Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Halloween 2017: September 21

IT (2017)

A new cinematic version of Stephen King's “IT” has been floated – if you'll excuse the pun – for quite a while now. In 2009, right off the success of season one of “True Detective,” Cary Fukunaga was going to direct a two-part adaptation of the story. Unlike most other two-part book-to-movie deals, this one made sense. King's book is notoriously long and takes place over two time periods anyway. Kukunaga would eventually exit the project, which is one reason why it's taken until 2017 for this movie to get made. “Mama's” Andres Muschietti would direct the film instead. The new “IT” would quickly become the horror event of the Halloween season. People have flocked to “IT” in droves, making the film one of the biggest in the genre ever. I had doubts though. The trailer made the new movie look like a collection jump scares, that hammered the creepy clown note way too hard. So how does “IT” stand up?

The new “IT” updates the setting. Now, the year is 1989. The story is still set in the town of Derry, Maine. The city is gripped by a killing spree targeting children, seemingly centered around the sewer system. The latest victim is Georgie Denbrough. His older brother, Bill who has a stutter, is traumatized by Georgie's death. In his grief, Bill quickly gathers a new group of friends. They're all outcasts and affectionately name themselves the Losers Club. Together, they realize they've all seen weird stuff. In particular, they've all encountered a frightening clown. Soon, the Losers Club make plans to fight against It.

After finishing reading the book a few days before seeing the new movie, I wondered if any cinematic adaptation could do King's tome justice. King covers the entire history of Derry, provides extensive backstories for all the main characters (including the titular entity), and eventually extends into cosmic territory, pass the edges of the macroverse.  Muschietti's film ultimately does what an adaptation is supposed to do. It's more faithful to the book's spirit than its actual plot. Much of the narrative mechanics are different. However, the key events – the apocalyptic rock fight, the house on Neibolt street, the blood in Beverly's drain – are maintained. The film covers Derry's extensive history better than the 1990 television film did. Many elements are changed but 2017's “IT” nails the important stuff. You get a sense of the town, of who the Losers are, and the enormity of the evil they're up against.

Helping matters greatly is the exceptional cast. Each actor playing the Losers is perfectly cast. They're all so good that it's hard to pick a favorite. Jaeden Lieberher captures Bill Denbourgh's personality, showing the vulnerability his stutter causes but the innate leadership skills the other see in him. Jeremy Ray Taylor is great as Ben Hanscom, showing the big boy's intelligence without underselling his loner status. Jack Dylan Grazer expands past Eddie Kaspbrak's hypochondria to create a more active character. If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably come down to Sophia Lillis as Beverly or Finn Wolfhard as Richie. Lillis nails the tough resourcefulness central to Beverly Marsh's personality, while hinting at the girlishness that makes the young boys love her. Wolfhard, meanwhile, is hilarious as Richie Tozier. Wolfhard's Richie gets off a lot of good ones, capturing the character's smart ass appeal that covers a greater vulnerability.

The new film's cast is a hands-down improvement over the 1990 version in every department except for one. Bill Skarsgard is good as our new Pennywise the Dancing Clown. He's suitably creepy while capturing the utter joy It feels at frightening children. He's just not as good as Tim Curry was. Curry was so delightfully wicked in the part. Skarsgard, meanwhile, plays it a little straighter. He also relies on the overdone creepy clown make-up a little too much. I still find some of the design choices a little confusing. The turn-of-the-century clothes make sense in story but look odd in execution. I also think the new Pennywise is too outwardly creepy, negating the disguise's point as one meant to attract kids.

The trailers made me fear that the new “IT” would lean too heavily on jump scares. Muschietti's film does feature many of the marks of modern studio horror. It has that slick but dusty look. There's quite a lot of CGI and not all it incorporated organically. Muschietti's direction is a bit too mannered at time, incorporating distracting dutch angles and other tricks. And, yes, they're are plenty of jump scares. However, “IT” is a surprisingly fun horror movie. The scares scenes are sudden and go for the throat. They're also balanced with a lot of humor and heart. The “kids on an adventure” feeling the book featured is nicely represented in this adaptation, blending well with the more overtly scary moments. After watching “IT,” I felt the same way I do when stepping out of a good carnival funhouse. Elated but excited, creeped out but comfortable.

I do have a few complaints about the film. Out of the seven Losers, Wyatt Oleff's Stanley and Chosen Jacobs' Mike get the short end of the stick. Jacobs' Mike gets it the worst, as his defining characteristic in the book is transferred to another character. My biggest issue concerns a decision made in the last act. Beverly, one of the film's strongest characters up to that point, is reduced to a damsel in distress. Overall, the climax is a bit underwhelming, the initial defeat of Pennywise happening a little too easily in the new film. Most of my other complaints boil down to nitpicks. I wish the Barrens, a huge part of the book, played a larger role in the film. The classic horror references in the book are gone, which makes sense given the shift in setting. But I still sort of miss them.

Still, the new “IT” turned out really well. It's a smooth adaptation with a fantastic cast. Moreover, I was surprised at how fun this particular horror picture turned out to be. During a time when the horror genre veers towards the grim, I certainly didn't expect a glossy studio picture – about a child-eating monster, no less – to be this fleet-footed and entertaining. “IT” concludes with a title screen declaring itself “Chapter One,” essentially promising chapter two. Considering the huge box office, that's sure to come. Hopefully, the filmmakers intentionally saved the book's more far-out material for the second movie, which I am now actually pretty hyped for. [7/10]

The Shuttered Room (1967)

“The Shuttered Room” is usually included on any list of H.P. Lovecraft adaptations. However, that's a bit of a cheat. The short story of the same name was actually written by August Derleth. Derleth was a pen pal and frequent collaborator of Lovecraft's. As his literary executor, Derleth can be thanked for keeping Lovecraft's work in print. Yet Derleth has also been criticized for making his own contributions to H.P.'s cosmology. He wrote “The Shuttered Room” based on notes by Lovecraft but most consider the story 100% Derleth. Despite that, Lovecraft's name is frequently attached to this film, hence its coverage here.

As a child, Susannah Kelton grew up on the island of Dunwich, in the New England countryside. Her family moved away when she was young. Now, after marrying a man much older than her, Susannah has been invited back to the island. A recently dead aunt has left the family mill in her position. Susannah and her husband, Mike, find they are unwelcomed here. The locals are hostile, attacking Mike and sexually harnessing Susannah. Meanwhile, it soon becomes apparent to Susannah that the family mill hides a dark secret. How does the shuttered room in the building's attic connect to her traumatic childhood memories?

The first thing I noticed about “The Shuttered Room” is how it sounds. Basil Kirchin provides the film with an eclectic jazz soundtrack. Many of the film's scenes are scored to frantic drumming and hot saxophones. This is an odd choice for a horror movie, often robbing scenes of potential tension and irritating the audience. It's not the only annoying thing about the movie. The sound design is equally shrill. The movie's soundscape is full of continuously blaring car horns, shrill shrieks, and obnoxious shouting. This ear-rending sound mixes with content that is often cheesy. In-between the exaggerated  redneck villains and Gig Young's tendency towards using karate chops, the audience is more likely to laugh than scream.

