Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Re-Evaluating A Re-Make

I was awfully hard on Rob Zombie’s re-whatevering of Halloween last year, freely using words like ugly and ill-conceived. And while I still think both of those adjectives apply, watching the picture again on Bluray left me with a more positive impression of the film. Dimension Films certainly isn’t giving fans any reason to complain with the new release (3 standard DVDs or 2 Blurays), an exhaustively comprehensive presentation that most films can only dream of. The second BD disc is reserved for a nearly 4½ hour documentary on the shooting of the film presented entirely in HD. Despite the length, it’s actually quite a watchable show, covering the pre-production, casting, and shooting, but disappointingly omits nearly all of the post-production period. The first disc contains the beautifully transferred feature (called an “unrated director’s cut”) in a near-flawless transfer, accurately reflecting the show’s rough-hewn cinematography. In the extras department, Zombie sits solo for an interesting commentary track, thoughtfully explaining his narrative choices, and commenting honestly on things he felt could have been done better. It’s a very pleasurable listen. There are also about 20min of deleted scenes and a superior (in this viewer’s opinion) alternate ending, in addition to the usual EPK filler.

So, a year later, what struck me differently?

The acting, with a notable exception, is unusually good. Scout Taylor-Compton is especially fine as Laurie, giving her both strength and a sense of humor. While no sane person would take anything away from Jamie Lee Curtis’ performance in the original, the purity aspect of the character was pressed hard, making it difficult to believe that girls like Linda and Annie would want to hang around with her. Scout (along with her director) manage the difficult feat of creating a genuine teenage character that resists stereotyping. This is particularly true of her scenes with on-screen mom, Dee Wallace. Their scenes together are very real and sweet and make you realize the work that Zombie is capable of when he drops the aggravating white trash pastiche. Pictures like House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects were choc-a-block with so much of this ugliness that you weren’t able to even see the bottom, with each character seemingly trying to outdo the previous gutter-filthy exchange. In his first two films this was passable (though not really enjoyable) because Zombie built the films around that sort of behavior, where constant threats of “skull fucking” and “titty twisting” formed the fabric of the character’s lives. But Halloween seems to want to exist in something more closely resembling the real world – a welcome direction for this clearly talented filmmaker – but this has the effect of rendering scenes like the breakfast introduction to the Myers family into an ugly joke (William Forsyth deserves better than this, Rob). Zombie is an intelligent director, and I don’t know if he’s using this as a crutch to appeal to his imagined fanbase or if this is the way he thinks most people interact with each other – either way, I hope he thinks better of it, and soon.

Back when House of 1000 Corpses first came out, the performer that I expected the least from was the director’s wife, Sheri Moon Zombie. The mention of her name conjures the image of an aging hippie selling hash brownies at a Phish concert, and her shrill performance as a member of the murderous clan left only the impression of nepotism at work. But her role in The Devil’s Rejects was more fleshed out, and resulted in the actress holding he own against scene stealer Sid Haig, but it was still essentially the same role as before. In Halloween she manages some real pathos as a mother who comes home to find her family butchered and her blonde, cherubic-faced son holding the bloody knife. But she’s even better after Michael is put away under the care of Dr. Loomis (McDowell, wearing an utterly preposterous wig) as she watches her son slowly slip away. Her final scene at the hospital as she reacts to the monster her son has become is heartbreaking.

Strangely, it’s top-billed Malcolm McDowell that drops the ball with a phoned-in performance. Maybe he’s just done so much garbage in the last few decades that nothing really excites him anymore, but I suspect that many of the young filmmakers who seek him out for roles are too much in awe of him to actually give direction, and are willing to accept almost anything from their idol. I’m still a fan, but I’d dearly love to see a director really ride McDowell and whip the eyebrow arching and naughty-boy posturing out of him and get the kind of performance he’s capable of (either that, or just watch Time After Time with him and say “Please, just give me that!”) Also damaging the film are the myriad cameos by the Zombie stock company, with barely a minute going by without your eyes darting around to spot Bill Moseley or Sid Haig doing their usual walk through. Individually, certain choices (like Brad Dourif and Richard Lynch) are actually quite good, but when you jam them in scenes with Udo Keir, Clint Howard, and Micky Dolenz, it becomes a Chiller convention autograph floor instead of a movie.

Though I’m still hard-pressed to recommend it, Rob Zombie’s Halloween does provide a glance at a talented director going through some growing pains. There’s an assured, stylish hand with plenty of style at work here, and we as soon as he finds material that forces him to look forward instead of back, we’ll see what he’s really capable of.

