepless nights courtesy of classics like 1973’s Don’t be Afraid of the Dark and lasting until 1981’s Dark Night of the Scarecrow, the last truly great horror film made for TV. Moon of the Wolf is kept out of that rarified air mostly because of some very dodgy makeup effects (more on that later) and the hurry-up pacing in the final act to shoehorn the show into the tight 90 minute time slot (leaving time after commercials for about 74 minutes of movie), but does manage a few nifty takes on the traditional wolfman lore. Here the lycanthropic curse is actually a genetic had-me-down, half remembered by the victim’s adult children as those times when daddy was “having one of his spells”

After young Ellie Berrifor’s body is found mutilated in the quiet bayou community of Marsh Island, Sheriff Whitaker (David Janssen) is forced to conduct his investigation amid the rigid class structure of old world Louisiana – especially when it’s discovered that unmarried and dirt-poor Ellie was pregnant. While the mutilation is put off on a pack of wild dogs, Whitaker’s investigation leads him to the estate of Andrew Rodanthe (Bradford Dillman), the head of Marsh Island’s wealthiest family. Here the Sheriff rekindles an old crush with Louise Rodanthe (Barbara Rush), black sheep of the family after moving to New York and living in sin with a man beneath her social station. Meanwhile, Ellie’s enraged brother Lawrence (Geoffrey Lewis) blames Dr. Druten (John Beradino), the father of Ellie’s baby, for her murder. Lawrence’s broad daylight attack on the doc lands him in jail, but his stay behind bars is cut short when Lawrence and a deputy are brutally killed when a creature walking on two legs nearly destroys the jail to get to them.

It’s always a treat to watch Janssen, five years after finally capturing the one-armed man and just a year shy of "Harry-O", and his scenes with Dillman and Rush have a nice spark. In particular, the scene where Rush recalls her childhood crush on Janssen in front of an appalled Dillman is a nice little character moment of the type you don’t typically get in genre films. The great Geoffrey Lewis gives one of those epic, sweaty, Southern performances that actors love to be unleashed for, and look for Royal Dano and perennial TV baddie John Davis Chandler as townies who discover the body in the first scene.

If only the werewolf could have been photographed with just a bit more care, this picture could have been a real classic. Once the identity of the werewolf is “officially” revealed (trust me, you’ll figure it out after that character’s third line of dialog), director Daniel Petrie just can’t show it enough, and a close look at the makeup would seem to support the “wild dog” theory of the townsfolk.

Sadly, the film is only available via gray-market DVD editions (hense the poor quality screen grabs), usually bundled in those bargain bin megasets with fifty other “monster” pictures whose rights holders either can’t be easily found, or aren’t particularly litigation minded.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

"Other than that, Mr. Landis, what did you think of the movie?"

On October 12th, the Scribe was lucky enough to see director John Landis at a screening of An American Werewolf in London at NYC's Pioneer Theater. I’ve seen Landis do this once before at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a showing of Innocent Blood (meh) and the video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which was the real highlight. Shown for the first time in 35mm since its original theatrical showings almost 25 years ago, Thriller looked and sounded absolutely magnificent – the best music video ever made. Landis stayed for a lengthy Q&A after the showings, and told a story involving Michael Jackson, Vincent Price, and an unexpected obscenity that makes me smile even wider every time I see Price onscreen.

I’d been thinking a lot about Landis’ career since that night. By total coincidence, my copy of Twilight Zone The Movie had arrived at the office from Amazon on the day of the Werewolf, so I had it in my bag. Luckily, I remembered why handing that to him to sign wouldn't have been the best idea. For those who don’t know, while filming Landis’ segment of the Twilight Zone movie in 1982, star Vic Morrow and child actors Renee Chen and My-ca Le were killed when debris from a special effect explosion damaged the rotors of a helicopter directly above the actors and sent it crashing to the ground. The incredibly grisly accident (the main rotor, still spinning, landed directly on Morrow and the children) was caught on film by several cameras that were set up to film the climactic stunt. The ensuing criminal and civil trials and lawsuits stretched out over several years, with writer-director Landis being front and center as one of the named defendants. A far more detailed and nicely impartial accounting of the case can be found here