In fact, depraved backwoods shenanigans makes up too much of “The Shuttered Room.” If it wasn't released four years earlier, I would accuse it of ripping off “Straw Dogs.” Both films focus on city folk being menaced in the country side. In both, the wife is constantly sexually harassed by one man in particular. Oliver Reed hams it up as Ethan, the central villain. In one scene, he literally licks Susan's ear. Reed's performance drips with danger. Yet the movie is weirdly guarded with its subject matter. For every scene of Reed nearly raping Susannah, we get another scene of goofy rednecks throwing nets on people. (There's another connection of sorts between the films. “Straw Dogs” is set in the English countryside. “The Shuttered Room” is set in Lovecraft's Dunwich. However, the movie was shot in England, with many of the actors playing the country folk being English, putting on American accents.)

Lovecraft's writings are full of inbred hillbillies, communing with sinister forces from beyond. Yet “The Shuttered Room” ends up barely feeling like a Lovecraft story. Derleth's text included explicit connections to Lovecraft's mythology, such a half-human frog-monster locked in the attic. The cinematic “Shuttered Room” ditches all of this stuff. Instead, the titular room includes an insane, slightly deformed but otherwise very human prisoner. It's easy to predict the connection Susannah has to this person. That “The Shuttered Room” saves this reveal for the final act makes much of the movie feel like tedious waiting. When the door is finally opened, and the monster released, you're left wondering if that's it. The blunt conclusion that follows does nothing to resolve this dissatisfaction.

So that's why “The Shuttered Room” is rarely discussed when talking about beloved Lovecraft adaptations. Normally, I'd say the filmmakers wanted to make a different kind of story and attached a popular author to the movie in hopes of boosting its profile. Yet was Lovecraft really that big a name in 1967? I doubt it, which makes the reasons why “The Shuttered Room” turned out how it did deeply mysterious. Why bother adapting this story if you were going to remove all the cool parts? Reed's performance is disturbingly sleazy but, otherwise, there's little reason to check out this annoying and boring backwoods thriller. [5/10]

Masters of Horror: Family

During season one of “Masters of Horror,” John Landis might have seemed a little out of place, having directed only two or three horror movies. Yet his episode, “Deer Woman,” proved to be a season highlight. So I eagerly anticipated his next installment, “Family.” The episode follows Harold. He's a happy family man, with a wife and young daughter, living in the suburbs. But there's a problem: Harold's family is dead. He's actually a serial killer, who strips his victims' bodies down to the bones, propping up their skeletons and imagining personalities for them. Harold finds himself fascinated with his new neighbors, a young married couple. His perfect family is broken up as Harold becomes obsessed with Cecelia, the wife. But all is not as it seems.

As a peek into an especially whimsical serial killer's head, “Family” works pretty well. Harold kills not out of twisted sexual desires (though there's a little of that) or because voices tell him to. (Though there's a little of that too.) Instead, he kills to preserve a sense of internal normalcy. His fake family makes him happy. It gives him a wife that understands him, a daughter that looks up to him, and parents that advise him. It's a weirdly comfy world, even if its full of skeletons reading the Weekly World News. The audience is oddly on Harold's side, as he stalks his neighbors, plotting to kill them both. Watching his perfect inner life fall apart, developing strife with his skeleton wife, is oddly effecting. You feel bad for this guy, even if he's an unrepentant killer. George Wendt's performance is perfect for this, as his jolly appearance hides the character's sinister intentions.

Other elements of “Family” don't work as well. The graphic gore – bodies dissolving in acid, a face split by a hammer – feel mean-spirited, at odds with the quasi-comic tone. The twist ending is easy to predict. In fact, the scenes involving the neighbors drag the episode down a bit. It's not the performers' fault, as Meredith Monroe and Matt “The Middleman” Keeslar, are fine in the parts. Landis' directorial flourishes, which include a CGI zoom into a larynx, are distracting. Still, “Family” is a solid hour. It probably would've stretch the material a little thin but “Family” could've supported a feature length run time. Wendt's performance is fantastic and Harold's worldview, antisocial as it might be, is fascinating. [7/10]

Perversions of Science: Anatomy Lesson

“Perversions of Science's” second episode, “Anatomy Lesson,” is another story that is equal parts horror and sci-fi. The episode follows Billy, the son of the town coroner. His father frequently examines the bodies of a local serial killer's victims. (The victims are mostly criminals and scumbags.) Soon, Billy develops a fascination with dead bodies, deriving sexual satisfaction from cutting living flesh. He mostly preys on animals but is eager to move on to people. He seemingly gets his chance when a hot date is interrupted by a homeless man, someone Billy has encounter from time to time. However, the hunter quickly becomes the hunted.

As an examination of a young psychopath, slowly getting to know his desire for murder, “Anatomy Lesson” is mildly captivating. Jeremy London's performance is solid, as he shows no attempt to make this nasty character likable. The script clearly links his sex drive with his murder drive, without overexplaining things. The last minute shift into hard sci-fi, involving robot vigilantes and alien overlords, is sudden. A major character's true identity is revealed in a corny way. References to other historical serial killer are heavy handed. The special effects are underwhelming, involving a robot that is clearly a puppet and a giant CGI flying saucer. “Anatomy Lesson” ultimately feels like two stories, a gritty tale about a budding serial killer and a sci-fi story about aliens policing Earth, awkwardly fused together. Chrome's puns are a little better this time, as they actually relate to the story and aren't just thoughtlessly sexual. [6/10]

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Halloween 2017: September 20

IT (1990)

Whatever the origins of the killer clown, one of the most popular modern horror archetypes, Stephen King certainly has to answer for a lot of it. His 1986 novel is a sprawling masterpiece that covers a lot of ground. Pennywise the Dancing Clown, however, is the only thing most people remember about “It.” The mini-series adaptation, first aired on ABC  in 1990, may be the primary reason for this. Producers originally intended the mini-series to run for ten hours, with George Romero directing. When “It” actually rolled into production, the run time had been cut down to three, with Tommy Lee Wallace of “Halloween III” and “Fright Night II” directing. Despite that considerable step down in talent, “It” made Pennywise into a horror icon and remains a nostalgic favorite.

The killings in Derry have started again. The small Maine town is caught up in a cycle. Every thirty years, children begin to die. After a huge outburst of violence, the murders stop... Only to start again three decades later. In the late fifties, a group of eleven year old youths – calling themselves the Losers Club – confronted the force behind the killings directly. Mostly appearing as a malevolent clown, It is actually an ancient entity older than any of them, that can take the shape of your worst fears. They thought they killed it back then. But, now, It has returned. The Losers Club reconvene in Derry, uncertain if they can survive another encounter with It.

I would not envy anybody adapting King's “It.” First off, it's a door stopper that runs over a thousand pages. Even the prospect of shoving all that into a three hour run time is daunting. Some of screenwriter Lawrence Cohen's decisions were strictly pragmatic. Most of King's backstory, for the characters and the town of Derry, and nearly all the subplots are clip out. The two halves are wildly condensed. Different adventures are combined or switched around. Of course, there are budgetary decisions too. The sprawling sewer tunnels and underground caverns are replaced with an underwhelming filtration plant. The titular entity spends most of the film as the clown, removing the wilder transformations. And the cosmic conclusion is entirely excised. Ultimately, maybe thirty percent of King's book made it into the mini-series. The result is not the most satisfying adaptation. In fact, this “It” feels practically anemic.

An entire generation of nineties kids have talked about how “It” traumatized them. I remember this too, watching the movie from under a blanket, being too freaked out to even look at it. To adult eyes, Wallace's “It” comes off as deeply corny. Many of the horrific sequences – most of them added for the film – are less than frightening. An encounter between Eddie and Pennywise in the school shower is deeply silly. The creature design for It's final form – an alien spider – is neat. However, the effects are stiff. There was something cathartic on the page about the Losers beating the Spider to death with their bare hands. On-screen, it's deeply anticlimatic. But Henry Bowers gets it the worst. King's frightening young psychopath is changed into a generic, deeply unthreatening greaser kid. The fate of him and his friends, sucked into a pipe and hair turned white, are laughable. The electronic score is largely cheesy too.