Monday, October 20, 2008

R.I.P., Dolemite

Rudy Ray Moore passed away earlier today due to complications arising from Diabetes at the age of 81. This is what you might call a breaking story, as few news outlets (including Moore’s own personal site) still haven’t posted the news. The only article I’ve see is here, where they also linked to the Dolemite trailer on You Tube with the rather hysterical warning that it contains profanity - roughly akin to a porn film having a warning sticker about nudity.

Though he’ll be best remembered as the swaggering pimp with an eye for revenge, Moore also had quite a career putting out uproariously filthy comedy records that made Red Foxx seem like Sinbad. Most have been out of print for decades (and with titles like the "Sensuous Black Man" and "This Pussy Belongs to Me", that’s a real shame), but thankfully his filmography is reasonably well represented on DVD.

May people dismissed Rudy as just another filthy “ethnic” comic, but watch the way he manages to both flaunt and tweak blaxploitation stereotypes in pictures like Disco Godfather and Petey Wheatstraw, laughing at and with the narrow range of roles that black actors were stuck with in the 70s. There aren’t enough oversized clocks and gold-plated teeth in the world to put guys like Flavor Flav or Luke Campbell in the same solar system as Rudy.

Peace, brother. The Man can’t touch you now.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Sub-Prime Home Loan Horror

After picking up the newest edition of the original The Amityville Horror on BluRay, I decided to run a quick self-diagnostic to try and figure out why a certain group of people (yours truly included) seem devoted to this odd, often unpleasant film. Most of the Tom Clancy-sized video guides rate the film a poor 1½-2 stars, dismissing it as ugly, lacking in actual scares, and mocking the performances. And yet the film has a special something that keeps this viewer – and many others – coming back again and again.

Released in 1979 and directed by Stuart (Cool Hand Luke) Rosenberg, Amityville was a big money maker for American International Pictures, and turned author Jay Anson’s purportedly true account of a possible haunting in a sleepy Long Island, NY town into a national sensation. The facts: On the night of November 13th, 1974, in the town of Amityville, Ronald “Butch” DeFeo fatally shoots parents, Ron Sr., and Louise, and his four siblings, Dawn, Allison, Mark, and John in their home at 112 Ocean Ave. Immediately taken into custody by the police, Ron first claimed that the crime was a mob hit from which he narrowly escaped, but by the next day he had confessed to all six murders. The expected insanity plea, citing voices in his head that prodded him to murder his family, failed, and Ron DeFeo Jr. sits in prison today. 13 months later, George and Kathy Lutz and their children Danny, Christopher and Missy moved into the house for the bargain price of $80,000. 28 days later, the Lutz family left the house in the middle of the night, never to return. They would later claim that they had spent those weeks under siege by all manner of paranormal experiences, ranging from cold spots and foul odors, to levitation and green slime. They sold the rights to their story and provided dozens of hours of audio tapes to author Jay Anson, who crafted the novel, "The Amityville Horror". The rest, however, is conjecture. George Lutz’s story had changed over the subsequent years, citing Jay Anson’s artistic license as the origins of some the more fanciful episodes, and this, combined with the lack of any tangible evidence (and the fact that no family that has lived in the house since has reported any supernatural occurrences of any kind) has cast a shadow of doubt longer than the South Shore itself.

Overlong at 2 hours and peppered with the odd bit of flat-footed dramatics (Rod Steiger chews the scenery, sends it back to the chef, then eats it again) the picture wire-walks over self-parody; the first time we see Brolin carefully sharpening an axe with his Manson lamps set to high-beam, it’s legitimately frightening, but by the 5th time even the most forgiving genre audience will be rolling their collective eyes. And yet we still find ourselves riveted to the story, and re-visiting the film in light of the recent home-loan crisis that has seemingly paralyzed the world economy may show why. After a prolog showing the DeFeo murders (the family is often referenced throughout the story, but never named) followed by the ubiquitous “one year later…” title, we meet George and Kathy Lutz as they tour the house as prospective buyers. Even at the bottom-rung price of $80K, the mortgage will be more than a stretch, but the prospect of the American dream of home ownership overrides fears both supernatural and financial.