Twilight Zone was a big summer movie for Warner Bros in 1983, with four of the then hottest directors – Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and George Miller – taking on remakes or variants of classic Twilight Zone television episodes. Instead of scrapping the segment, it was re-written and pieced together using sequences already shot (Nearly all of Morrow’s scenes had already been filmed) and put in the leadoff position of the film. Much more memorable, however, was the brief prolog, also written and Directed by Landis, starring Dan Aykroyd, Albert Brooks, a stretch of lonely highway, and one question – “Do you want to see something really scary?”. The prolog is one of the best things Landis has ever done; deftly mixing comedy and horror as well as he did in the previous years An American Werewolf in London. As for Landis’ actual segment, given the tragedy and the story changes that it caused it may be unfair to employ traditional means of criticim. But taken on its own merit, it runs a tie with Steven Spielberg’s thunderously dull "Kick the Can" segment as the least of the four. The story of a modern day bigot forced to live life as a Jew in Nazi occupied Europe, and a black man facing a lynching, was supposed to find salvation after living as a Vietnamese man during said same conflict, and coming to the rescue of two children threatened by an attacking American helicopter. This final act of heroism, added to Landis' story at Warners request, was to give the story a more upbeat, redemptive finale. Since this was now impossible, the story now ends with Morrow’s character being carted off on a train to a concentration camp – a very depressing ending that doesn’t match the tone of anything else in the picture, a decidedly mixed bag to be sure.

When people think that they hate Spielberg, they’re usually thinking about stuff like his segment here. The schmaltz is laid on so thick and forcefully, we feel like farm animals getting force-fed through some kind of extruder. Dante’s segment, a remake of the “It’s a Good Life” episode, is fun, but it’s heavy on effects that haven’t aged well. The proceedings are enlivened, however, by Dante regulars Dick Miller, Kevin McCarthy, and William Schallert. The final segment is a remake of the “Nightmare at 20,000 feet” episode, featuring John Lithgow in the William Shatner roll of an airline passenger who spots a gremlin on the wing of the plane, tearing the engines apart in mid-flight. The one thing that seemingly everyone agreed on was that this segment, directed by Miller fresh off the success of The Road Warrior, is the real standout. A remake that stood on its own, it’s 25 minutes of sweaty, white knuckle suspense that almost makes you forget how disappointed you had been for the last 80 minutes.

My own feelings regarding the Twilight Zone criminal trial have always been clouded by my unabashed adoration for Landis. Comedies are notorious for not aging well. It’s a dispiriting experience to go back and watch films that you’ve been reared on through childhood like Caddyshack and Stripes (sorry, Bill) only to find that the seal was broken, and the contents have spoiled. Not everything Landis has made has been a winner (I’m sure he’d like to forget about Beverly Hills Cop 3 as much as I would) but consider Animal House, The Blues Brothers, and Trading Places. Those 3 films were all made within roughly 5 years of each other, and most directors who specialize in comedies would have sacrificed their eldest child for just one of them in an entire career. It’s not that they were just funny; they were smartly plotted and sharply written. Trading Places in particular (the best film Eddie Murphy has ever made - period) brilliantly mixes erudite satire with bawdy farce and is one of the best American comedies of the second half of the 20th Century. During that same period, he fashioned a script written more than 10 years earlier while working as a gopher on Kelly’s Heroes into the most successful blending of comedy and horror since Abbott & Costello met Frankenstein almost 4 decades prior. An American Werewolf in London is still the water mark by which every monster picture must measure itself.
The best Landis film that you’ve never seen, however, is Into the Night. The story of a cuckolded insomniac Ed Okin (Jeff Goldblum) whose aimless night driving throws him in to the path of Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer), a stunning blonde being pursued by an Iranian goon squad, half the criminal underworld of L.A., and nearly the entire DGA appearing in cameos. The film takes place over a single night, and captures the otherworldly isolation of Los Angeles at night as well as any film ever had (see Michael Mann’s Collateral for an updated take and a more sinister vibe). Landis shot the film while still awaiting trail in the Twilight Zone case, and the effect is palpable. Into the Night, still technically a comedy, has a much darker tone than anything else he had done and also has a surprising amount of on-screen violence – certainly contributing factors in the disappointing box office.

Coming to America was a sizeable hit in 1988, but the film strained the relationship between Landis and Murphy, with the latter commenting publicly that Vic Morrow was more likely to work with Landis again than he would be. Well, Karma may well have been listening, as Coming to America was the last funny movie that Murphy has made. Landis has had a rough time in the ensuing years as well, with some films going straight to video (the woefully titled Susan’s Plan) and others, like Blues Brothers 2000, coming straight from Hell. The last few years, though, have been brighter. His two episodes of Masters of Horror, "Deer Woman" and "Family", were quite good, and his documentary about a week in the life of a used car salesman, Slasher, received excellent reviews.