Having said that, Wallace's film occasionally touches upon a creepy image. Beverly's vision of blood bubbling up from the sink is one of the few moments from the book that are largely unaltered, to the film's benefit. In fact, blood bursting into the air provides some of “It's” best moments. When a balloon splatters blood all over Richie, while he sits in the library as an adult, that makes for a decent shock. A sequence set in a Chinese restaurant, where every fortune cookie holds a gruesome surprise, works pretty well even with some shaky special effects. Another encounter from the adult years, where Beverly comes face-to-face with a ghoulish old lady, works pretty well. In fact, "It" is probably at its scariest when hewing the closest to King's text.

Of course, none of this is the real reason people recall “It” so fondly. It all comes down to Tim Curry as Pennywise. Roddy McDowell and Malcolm McDowell were both considered for the part and either surely would've done a good job. But Curry's evil clown is on a whole other level. The clown persona allows Curry to ham it up as much as he wants, which is hugely enjoyable on its own. However, Curry maintains a sinister edge even when being jovial. He understands that Pennywise is someone that enjoys frightening children and relishes it. In fact – with his big smile, wicked laugh, and deeply unnerving delivery – Curry's Pennywise may be creepier than King's. On the page, Pennywise is merely one of It's many faces. In the film, he's the main attraction.

The rest of the cast is more varied. None of the Losers, as kids, are especially well cast. Seth Green's young Richie is incredibly annoying. Ben Heller's Stan Uris is so distant from the literal Stan that he reads like a totally different character. Emily Perkins as young Bev and Brandon Crane as young Ben are better performers but have a similar problem. Many of the adult losers are simply miscast. Harry Anderson as adult Richie mugs furiously but can't seem to shed his comedic side in the more serious scenes. (The mini-series makes Richie a successful stand-up, instead of a deejay. Which makes sense, except his material is so bad, you can't believe he'd ever be popular.) John Ritter is also a really poor choice for adult Ben, being too cuddly and not nearly stoic enough. Annette O'Toole is a solid choice for adult Beverly but isn't given nearly enough to do.

Ultimately, I suspect nostalgia does play a big role in the fondness displayed for “It.” Tim Curry's Pennywise has become beloved and widely referenced for a reason. He's brilliant and easily the highlight of the film. While watching as a kid, he's utterly terrifying and that clearly imprinted on a whole generation of kids. The mini-series around him is less impressive. Especially when compared to King's epic novel, Tommy Lee Wallace's adaptation can't help but pale. Lack of budget, lack of time, and lack of vision lead to a forgettable mini-series with a simply unforgettable villain. [6/10]

Die, Monster, Die! (1965)

“Die, Monster, Die!” might have been the first piece of Lovecraftian fiction I was ever exposed too. I caught the movie on AMC's Friday night creep show when I was a budding horror fan. At the time, I had no idea who H.P. Lovecraft was, though I would soon discover. I remember the film being campy and spooky in the way I had come to expect from American International Pictures classics. As an adult, I now know that the movie was the second Lovecraft adaptation A.I.P. produced, following “The Haunted Palace.” Newcomer filmmaker Daniel Haller would take over the director's chair from Roger Corman. Though not quite a classic, the film does have a certain notoriety, mostly do to its memorably outrageous title and the presence of an elderly Boris Karloff.

The film is inspired by “The Colour Out of Space,” one of Lovecraft's best short stories, though it leaves little of the source material. The setting is moved from New England to old England, firstly. Secondly, the farm house location is switched for a gothic mansion. Naturally, a female love interest and more monsters are added to the tale. The titular color is reduced to a plot device. Instead, the film follows Stephen Reinhart, who has come to England to retrieve his young girlfriend. That girl, Susan Witley, is living in her family's old house. Her father is confined to a wheelchair. Her mother is ill, staying in her room. Soon, Stephen and Susan discover that the mansion holds a strange, horrible secret. One that comes from beyond the stars.

“Die, Monster Die!” isn't the most sophisticated movie but I found myself enjoying it. The movie openly participates in an older style of horror atmosphere. By shifting the story's location, Lovecraft's backwoods mutations take on a more gothic air. The film's mansion setting is well utilized. It's full of darkly hallways, spooky old portraits, and dusty trinkets from a decade or more ago. In this effectively creepy location, a classical breed of chills are deployed. Strange figures are half-seen through windows or bedroom curtains. Old family curses are whispered about. There's a boarded-up room that everyone is forbid from entering. A spooky old battle axe, the kind a classical executioner might carry, even puts in an appearance. It's pretty hooky but admittedly catnip for a classic horror fanatic like myself.

“Die, Monster, Die!” is so heavy on this more quint brand of horror that the Lovecraftian elements aren't immediately evident. Slowly, they emerge. A key sequence involves Steve and Susan entering a forbidden green house. Inside, they find giant vegetables – one of the few holdovers from the original story – and grotesquely mutated animals. These creatures are so deformed that you can't even recognize what they once were. Humans are similarly effected. In the last reel, Susan's mother is revealed. Her face has distorted, sprouting bleeding sores. This kind of proto-body horror makes up much of Lovecraft's original story. There are other elements too. The senior Witley feels cursed by an ancient family bloodline, recalling “Charles Dexter Ward.” There's also a green glowing light underground, which at least hints at the subterranean terrors Howard Philips wrote about.

These two separate techniques of horror play out mostly in separate sequences. And to the benefit of the film. When “Die, Monster, Die!” attempts to link its drippy horror setting with its Lovecraftian roots, the result is a stuntman running around with silver paint on his face. In the last act, Boris Karloff's character gets a mega-dose of the mutation causing radiation. An obviously different actor then takes over, attacking Nick Adams while wearing aluminum foil-looking make-up and glowing green. It's a silly ending to a somewhat silly movie but one that jives badly. Especially since it takes Karloff out of the picture. Karloff's ominous performance is another highlight of “Die, Monster, Die!” He's a bit more memorable than Adams in the hero role and Suzan Farmer as the screaming damsel, both of whom are just adequate.

I actually enjoy “Die, Monster, Die!” more now than when I was a kid. I guess my appreciation for this brand of nonsense has increased with age. It's not an especially accurate Lovecraft adaptation and is fairly goofy overall. However, this movie still hits enough of my sweet spots to recommend it. I'm certainly not the only fan, as there are several songs and bands named for the film. A.I.P., by the way, originally released this on a double feature with Mario Bava's “Planet of the Vampires.” I bet that was a fun show to catch at the local drive-in. [7/10]

Masters of Horror: The Damned Thing

Last year, I reviewed season one of “Masters of Horror.” Back in high school, when my horror fandom was really starting to burn bright, the show was appointment television for me. So revisiting that first season was a source of nostalgia, even if the episodes varied in quality. I have fewer fond memories of season two. By the time the second season started, I was no longer speaking to my father, the only person in my family who had Showtime. So I didn't see season two during its first run. As a youngster, I also though the second season's line-up of directors was disappointing. Now, however, I have another reason to continue watching this show. These unique filmmakers are starting to die off. The first episode of “Masters of Horror's” second season, “The Damned Thing,” is from the recently late Tobe Hooper. I have to watch this show now, to pay tribute to this now-gone filmmaker.