George is a brand new husband and father (all three children are Kathy’s from a previous marriage) and most of the nefarious goings on could be construed as George’s anxieties manifesting themselves in the real world. In fact, the first really supernatural events begin to happen just after Kathy announces that she’s the first in her family to actually own a home and her Aunt is coming by for a visit. George angrily protests that they aren’t ready to “pass inspection”, and sure enough once Kathy’s Aunt Helena arrives, she’s immediately assaulted by a wave of nausea and is forced to flee the house. Was it ghosts, or the unkind vibes of a frustrated husband? The strongest manifestation of George’s middle-aged woe occurs towards the end of the film, when he sees his young and attractive wife ravaged by age. Hell, he nearly takes her head off with the axe that he’s been incessantly sharpening for the entire film before he’s snapped out of his murderous haze. Earlier, George’s business partner, Jeff (Slaughterhouse 5’s Michael Sacks) expressed serious misgivings about how quickly George changed his entire life for “some broad” and implies that George only married a pretty face and didn’t consider the consequences. And what worse punishment could there be for a man who married for beauty than to see his young wife whither before his eyes?

Lots of credit has to go to Brolin for a balls-out performance. Needing to appear in a highly agitated state for most of the running time must have made for an exhausting shoot and Brolin acquits himself quite well, cutting a believable path from family man to near-murderer in 28 days. When the house begins to “possess” him, George feels a constant chill and is unable to sleep – always waking up at 3:15, the exact time of the previous murders. He ignores his business and splits his time between feeding the fire in the living room and the ongoing care and maintenance of various chopping tools. Brolin really looks like he’s living through Hell and director Rosenberg doesn’t flinch in his depiction of the Lutz family’s decent into it. Margot Kidder lends fine support as Kathy, a tough role that requires her to convincingly stay with a husband who is turning into a homicidal maniac before her eyes. It’s a shame that this would be one of only a handful of high-profile roles for the actress after her turn in Superman. And keep an eye out for Murray Hamilton (telling Steiger essentially the same thing he told Roy Scheider in Jaws), Dirty Harry’s John Larch, and TV tough-guy Don Stroud as priests, a young Amy Wright (memorable as William Hurt’s hysterically eccentric sister in The Accidental Tourist) as a very unlucky babysitter, and The Believers’ Helen Shaver as the wife of Lutz’s business partner.

Unlike most horror films that simply suggest discomfort, this film possesses a palpable quality of impending dread. There’s no comedy relief to take comfort in (aside from one or two of Rod Steiger’s more animated outbursts) while we spend the better part of 2 hours watching the violent dissolution of what should have been the picture perfect American family. And while the black tar in the toilet and the blood-painted room in the basement are memorable moments, it’s the more everyday horror of misplacing a $1500 wad of cash intended for his brother-in-law’s wedding that audiences can readily identify with that keeps them coming back. Even autumn itself, typically photographed in loving, golden brown hues, appears onscreen like a harbinger of death.

MGM/UA home video, operating under the reigns of parent company Fox, have given the film a wonderful transfer – apparently the same one used in recent MonstersHD airings – full of rich detail and without the excessive digital noise reduction that has plagued many recent catalog titles. The extras are non-existent save for the theatrical trailer, which wouldn’t be so bad were it not for the ridiculously high list price. A word in the corporate ear: With even the most generous online discounts, most people will be unable to get the $39.95 price tag below $30 – a nonsensical policy for any single disc release without extras. Very, very bad form.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Even though the tone of the promos overreaches for camp, we couldn’t be more thrilled that local NYC station WPIX – known as the WB Network to everyone born after 1985 – has decided to resurrect the Chiller horror show on Saturday, Oct.25th, from 8-9:30. And Tarantula will be the featured flick. Along with WABC’s 4:30 movie, Chiller helped shape this youngster’s love for horror, exposing these eyes to the most obscure fright features imaginable. The early shows in the 60s were hosted by Zacherle (who is returning for the special) but it was the host-less permutation in the late 70s and early 80s that I fell in love with, with the famous five fingered claymation hand rising from a puddle of blood to place the letters at the beginning and drag them back down to hell at the film’s end.

I was probably part of the last generation to grow up with this type of show, a delicate local commodity that couldn’t withstand the twin onslaught of both cable television and home video. I wish they’d done something like this sooner, but I can’t complain about the timing.

Many thanks to DVD

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Ave Satani!

And the award for worst packaging of 2008 goes to…

The Omen Collection! At standard definition DVD prices, I may not have thought to complain, but considering that Fox is charging $130 list for this Bluray item, I feel embiggend to bitch.

All looks well enough from the outside, but from the moment you pick up this 4-disc set the near total lack of weight is disconcerting. After opening and pulling out the inner sleeve, we’re treated not to the usual reinforced cardboard superstructure with a clear plastic lining to protect the back of the discs, but to a magazine-insert thin, quad-folded sheet with nothing but a wafer thin plastic nub to hold the disc in place. Those unfortunate enough to have purchased Universal’s HD-DVD set of Battlestar Galactica will remember these well, and may not take some solace that they no longer own the most irresponsibly packaged high-def disc set.