So, it would have been as a true fan that I was going to stand up during the Pioneer Theater Q&A and tell him how much I loved the opening of Twilight Zone, and that it's one of my favorite memories of film-going as a child, but I just couldn't do it. He's such a cool, funny guy in person - and one of the greatest Hollywood storytellers I've ever heard - I could never be the one to harsh his mellow by bringing up such an obviously sore subject. Not that he needed my question and/or comment to get going; he was off right from the start telling stories about writing James Bond movies with Anthony Burgess and encountering a Gypsy burial in the middle of a crossroads in Tito-ruled Yugoslavia. He was also proudly plugging his new documentary on Don Rickles entitled Mr. Warmth, which was about to play at the New York Film Festival – but which you can catch on HBO in December.

There are some people who despise Landis for what happened back in 1982, and I can’t blame them. Luckily, my own sociopathic tendencies allow me to disregard certain ugly realties and leave me free to embrace the man and his movies.
Thank you, John

Friday, October 19, 2007

Hostel Reception

Next Tuesday, Eli Roth’s Hostel part II arrives on DVD and Blu-ray as one of 2007s more surprising flops. Though the film more than made back its relatively small budget, it grossed far below expectations and didn’t come close to its predecessors worldwide gross of over $80 million. Roth laid the blame at the feet of online pirating, stating that bootleg copies circulating across the internet stole its thunder (and audience) before it was even released. The expected critical drubbing arrived as expected, with the film set up as an easy strawman argument against so-called “torture porn” by major media critics inflated with phony outrage. But most puzzling of all was the abandonment of the film by its presumed core audience.

Confession of a Blogger – I’m a fan of Roth. He’s one of the few directors working in the genre that seems genuinely jazzed to be there. Both Hostel films, along with his debut, Cabin Fever, are visually arresting, darkly humorous, and refreshingly non post-modernistic. That humor, particularly in Cabin Fever, was of an absurdist vein (“Pancakes!”) that could strike as wonderfully original or low rent David Lynch-isms. But it was Hostel that divided the chat room fanboys into strict love and hate groups. The plot – seemingly designed for the ease of Blog regurgitation – is thus: Two American and one Icelandic teenager on a sex & drug tour of Europe who get directed to a youth hostel in a small Slovakian town on the promise of easy girls and cheap drugs. Once there, the movie switches gears from an obnoxious Eurotrip comedy to full-on horror when the boys find themselves tied to metal chairs in the basement of an enormous industrial building, where men of various national origins have paid big bucks to maim and torture them to their hearts content.

I admired Roth’s moxie right away when he set us up with the most arrogant “ugly American” clichés imaginable, but trusted his actors (Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, and Eythor Gudjonsson – guess the Icelander!) enough to turn the audience around in the second half of the film. It worked, at least, for me – Hernandez is a very engaging presence, particularly in a scene where he uses his college German (left un-translated) to plead for his life while in the dreaded torture chair. And gorehounds need not fear, as the various cutting, ripping, and burning are lovingly rendered for you viewing pleasure, leaving little to the imagination. But soon, just as it became acceptable to go back and decide that you really didn’t like Wes Craven’s Scream because of all the self-conscious crap that rode in its wake, Hostel (and also Saw from earlier that same year - another neat little picture that inferior sequels have all but robbed of it’s power) took most of the heat for giving us one horror picture after another that seemed to exist only to delight in dismemberment. But Roth’s films are held on the rails by the strain of odd-world humor that course through them. A particular highlight is a vicious gang of Nickelodeon-age tykes that appear in both films to great comic effect, with terrific payoff gags at their respective conclusions that I won’t reveal here.

Hostel part II flips genders, and begins as if repeating the same story from the perspective of a group of female students (Lauren German, Heather Matarazzo, and Bijou Phillips) lured to the same town with promises of a luxurious spa. This time, however, Roth spends time showing us the inner workings of the torture mini-conglomerate. We follow two American businessmen who have won a global bidding war to have a go at Beth (German); Todd, an Alpha Male-type who strong arms his family-man friend Stewart into coming along for the experience of a lifetime (the “twist” involving these two characters can be seen coming down 6th Avenue, but it’s still fun to watch). Watch for one scene in particular, where a woman enjoys TortureMart’s services in one of the more deliriously over the top bits of sexual violence that has ever made it into a mainstream American film. The wielder of the scythe is named “Bathroy” and thats all the spoilers you'll get. Hostel II also handily wins “best cameos of the year” honors with a still stunning Edwige French appearing as an art teacher and Cannibal Holocaust director himself, Ruggero Deodato, as….well, as an Italian cannibal.

The films play brilliantly off the xenophobia that Europeans have towards Americans, and that we have towards most everyone else. Some of us really do believe that evil men with strange accents and a full array of medical implements are lurking around dark corners in all the unfamiliar places of the world. These are nightmares for the Accidental Tourist in all of us!