“The Damned Thing” is loosely based off the Ambrose Bierce story of the same name. Very loosely, it must be said. The film begins in the eighties, when Kevin Reddle was only a boy. His father went insane on his fortieth birthday, killing his mother and attempting to kill Kevin. Afterwards, the man was torn apart by an invisible force. Now, Kevin is approaching his own fortieth birthday. He's now the sheriff in his small town, currently separated from his wife and son. Reddle has a dark feeling that the damned thing is about to return. He's right. An evil force bubbles up from the ground, driving the townsfolk insane, causing them to murder one another.

“The Damned Thing” is a pretty good example of Tobe Hooper's unique strengths and myriad flaws as a filmmaker. Look at the scenes were the invisible monster, the titular damned thing, attacks and forces others to attack. Hooper employs some startlingly gory special effects. A man's chest is torn open, his intestines yanked out, before his body levitates into the air. An effective scene has a man beating himself to death with a claw hammer. Another surprising moment has the sheriff attempting to rescue a teenage girl from a car crash. All he succeeds in doing is tearing her legs off, which come apart with a sickening sound. Yet these moments also feature some tacky direction from Hooper. The camera seizes wildly during the attacks, with gratuitous shaky-cam. For some reason, a stock sound effect monster roar is used to signals the damned thing's presence. That's annoying, especially since it's replayed repeatedly.

The script, provided by Richard Christian Matheson, is also a mixed bag. The damned thing manifesting as oil, the hate and violence literally bubbling up from the ground, is a clever touch. (Even if the CGI used in the last scene could've used some work.) Some of the interactions in the town, like Ted Raimi's Catholic priest turning a gun on a mouthy confession, are darkly humorous. Yet Matheson's script also saddles the main character with a distracting voiceover. That narration blandly explains too much of the story. You can see this dynamic in the cast too. Sean Patrick Flannery is decent in the lead. Brenden Fletcher is amusing as the deputy who dreams of becoming a cartoonist. Yet other performances are less certain. Marisa Coughlan is tone-deaf as the wife, especially in the scenes where the damned thing begins to influence her.

Ultimately, “Masters of Horror: Season Two” gets off to a shaky start. I remember too much of the second season having a similar problem. The artful bits stand alongside more awkward stuff, like that needlessly nihilistic ending. As a Tobe Hooper film, “The Damned Thing” is set in his native Texas and features some of the frenzied insanity common to his work. It's also sadly typical of Hooper's sloppy later work. Still, even if he made some mediocre-to-terrible films, I am going to miss Tobe Hooper. The horror genre absolutely wouldn't be the same without him. [6/10]

Perversions of Science: Dream of Doom

Over the last four Halloweens, I watched all of “Tales from the Crypt.” The show was frequently formulaic yet I loved it. It was also a big hit for HBO, who was only beginning to move into original television at the time. Unsurprisingly, after its healthy seven year run, the network wasn't ready to give up on the idea of an E.C. Comics-based anthology series. In 1997, the same producers would re-team for a follow-up. While “Tales from the Crypt” was based on E.C.'s horror comics, “Perversions of Science” would be based on E.C.'s science fiction comics. Instead of a jokey puppet Cryptkeeper, the show was hosted by a sexy CGI gynoid named Chrome. Despite having so much going for it, “Perversions of Science” would not repeat “Tales'” success. It would end after one season. Though ostensibly a sci-fi show, the stories crossed over into the horrific often enough to make it fitting viewing for the Six Weeks of Halloween.

That's very evident in the sole premiere episode. “Dream of Doom” is more-or-less straight-up psychological horror. The story concerns Arthur Bristol, a forty-something college professor. Bristol visits a psychologist, claiming that he can't wake up. He believes himself to be stuck in a dream. Every time he awakes, he simply finds himself in another dream. Faces reappear throughout his fantasies. A woman who is sometimes his doctor and sometimes his wife. Or a comely young lady who is sometimes his student and sometimes his girlfriend. Arthur becomes desperate to break this cycle and begins considering violent options.

“Dream of Doom” was directed by Walter Hill, who also directed “Tales from the Crypt's” first episode. This isn't a classic on the level of “The Man Who Was Death” though. The script, from future blockbuster scribe David Goyer, is intentionally scattered. The premise, of endless dreams cycling into each other, leaves little room for narrative coherence. So we get a collection of scenarios. Some of them, like Arthur awakening inside a seedy strip club or a shrink's office, are kind of interesting. The segments play joyfully with Freudian implications. Such as the same woman appearing as his wife in one dream, and his daughter in another. The sexy females also show up as Marylin Monroe-style muses, cooing unhelpful secrets. Yet the constantly shifting story never comes together into a solid whole. “Dream of Doom” is essentially a half-hour of unfinished situations, occasionally building on each other but too often simply existing side-by-side.

Just like “Crypt,” recognizable actors appeared in “Perversions of Science.” This one stars Keith Carradine, Lolita Davidovich, and Adam Arkin. Sadly, the script didn't give anyone much to work with. As a show, “Perversions of Science” is already less charming than “Tales from the Crypt.” Chrome's slinky double entendres are less endearing than the Crypt Keeper's puns. Her CGI appearance is also way less expressive than the old Crypt Keeper puppet. Danny Elfman's boozy jazz theme song is pretty cool though. I'm hoping the show will get better before I finish with its ten episode run but I'm not really expecting that. [5/10]

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Halloween 2017: September 19

Vampyr (1931)

Since 2012, I've been beginning my Halloween Horror-Fest Blog-a-thon with a silent horror movie. This just feels right to me, beginning my six week long journey by going back to the genre's roots. Yet, over the last five years, I've watched most of the notable silent horror movies. Tradition is important to me, as you know, and I didn't want to break this one. So 2017's Blog-a-thon begins with a mostly silent horror movie. “Vampyr” was the legendary Carl Theodor Dreyer's follow-up to his 1928 classic, “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” It's amusing to note that Dreyer decided to make a vampire movie due to the popularity of the “Dracula” Broadway play, which would bring Bela Lugosi to fame. “Vampyr” was a difficult production and not well received in 1931. Since then, it's developed a reputation as one of the greats.

Allan Gray has been wandering through the small villages of Europe, looking for knowledge on the occult. He comes to the small French community of Courtempierre. He rents a room at the local inn. That night, a strange man enters his room, leaves behind a parcel, and tells Gray to open it upon his death. The next day, Gray sees the old man die at a near-by manor. The daughter of the manor's family is gravely ill. She has bite-marks – two pinpricks – on her neck. Gray then reads the book the old man left him, realizing it's a tome about vampires. He soon realizes that a vampire is responsible for the girl's sickness. And that someone in the town is under the vampire's control.

I first saw “Vampyr” on television year ago, late at night. I was drifting in and out of sleep at the time. Watching the film fully awake, my impression hasn't changed much. A dream-like atmosphere informs the entire motion picture. Early on, Allan Gray sleeps several times throughout the movie. He frequently sees shadows. While exploring an empty castle, he sees shadows dance along the wall, nobody casting them. A subtle but impressive segment shows the shadow of a solider with a peg leg, moving without him. His dreams are of death. Upon arriving at the inn, Allan spots an old man with a scythe. He later has a vivid dream of a moving skeleton, appearing in his bedroom. This builds towards the film's most  memorable sequence: A nightmare where Allan dies, is placed in a casket, and carried through town. Dreyer shoots this scene from the corpse's prospective, placing the audience inside the coffin and looking out through wide-open eyes.