And if you order online, consider yourself lucky if the set arrives undamaged, as this array of newspaper thin paperboard is no match for traditional USPS or UPS handling techniques. And before owners of Fox’s previous DVD Omen set worry about double-dipping, know that the unwanted, unloved, made for TV sequel, Omen IV has been exorcized from the set. In its place we have the equally beloved Omen remake (which Fox seems to want us to call The Omen 666) from 2006, with Liev Schreiber trying to keep a straight face long enough to cash his check, and memorable only for giving Giovanni Lombardo Radice (AKA John Morghen from Cannibal Apocalypse and City of the Living Dead) a featured role.

In all seriousness, what counts are the quality of the transfers, and once we’ll speak to that once we’ve had the chance to examine them more closely. At first glance, the original Omen seems to have a few new extras including a new commentary track, but the two sequels seem to be HD upgrades of the previous DVD editions. Good for Fox for dipping into its back catalog for some Halloween HD treats, but crummy packaging at an outrageously inflated price pleases no one but Conal Cochran.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

R.I.P., Henri Pachard

I feel awful that it took 10 days for me to get this news. Apparently the adult movie biz isn’t quite as mainstream as it seems.

The adult film world lost one of its most original voices on September 27 when director Ron Sullivan (who worked under the pseudonym Henri Pachard) passed away after a long battle with cancer. His name will mean nothing to those unfamiliar with the XXX film world, but anyone with even a passing interest will likely hold Sullivan in high esteem. His 300+ long resume as a director shows the adult industry full range of extremes, from the soul-killing, fetish fragmented output of more recent years, to some of the most critically acclaimed, shot-on-film productions of the late 70s and early 80s.

Though Sullivan began his directorial career in the late 60s by generating product for the NYC grindhouse palaces of the ‘deuce, but it was the release of Babylon Pink in 1979 that really launched his career. Released at the height of the “porno chic” era, Babylon Pink consisted of vignettes centered on the fantasies of the female characters; the concept itself wasn’t new, but the stories never felt as though they were born in the brain of a cigar-gnawing capo kicking back in his chair, trying to think of what gets broads hot. While no one would accuse Sullivan of being a feminist, the women in his films (particularly his earlier ones) were allowed to express the limits of their sexuality without judgment, whether this meant dominating their partner, or being dominated themselves. Sullivan was one of a handful of adult industry filmmakers who could showcase the submissive side of feminine sexuality without making you want to call the police.

Sullivan was also one of the few directors working in the 80s and 90s whose films you could actually laugh with instead of at. The Devil in Miss Jones part II (1982) turned out to be the classic that people assume the first film to be – until they actually see it – a handsomely produced, smart, and at times, laugh out loud picture. The scenes in Hell where Jack Wrangler as Lucifer and Robert Bolla (a professional actor whose sideline in porn became a career) as his advocate are genuinely hysterical, as they watch the spirit of Justine Jones move through the bodies of various women on Earth, including a high class prostitute (Jacqueline Lorians, looking better than ever), an Army recruit (Joanna Storm), and even a nun (Samantha Fox). The film, like most of his early work, is also beautifully photographed (it was likely made with legit Hollywood talent moonlighting on the crew) showcasing the heights that the industry could reach when time and budget allowed. It’s also important to mention that the casts of these ‘golden age’ films featured performers with professional training and stage experience; in the second half of his career, Sullivan would be denied these levels of money and talent and titles like Obey me, Bitch began to appear more frequently. But part of what made Sullivan special was the care and energy that went into even the cheapest shot-on-video feature. He loved seeing how far he could push the boundaries of acceptability, and probably no other director has used a toilet as the centerpiece of a sex scene more often and with more humor.

Ron Sullivan was a giant in an industry that isn’t known for cultivating talent behind the camera, and he will be sorely missed. The Adult Video News website has a much more in depth write-up here, and I’ll include a ‘top of the head’ list of some of his more memorable titles below.

American Garter (1993)
Hothouse Rose 1 & 2 (1991)
The Nicole Stanton Story 1 & 2 (1988)
Babylon Pink 2 (1987)
The Brat (1986)
Great Sexpectations (1984)
Maid in Manhattan (1984)
Sexcapades (1983)
Outlaw Ladies (1982)
The Budding of Brie (1980)
October Silk (1980)
Babylon Pink (1979)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

'Tis the Season

And I hear that Silver Shamrock stock is way up! Smart money says that it'll peak in November...