With so much garbage being released on a monthly basis, I was really taken aback by the way my fellow internet nerds have ganged up on Roth and his movies. Some of it comes from being hit by the spray coming from the anti-Tarantino wave, with the increasingly wardrobe-challenged Emperor’s name appearing boldly on both Hostel films and Roth appearing as an actor in, and making a superb fake trailer for, Grindhouse (Oh, how I would have loved to have seen Thanksgiving instead of Death Proof!). I suspect that even more comes from plain old sour grapes. Roth is an old school fanboy himself, whose adoration of 70s & 80s horror is well documented on his DVD audio commentaries, and if he weren’t appearing to speak at horror conventions, he’d certainly be attending them. But instead of embracing that aspect of the man, there’s a tendency to begrudge his success with the notion that “I could do that – that should be me!”

But probably the most likely reason for the movie-going publics apathy was the trail of tears left by cheap imitators like Captivity and Turistas, films that embraced the idea of ‘torture porn’ instead of rising above it. Make no mistake – if you’ve seen the ad copy for Hostel II, and you don’t think it’s your cup of tea, you’re right and it should be avoided at all costs. But accepted as what it is, a black comedy of outrageous horror whose roots go back over a century to the original Grand Guignol theater in Paris, when, sadly, we seemed to be more emotionally equipped to deal with the role of violence in art, then the treats far outnumber the tricks.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Mind the Doors!

To celebrate Halloween, the Scribe delves deep into the archives to bring you the best of the frightening, the fearsome, and the forgotten.

Completely unavailable on home video in the US until the DVD release about 2 years ago, Gary Sherman’s Raw Meat (known by the more palatable Death Line in the UK) is one of the very best British horror films to appear in the 70s since the final decline of the Hammer and Amicus studios. It was the first narrative film for the Chicago-born Sherman, who interjects what could have easily been a standard programmer with an unexpected amount of pathos.

After finding a suspiciously well-dressed man passed out on the stairwell of a London tube stop, two young students, Alex Campbell (David Ladd, son of Alan) and Patricia Wilson (Sharon Gurney) run off to find a constable, only to find the body gone only a few moments later. The missing body turns out to be a highly placed O.B.E. recipient and frequent red-light district visitor named James Manfred and the case falls into the unwilling lap of Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasance) who has to confront both an unyielding bureaucrat (Christopher Lee, absolutely killing in a cameo-length performance) who wants the police to forget that Manfred ever existed and the fact that numerous other missing persons can be traced back to that particular tube station. What they find is the last surviving descendant of a group of workers who had been buried alive in a section of the tube over a hundred years ago, who, in addition to hunting people for food, now needs to find a mate to propagate his clan anew.

The early 70s were an eclectic era for British genre films; the "classic monster" template had been wrung dry, and the odd lot that remained busied themselves with olive branches to the youth market that, while enjoyable, played exactly as what they were – naïve, condescending efforts whose “youthful” sensibilities ended at puffy shirts and cringe-inducing hipster chitchat. Watch the scenes of “mod London” life in AIPs Scream and Scream Again or Hammer's Dracula AD ’72 to see the competition. Raw Meat eschews genre conventions early on by shifting the focus away from its young leads in favor of two middle-aged police inspectors. Pleasance, a notorious scene stealer, pulls out every trick in his considerable book and gives a brilliant comic performance that comes within a hair of being “from another movie”. In a career that rode an incredibly wide range between The Great Escape and Warrior of the Lost World, he was rarely allowed such free reign to create a character. His comic banter with subordinate Norman Rossington is a welcome respite from the grim goings on in the tube.

The cannibal’s underground world is no Gothic playground festooned with artistically placed cobwebs - you feel like you’re in a centuries old section of subway. “Man” (as he is listed in the credits) is the product of several generations of inbreeding, and survives from eating unlucky late night straphangers – and to the makeup department’s credit, he looks it. With his mate slowly expiring, he tries to nourish her with the blood of freshly killed aristocrat Manfred and wails in frustration as he is unable to save her. After secreting away Patricia, rather than taking her by force, he tries to communicate his plight using the only words he’s ever known, but ones that he hears repeated each day of his life “Mind the doors”. In spite of Pleasance’s efforts, the movie would have collapsed had these scenes come off as laughable, but the result is both heartbreaking and terrifying. Hugh Armstrong’s near-wordless performance gives the monster a soul in the best tradition of Lon Chaney.