All of the above might be chilling but it doesn't have much to do with vampires. “Vampyr” is stubbornly disinterested in typical vampire movie tropes. Maybe it's because the rules of the subgenre were only beginning to be codified but “Vampyr” approaches the vampire with a decidedly old world style. The vampire is not a suave foreigner or a sexy temptress. Instead, it's a decrepit old woman. Her hypnotized slave, the town doctor, does most of the actual work. We see less of the actual vampire and more of her victim. The ailing young woman aligns the vampire with disease and plague. All of this, the bloodsucker being elderly and weak, slowly draining her victim's life, makes the titular vampyr represent death and decay. This is very different take on the undead creature than the version that would emerge throughout the next few decades.

“Vampyr” was Dreyer's first sound feature, made when the technology was still new. The movie was shot in three different languages: German, French and English. Due to these challenges, “Vampyr” features very little dialogue. In fact, most of the movie's information is deliver via title cards and close-up of book pages. This results in a sound feature that feels like a silent movie. It's also pretty awkward. The film is achingly slow at times. Some sound sequences, like the last scene in a mill, are deafeningly noisy. Other moments are incredibly silent. Sometimes, the music doesn't synch up with the events, stopping and starting suddenly. “Vampyr” is beautifully dream-like sometimes. Other times, it's like listening to someone else describing their dream, a less exciting procedure.

It's hard for me to call “Vampyr” one of the greatest horror films of all time. For me, it can't compare to the movies Universal Studios were making at the same time. However, it's definitely an interesting movie. Some of its imagery is absolutely chilling and Dreyer mostly succeeded in making a movie that unfolded like a strange nightmare. Yet it's clear that the director was only beginning to adapt to the new technology at his disposal. The result is a movie that is intermittently great but also occasionally tedious. If nothing else, it's a unique take on the vampire legend. [6.5/10]

The Haunted Palace (1963)

In 2017, H.P. Lovecraft is a cottage industry. There's hundred of movies, comics, video games, tabletop games, toys and Azathoth knows what else inspired by the author's stories. Lovecraft is widely recognized as one of the most influential writers of the last century. It wasn't always that way. By 1963, Roger Corman was six films into his cycle of popular, Vincent Price-starring Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Corman decided to adapt Lovecraft stories next and began work on a version of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” Yet Lovecraft was considered too obscure in 1963. The film was re-titled “The Haunted Palace,” with Price reading a line from the poem at the end, in an attempt to trick people into thinking this was part of the Poe Cycle. Despite the subterfuge, “The Haunted Palace” is still the first cinematic adaptation of Howard Philip Lovecraft's writing.

In 1765 in the town of Arkham, Joseph Curwen is suspected of being a warlock and burned at the stake. Before dying, Curwen curses the town and threatens his return. One hundred years later, Charles Dexter Ward and his wife arrive in Arkham. They have inherited the old family palace. Inside, Ward's eyes fall upon the portrait of Joseph Curwen, realizing they look identical. From there on, the spirit of Curwen begins to inhabit Ward's body. Resurrected, the warlock goes about his plans, getting revenge on the town, reviving the corpse of his wife, performing evil spells, and attempting to raise an Old One from underneath the palace.

Tricking audiences into thinking “The Haunted Palace” was a Poe adaptation was sneaky but not entirely underhanded. Visually, the film resembles the Poe films Corman made. It has the same rich colors, gothic sets, and period costumes. Moreover, the film employs a similar style of horror. “The Haunted Palace” generates creeps with heavy fog and an uneasy atmosphere. The shots of fog-strewn Arkham certainly have a spooky power to them. There's a classical atmosphere to Ward's mind being invaded by his ancestor. Corman, however, hints at Lovecraftian horror. Hiding in the town are deformed humans, such as a little girl with no eyes or a man with a warped face. A sequence where Dexter and his wife are surrounded by the mutated humans is genuinely eerie. C'thulhu and Yog-Sothoth get name-dropped and we get a glimpse at a fishy, inhumane creature in a pit. It still feels more like Poe than Lovecraft but it is interesting.

“The Haunted Palace” presents an interesting opportunity for Vincent Price. He's essentially playing two characters in the same body. As Charles Dexter Ward, Price employs all his good-natured charm. He seems like a loving husband and a gregarious fellow. As Joseph Curwen, Price is devious. He's genuinely chilling, Luciferian in his plotting and evil intent. It's one of Price's most cheerless and evil characters. Price is surrounded by a solid supporting cast. Lon Chaney Jr., in his only film with Corman, appears as Curwen's assistant. It's the kind of undistinguished man-servant role Chaney played frequently in the twilight of his career. Despite that, Chaney still generates some chills with his drooping eye-sockets and sickly appearance. Debra Paget and Cathie Merchant are lovely as the female leads while Corman peppers the rest of the cast with recognizable character actors, like Frank Maxwell, Elisha Cook Jr., and Leo Gordon.

“The Haunted Palace” essentially gets by on its spooky atmosphere and strong cast. Which is good, as the screenplay is a mess. Joseph Curwen's goals seem to shift from scene to scene. First, he only desires to take his descendant's body. Later, he decides to take bloody revenge on the descendants of his tormentors. Next, he's trying to bring his dead girlfriend back to life or raise a fish monster from a pit in the dungeon. How the groups of deformed humans tie in with Curwen's curse on the town is never explained. We just have to assume he's responsible for him. Characters disappear at key moments, such as Lon Chaney's Simon vanishing mysteriously before the conclusion. Most of this stuff was added by Corman and does not appear in Lovecraft's original story. So we know who to blame for the nonsensical digressions.

Still, Vincent Price as a creepy villain, the early examples of body horror, and a shit-ton of fog go a long ways. It's not as direct an adaptation as later Lovecraft films but you can see Corman filtering some of H.P.'s ideas through the lens he brought to the Poe pictures. And, you know, technically the palace in the film is pretty haunted, so the title isn't a lie. I would never presume what H.P. Lovecraft would've thought but, considering how he idolized Poe, I wonder if he would've been flattered by their works being connected like this. [7/10]

Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)

Once upon a time, an awesome title was all a horror movie needed to get funded. Surely one of the genre's greatest titles is “Killer Klowns from Outer Space.” The film was a passion project of the Chiodo Brothers, a trio of brothers who have a long career in special effects and stop-motion work. Due to its outrageous title, which sums up its outrageous premise, the film would immediately attract a cult following. I mean, what self-respecting horror fan wouldn't seek out a movie actually called “Killer Klowns from Outer Space?” I received the film, years ago, as a gift from a cousin who always gave me quote-unquote bad movies for Christmas. The joke was on him. I think “Killer Klowns” is great!

You don't need me to provide a plot synopsis for this film. The title tells you everything you need to know. But I'll go ahead anyway: The town of Crescent Cove is about to get some unexpected visitors. Invaders from another world have landed in the forest. These invaders are clowns – or klowns, if you prefer – but they don't want to make people laugh. Instead, they are here to drink our blood. Teenage couple Mike and Debbie stumble upon the klowns' ship but no one believes them. Soon, the killer klowns are enacting their particular breed of chaos all throughout Crescent Cove.

Most movies about killer clowns are simply content to dress a homicidal lunatic up in colorful greasepaint, big shoes, and baggy pants. “Killer Klowns from Outer Space,” however, extends its absurd premise to its logical extreme. This is best displayed in the scene where the clowns throw acidic cream pies at a security guard. As he's melted into a slushy pile of whipped cream, a klown places a giant cherry atop the corpse. This commitment to premise is seen in every facet of the film. The klowns track victims with a balloon animal bloodhound. They travel in a spaceship shaped like a big top. (Which later reveals itself to be a literal spinning top.) They fire bloodsucking popcorn from colorful guns. They web their victims up in cotton candy. Amusingly, they suck the blood through a wacky bendy straw. Traditional clown-like antics inform everything the film's antagonists do.

Of course, “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” never attempts to be a serious horror film. In fact, the movie is an affectionate parody of fifties creature features. Plot wise, it resembles “The Blob” quite a bit. The film begins with an old man uncovering the arrived aliens. Later, a group of teenagers discover the extraterrestrial threat. However, the local police refuses to believe them until its too late. Being a comedy, “Killer Klowns” exaggerate these characters. The old man is now a goofball, paling around with a basset hound named “Pooh Bear.” The town sheriff, played perfectly by John Vernon, is a massive asshole who antagonizes everyone around him. He outright ignores emergency calls after a while. (Fittingly, he gets the most gruesome death in the film.) The parody elements tend to be the movie's funniest. It's more straight-ahead comedic touches – such as a pair of perpetually horny guys who have rented an ice cream truck in a bid to pick up women – are less amusing.

Despite obviously being a ridiculous comedy, some people really are scared by “Killer Klowns.” To a genuine coulrophobe, I guess this movie would be terrifying. With their background being in special effects, the creature designs are likably grotesque. The clown's faces are wrinkled grimaces, with disturbingly wide grins and wild, spiraling eyes. Every aspect of the production design is quite good, truthfully. The circus tent space ship looks amazing, with colorfully slanting hallways. The various clown cars and laser blasters are inventively designed. Even the more elaborate special effects – such as a deadly shadow puppet show or the climatic appearance of Klownzilla – are brought to life brilliantly. The movie was only made for two million dollars but the Chiodos stretch that small budget as far as it could, creating a fantastic looking feature.

“Killer Klowns from Outer Space” has cult appeal on another level. The movie's theme song is provided by pop-punk band the Dickies. Their title track, with its demented calliope melody, perfectly suits the film. John Massari's score takes a few cues from the Dickies' song, providing a memorable electronic riff throughout the film. “Killer Klowns” is a fantastically entertaining horror parody, with awesome creature effects and an ideal sense of humor about its self. The directors have been trying to get a sequel, known as “Return of the Killer Klowns in 3D,” made for three decades. I'm doubtful that part two will ever surface and it almost doesn't need too. The original stands on its own as an awesomely goofy eighties creature feature. [8/10]

The Void (2017)

There's so much exciting talent in the indie horror scene today that it's hard to keep up. A group of filmmakers I feel like I came late to are the Astron-6 guys. Composed of five Hollywood make-up experts, the team began cranking out bizarre, comedic genre homages in 2007. The gang moved into feature films with 2011's “Man-Borg.” They've since made movies like “Father's Day,” “The Editor,” and one of the best segments in “The ABCs of Death 2.” Their work is designed to appeal to horror weirdos, full of graphic gore and oddball humor. Last year, Astron-6 decided to ditch the humor and take a stab at a serious horror movie. “The Void” was released earlier this year and, among the horror weirdos I ran with, was heavily discussed. Well, Halloween has started so it's time for me to finally watch this one.

Small town deputy, Daniel Carter, is busy recovering from the end of his marriage, after his wife, Alison, lost their child. What he thinks is going to be a quiet night changes when he spots a man crawling alongside the road. An apparent drug addict, he takes the man to the hospital where Alison works. Turns out, the man is fleeing a strange cult. Two men, Vincent and Simon, arrive at the hospital with guns and axes. They've been hunting this cult. And with good reason. The cultists are opening portals to a horrifying dimension. Strange monstrosities are slithering through into our world, mutating people into deformed creatures.

Despite being made by the same people, “The Void” ditches the Astron-6 branding. This is likely because the movie doesn't have their usual madcap sense of humor. Instead, “The Void” is a grim horror picture, concerning themes of overcoming loss. (All the major characters have lost a love one: The sheriff and his wife lost their unborn child. The redneck hunter lost his daughter. The villainous doctor's daughter died recently.) Yet the change in tone doesn't mean the filmmakers are done paying homage to their influences. “The Void” is obviously beholden to John Carpenter. The story is highly reminiscent of “Prince of Darkness.” The squirming body-horror recalls “The Thing,” the inter-dimensional monsters hearken back to “In the Mouth of Madness,” and the siege story is inspired by “Assault on Precinct 13.” Floating throughout the film are other callbacks, including “Hellraiser” and Lucio Fulci's “The Beyond.” “The Void” is clearly pitched to the same audience as Astron-6's other films.

What is likely to attract horror fans to “The Void” the most are the film's considerable practical creature effects. The monsters in the film are impressively creepy. Tentacles flop from a corpse's eye sockets. Soon, it grows into a pulsing mass of body horror, arms reaching from a massive tumor. Later, dismembered dead bodies in a basement shambles to life. These guys are fresher than zombies. They are, instead, twitching corpses kept alive by some insidious force. A pregnant woman is encircled by tentacles, pumping strange fluids from one place to the next. Later, a flayed man – there's your “Hellraiser” homage – opens a portal. A huge monster, similar to a bull but made of twisted human bodies, rampages on-screen for the climax. All of these hideous monsters are brought to life with good old fashion latex and rubber. The filmmakers know exactly how to deploy gross, gruesome, squirming monsters like this. The creature effects in “The Void” are effectively disturbing.

The film has no shortage of creepy, grotesque imagery. The hooded cultist, in white robes with black triangle shapes on their faces, are unnerving sight. As the film goes on, a tense and nervous energy overtakes the proceedings. There's a problem though. “The Void” is pretty thin gruel on the character and story side of things. The cast is large and full of unknowns. None of the characters are especially memorable. Some of them, such as the man hunting the cultists, are actively abrasive. The plot also does not progress in a straight line. The film cuts back and forth between the characters frequently, keeping the flow of the story choppy. Ultimately, you never quite care about who lives and dies. The plot feels more like a delivery system for fucked-up horror sequences than any sort of actual story.

Just as a visceral experience, “The Void” is worth seeking out. The extraordinary special effects prove that. Yet I wish the screenplay had as much meat on its bones as the Lovecraftian abominations in the film do. Still, I'm not surprised that the film was well received in the horror community. I imagine its cult following will only grow with time. However, I hope the Astron-6 crew put as much effort into their story and characters next time as they do their propensity for freaky horror sequences. [7/10]

The Cop Cam (2016)

When it comes to short horror films, less is usually more. “The Cop Cam” isn't quite three minutes long. It's plot is minimal. Told from the perspective of a police officer's body cam, it's about a cop who has to enter a dilapidated building, presumably to check on some sort of disturbance. He hears and sees some strange things before being attacked by a mostly obscured humanoid figure. Dialogue is minimal. Most of the sounds are chatter from the police scanner. No explanation is provided for what the cop encounters. That's pretty much all there is to it. Yet “The Cop Cam” is surprisingly effective.