The film depicts the ultimate upper class fear, with the lowest socio-economic class literally feeding on its “betters”, but like George Romero at his best, Sherman never gets on a soapbox; he leaves the subtext exactly where it ought to be and gets on with creating a brutally violent horror film. One of the very best of the decade.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Milk, Doing a Body...Not So Good

Re-watching Munich recently, two things came to mind. The first was that this was the best Spielberg movie since Poltergeist; right up there with the best of the Eurospy genre, he fashioned a nimble, exciting film from what could have been a nearly 3 hour didactic go around of the old ‘violence begets violence’ argument. There were elements of that, of course; the giddy kid that spent all his early capital on 1941 is long gone, replaced by someone far too at home on the political fundraising circuit, but they never were allowed to overwhelm the corking game of cloak & dagger that tweaked Spielberg’s creative juices. If you listened closely, you could almost hear the footsteps of Harry Palmer or The Jackal echoing through the twisting, rain slicked streets, laid out hundreds of years ago for the apparent convenience of spies.

The second was an odd feeling of déjà vu during the Mossad’s first “hit” on a Black September associate. Shot through a just-purchased bag of groceries, we see an explosion of milk, which is soon mixed with the victim’s blood – it’s a potent image, but not a new one.

Perhaps he was paying a long overdue tribute to Richard Donner’s original Lethal Weapon?

Or John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate?
I say that it’s time the National Dairy Council threw its milkfat-infused weight around and get an indefinite moratorium declared on any use of the white as part of an ironic visual metaphor. Please, folks, let’s preserve this one precious resource for our children.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Everyday Horror

Beginning this Wednesday, Oct. 3rd and for approximately 10 days after that, The Girl Next Door will be playing at NYC’s own Pioneer Theater I have not yet seen this film, but I will as soon as time allows, and will post my reaction to it directly. What do I know about it and why am I plugging it? Because it’s based on the book by Jack Ketchum and he seems to be very supportive of the finished product and that is enough for me. Ketchum’s book is one of the few genuinely harrowing reads you’ll ever experience, a thinly veiled fictionalization of the 1965 torture and murder of 13 year-old Sylvia Likens in Indiana. Over the course of three months, she was beaten, starved, raped, and finally murdered by a group of adolescent boys who all lived in the neighborhood and had known her, but it was the fact that one of the boy’s mother, a family acquaintance who was being paid $20 a week by Sylvia’s parents to look after her, was not only giving approval and encouragement for the atrocities, but was keeping Sylvia imprisoned in her basement and participating in them herself. Even today, with access to all of life’s innumerable horrors at our fingertips, the details of the crime weaken the knees.

Thanks to Wikipedia and Google, you can find out all about the Likens murder case; all the how’s, where’s, and who’s, and even some speculation as to the why’s are readily available. You can even find poor Sylvia’s picture. What you can’t do is see the life behind her eyes; we can’t hear her laugh or see what happens to her face when she smiled. Until recently, Sylvia existed only as a feminist allegory or a case file with decades of dust resting on it – but in 1989, Jack Ketchum made her into a person again. With “The Girl Next Door”, Ketchum wisely changed the names, location, and even the decade. His story takes place in a quiet New Jersey suburb in the late 1950s, and introduces us to a group of neighborhood kids that could have walked right out of Stand By Me. The novel is told through the eyes of one of the boys that has developed a crush on Sylvia (called ‘Meg’ in the novel). Ketchum is a visceral writer who has never shied away from gore, as any reader of his wonderfully nasty “Off Season” and its sequel can attest, but none of the horrors presented in the ensuing pages plays to the sensationalistic aspects of the story. There are several times where our young narrator simply states that he is too horrified to speak about what happened on a certain day and will say nothing, and coming on the heels of a chapter where hot needles are used to burn the type of words into flesh that most of them had heretofore been forbidden to even utter, it brings hairs to rise.

The film has garnered pretty darn good word of mouth, and appears to be getting a city by city release in anticipation of a DVD release at the end of the year (Merry Christmas, Mom!) Until the Scribe has seen it for himself, I can only recommend that anyone interested check out Ketchum’s book as quickly as possible. It’s strong stuff, and there were more than a few moments when this reader seriously questioned continuing on. Hopefully you, just as I was, will be glad you did - it’s an unforgettable read. Regrettably, because of Ketchum’s name and credits, the book is usually classified under ‘horror’ in most book stores, and while that is as good a word as any to describe the events in the book, it also guarantees that it will be lost amid the endless volumes featuring Stephen King wannabes churning out the exploits of time traveling vampire hit men. So the link below is provided both to hasten the search, and to get the Scribe that sweet 4% commission.