Director Isaac Rodriguez shows a strong grasp on setting and sound design. From the moment the cop enters the building, the audience is watching every corner of the spooky house. We're left wondering if a shadow moving on the wall was something paranormal or nothing. We get fleeting glimpses of the apparition, or whatever it is, before the big confrontation. The police radio noises create an unnerving atmosphere, immediately putting the viewer at ill ease. The first-person perspective puts us in the main character's seat, making his frightening trip more visceral. (Rodriguez also, cleverly, uses the static and video distortion common to small cameras to conceal the short's few cuts.) “The Cop Cam,” like a lot of horror shorts that are popular on the internet, is simply building up to a jump scare. But it's a pretty good one. Over all, “The Cop Cam' is a very well assembled two minutes and fifteen seconds. [7/10]

Monday, September 18, 2017

Halloween 2017: Preamble

"HELLO!" They all scream merrily.

Halloween is the only time of year when I believe in magic. For the other ten and a half months, I am a scientific-minded, rationally thinking skeptic. During the six weeks between September 17th and November 1st, it's different. There's a spark in the cool, autumn air. The sense that something is different. It's a time when nothing can become something. When every sojourner, every night at the movies, every snack, has a deeper significance. Halloween infects every corner and crevice, changing the simplest of acts into a celebration. Every act is imbued with that Halloween-y feeling. I guess other people feel this way about Christmas but I've always preferred pumpkins and skeletons to evergreens and Santa Claus.

If Halloween is the only time when I believe in magic, then the only magic that really exists are rituals. Think about it. When a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat, it's the performer's showmanship and the audience's eagerness to believe in the impossible that changes a simple act of sleight of hand into magic. When swamis sit on beds of nails, preachers compel the lame to walk, and spiritualist perform seances, nothing truly extraordinary is happening. It's the setting, the scenery, the theatrical act itself, and the belief from everyone involved that makes it work. By setting the stage, by agreeing on the rules, the magic can happen.

And what are holidays if not elaborate rituals? We've decided this day, and the season attached to it, has some greater significance. Every year, we put up the same decorations and perform the same activities. After all, many of the Halloween festivities are much older than you might think: Trick or treating, carving jack-o-lanterns, bopping for apples, and dressing up in ghoulish disguises all have roots that stretch back hundreds of years. I tend to think of watching horror movies as a modern variation on telling ghost stories and spooky legends. Everything we do connects us with the past. Every act makes the ritual stronger.

Thus, the Halloween Horror-Fest Blog-a-Thon is me indulging in a little magic. For six weeks, I watch and review as many horror movies, TV episodes, and shorts as possible. This is my ritual, my way of squeezing as much magic out of October 31st as possible. I've been doing it for eight years now, though the last five are the only ones that feel like they really count. (2011 now feels like a test run for a grander event. Those first two years were pathetic prequels.) The man who encouraged me to partake in the Six Weeks called himself Kernunrex. Sadly, he was AWOL during last year's Six Weeks. It remains to be seen if he'll show up this year. Happily, there are other Halloween bloggers to make this feel like a communal experience.

So what of these rituals? What do I have planned? As always, I intend to cover quite a few series for 2017's Halloween Horrorfest Blog-a-Thon. Inspired by a recent hit film, I'll be watching a number of films featuring evil clowns, one of the most overdone horror cliches of our time. As a follow-up to my Stuart Gordon Director Report Card earlier in the month, I'll be reviewing several films based off the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. This is the year I finally sit down and watch the films of Val Lewton, most of which I've never seen before. A couple recent DVD purchases have convinced me to cover the films of Greg McLean as well. That's probably too much but, eh, anything worth doing is worth overdoing.

On the TV front, I'll finish with “Masters of Horror” and move on to its unsuccessful follow-up series, “Fear Itself.” After wrapping up “Tales from the Crypt” last year, I'll be giving that show's unsuccessful follow-up, “Perversions of Science,” a look too. There's plenty of other stuff to expect too: Podcast episodes, trips to local Halloween stores, haunted houses and corn mazes, as well as my yearly journey to my local horror convention, Monster-Mania 38 in Hunt Valley, Maryland. Who wants to meet Michael Biehn and Barbara Steele? I do!

The Halloween season brings with it a number of new horror films in theaters and on DVD. The horror event of the autumn, the new version of Stephen King's “IT,” has already been out for a few weeks and I'll be reviewing it soon. The indie horror event of the autumn, Darren Afronosky's peculiarly punctuated “mother!,” rolled out last Friday. It's already horrified and confused many innocent Jennifer Lawrence fans. The indie front has brought or will bring titles like “The Limehouse Golem,” “Woodshock,” the dreadful looking “Friend Request,” thriller “Super Dark Times,” and the woefully out-of-season Christmas shocker “Better Watch Out.”

This year is also full of revived franchises. “Jeepers Creepers 3” crept out last week, to expected controversy. The long shelved new “Leatherface” film finally hits video-on-demand in a few days. “Cult of Chucky” will be released next month. I'm sure that “Flatliners” remake will be dreadful but I'll probably see it just because it stars mai waifu, Ellen Page. I thought we, as a culture, were done with “Saw” but Lionsgates is bringing it out of retirement this year. A new film, simply called “Jigsaw,” is staking out the series' old stomping grounds: The weekend before Halloween. (Another entry in a long-in-the-tooth modern horror series, “Insidious: Chapter 4,” set off for the less crowded month of February.) There's a Friday the 13th in October this year but Paramount abruptly pulled the plug on that series' latest reboot back in January. Intriguing looking slasher riff “Happy Death Day” grabbed the release date instead

Enough mindless chatter. I'm ready. The spirits of Halloween and I embrace. Suddenly, my hands are full of candy corn. There's a rubber mask on my face. My entertainment center is overflowing with spooky DVDs and Blu-Rays. The trees, their brown and orange leaves lining the sidewalk, part. Ghosts and ghouls shout encouragement behind my ears. The graveyards may be full of the dead but they've never seemed more alive. I'm back, Old Friend. 2017's Halloween Horrorfest Blog-a-thon begins... Now!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Director Report Card: Stuart Gordon (2007)

15. Stuck

You may recall hearing about it. In 2001, a Texas woman struck a homeless man with her car. He became lodged in the windshield. Instead of going to a hospital or calling an ambulance, she went home. She left the man stuck in her windshield, in her garage, where he slowly bled to death. It was one of those salacious, horrifying news stories that showed the depth of human ignorance and cruelty. When the story was new, it was passed through in-boxes and around water coolers. The story clearly struck a chord with Stuart Gordon. In 2007, he would transform the shocking true story into a movie, putting his own twist on the event. “Stuck” would win Gordon some of the best reviews of his career.

Thomas Bardo is having a very bad day. Recently let go from his job, he's been struggling to find work. His landlord suddenly kicked him out this morning. He wasted all day waiting for an appointment at the welfare office. Now, he's been removed from the park he's sleeping in. Brandi Boski, meanwhile, is having a pretty good day. She's up for a promotion at her nursing home job. She's been out all night with her drug dealer boyfriend, taking ecstasy at a dance club. While driving home from the club, Brandi strikes Thomas with her car. Frightened about how this will affect her job, she leaves the homeless man lodged in her car windshield, sitting inside her garage. Now Bardo has to fight to survive while his unwilling captor plots to finish him for good.

With his most recent film, Gordon continues to freely mix genre. “Stuck” is another unlikely crossover. The film is a mixture between a grim, facts-based thriller and an absurdist comedy. The film depict the true events without much exaggeration, playing up the casual cruelty of those involved. Gordon shows the stomach-churning violence of the situation, brutally revealing what a speeding car can do to a human body. However, perhaps to save our collective sanity, Gordon approaches the material with a detached sense of gallows humor. The people responsible for this crime are so stupid, that it becomes funny. The scenario is so horrifying callous, that it becomes absurd. The approach is widely successful. “Stuck” is an extremely dark comedy, exposing the sickening insensitivity people are capable of.

In fact, cruel indifference is the primary theme of the film. Throughout the film, Bardo faces a number of indignities from people simply too petty to give a shit. Even before being hit by a car, he puts up with a lot of bullshit. His landlord kicks him and insists he can't take his clothes with him. The guy at the job office is deeply condescending to a man who has been waiting all day, forcing him to fill out paperwork he's already done. A police officer removes him from a park bench, more concerned with upholding laws then protecting another human's well-being. This continues after he's struck by Brandi. While on a walk, a man's dog sneaks into the garage and licks Tom's wounds. When the dogwalker sees the blood, he's only concerned about the pooch's health. Later, after the son hears Bardo's screams, a Mexican family nearly calls the police. The father, however, insists they stay quiet over fears of being deported. “Stuck's” point isn't that people are cruel to other people. It's that they are so casual about it.

There's also an element of class distinction in “Stuck.” Tom Bardo is homeless, unemployed, and totally penniless. He's also a dignified man who works hard. He's simply fallen on a streak of bad luck. Bardi Boski, meanwhile, is gainfully employed, owns a house, and has enough spending money to buy drugs and go to clubs on the weekend. She's also a vulgar idiot with zero consideration for the people around her. The contrast is deliberate. From a screenwriting perspective, this is simply to mark the homeless man as the story's hero and the driver as its villain. However, these themes serve another purpose. Success is random and the universe is as wantonly cruel as the people who populate it.

An aspect of the true story that fascinated Gordon was the woman having the job of caregiver. The focus on that central irony appears in the film. Yes, Brandi is a nurse. She's apparently a pretty good one too. One elderly patient requests her by name all the time. She impresses her supervisor enough to be offered a leadership position. There's definitely some dramatic irony in a person capable of such casual cruelty literally taking care of people for her job. What makes Brandi a truly awful person is her inability to take responsibility for anything. Throughout the film, she repeatedly blames Tom for what happened. When he refuses to die, she plans to murder him, strictly to save her own skin. She might be a nurse but she's mostly a person incapable of owning up to her mistakes.

Most of “Stuck's” humor comes from the trashy antics Brandi and her drug-dealer boyfriend, Rashid, get up to. Rashid claims to be a tough guy gangster, saying he's disposed of a body before. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that this is an act. He's a buffoon and Brandi is either too enamored or too shallow to notice. This humorous streak peaks during a scene where Brandi arrives at Rashid's apartment, unannounced. She discovers her boyfriend with another woman. Instead of doing the reasonable thing – both women confronting the man about his infidelity – Brandi attackers the other woman. She drags her out of bed, nude, and smacks her face with an iron skillet, before tossing her out the door. It's a moment of “Jerry Springer” shenanigans, inserted into a grim story. This moment draws attention to Brandi's nonchalant cruelty and stupidity. it's also deliriously funny.

“Stuck” isn't quite a horror film, by any traditional metric. However, it features the kind of sickening gore that wouldn't have been out of place in Gordon's earlier films. Few details concerning Tom's situation are spared. During a queasy scene, he pulls himself from the shattered window, the glass cutting him further. Quickly, he realizes that he's been impaled by a windshield wiper. The film focuses on his agony as he pulls the wiper from his gut. Later, while laying on the garage floor, we see the broken bones protruding from his skin. Later, a dog licks at the raw fracture, another nauseating moment. Perhaps the gore in “Stuck” is even more effective because its all totally plausible. The movie's reality-based roots makes its violence – violence that might've actually happened – extra upsetting.

The actor playing Tom Bardo faced some unique challenge. Starring in “stuck” meant squirming inside an uncomfortably tight spot for weeks. Luckily, Gordon found someone up to that feat. Stephen Rea, an underappreciated character actor, plays the part. Rea's performance is grueling. He spends most of the movie screaming, grunting, or moaning in agony. Yet, no matter how extreme the situation gets, Rea maintains the character's dignity. No matter how bad things gets, Rea continues to focus on the part's humanity. Rea's strong acting characterizes Bardo as a survivor, above all else.

As the other main character, Mena Suvari has a different sort of challenge. She's playing someone with few redeeming features. Suvari makes sure the audience understands that Brandi, at least, thinks what she's doing is justified. Suvari brings an effectively desperate quality to the part. All she can think about is loosing her job. As things get worst, her composure cracks up more and more. By the end, she's screaming and crying. All the while, she defers blame to others. It's a good bit of acting and Suvari makes this character seem real, if not sympathetic. (There was some minor controversy around Suvari's casting. In real life, the driver was black. Gordon dismissed any apparent whitewashing as strictly a budgetary choice. They couldn't get the movie funded with a black actress in the lead.)

“Stuck” pulls together a solid supporting cast too. Russell Hornsby is hilarious as Rashid. He's a scumbag, selling drugs primarily as a way to manipulate women into sleeping with him. Despite this, Hornsby makes the guy oddly likable. He's such a clueless idiot, running on a macho bravado that he doesn't seem to entirely believe, that you end up feeling a little sorry for him. Rukiya Bernard appears as Tanya, Brandi's co-worker. She's pivotal to an amusing scene. Brandi and Rashid have to explain where all the blood and gore have come from, leading to some funny awkward planning. Stuart Gordon also finds a role for his wife, naturally. Once again, Caroline Purdy-Gordon appears as a strict female authority figure. This time, she's nurse supervisor Petersen and is enjoyably bitchy.

In real life, this story had a tragic ending. The homeless man died after suffering for several hours, even though basic medical attention would've saved his life. The woman got away with it for a few months, before bragging about the crime at a party. She's currently serving out a fifty year prison sentence. But cinema gives us a chance to give real life happier endings. In “Stuck,” Bardo escapes the car. When his captors attempt to kill him, he strikes back. He stabs Rashid in the eye with a pen. He strikes Brandi with her own car. The woman then ignites gasoline that she spread around the garage in an attempt to disguise the murder. Tom walks away, brutalized but alive. The first time I saw “Stuck,” aware of how the real incident ended, this ending surprised me. Justice is served, at least in fiction.

When paired with “King of the Ants” and “Edmond,” “Stuck” seems to form a thematic trilogy of sorts. Call it Stuart Gordon's Nihilism Trilogy. Each one of the three films deals with man's inhumanity to man, building towards a point about people being rotten. Ultimately, “Stuck” may be the most optimistic of the three movies. At the story's end, Tom is free, alive, and gets to keep his humanity. “Stuck” would be a critical success, considered one of the year's best film by some. Most surprisingly, “Stuck” even received a remake in India. It's all a clear indicator of how good this darkly hilarious and sickly insightful film is. [Grade: A-]

It seemed the critical praise Gordon's most recent films received was setting his career up for a new chapter. Instead, ten years have passed without a new Stuart Gordon movie coming out. It would seem that it's difficult to get the kind of weird-ass movies he likes to make funded these days. Gordon attempted to Kickstart a film version of "Nevermore," a one-man play about Edgar Allan Poe starring Jeffrey Combs. That sounded amazing but, alas, the campaign was unsuccessful. Since than, Gordon has returned to the theater, directing a musical version of "Re-Animator." I certainly hope Gordon gets to make another movie some day, though "Stuck" would be a hell of a note to end things on. After watching all his films, I truly do believe he's one of our more underrated masters of horror.