Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, July 30, 2016

NO ENCORES: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

1. The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Director: Charles Laughton

The moment I started the No Encores series, I knew there was one movie I was going to have to talk about sooner or later. “The Night of the Hunter” is widely considered one of the great films of American cinema. In 2008, it was even voted the second best movie ever made, right behind “Citizen Kane.” It’s also, without a doubt, the most famous example of a director only making one film. Charles Laughton, already considered a fine actor, made the film in 1955. Initially, “The Night of the Hunter” was poorly received by critics and did mediocre business at the box office. The negative reception was the reason Laughton never directed again, even though his sole directorial credit would eventually garner a reputation as a classic.

Meet Reverend Harry Powell. Powell travels the West Virginian countryside, finding widows, marrying them, and then slitting their throat with his switchblade. Despite his murderous actions, he dresses as a man of the cloth and preaches the word of God. While serving a prison sentence for the theft of a car, he overhears his cellmate talking about a hidden cache of money. After leaving prison, he hunts down the man’s widow and two children. While everyone else believes Powell to be a pious man of God, the children John and Pearl recognize him for the madman he is. After he kills their mother, the kids row down the river, hoping to escape Powell’s pursuit.

In addition to being considered one of the best films ever made, “Night of the Hunter” also unanimously features one of the best villains in all of cinema. Harry Powell is, simultaneously, an incredibly charming man and an unhinged psychopath. He sells everyone around town, including Willa Harper, that he’s a virtuous man. He can convince people of his lies, no matter how unlikely. He’s also a rambling nut case. His introduction involves him talking directly to God. His sermons, in which he represents the struggle between love and hate as an arm wrestling match, have an unhinged energy to them. He has no qualms about threatening a child. When annoyed or injured, Powell growls like a monster or whoops like a stuck animal. He’s an ultimate villain, calculating, dangerous, monstrous, charismatic, and self-interested above everything else. Robert Mitchum’s performance is utterly captivating.

In 1955, you wouldn’t expect a mainstream studio film to directly criticize the institute of religion. Yet “Night of the Hunter” subversively does just that. Powell dresses as a man of the cloth, in the black suit and hat. When introducing himself to Willa and his friends, he pretends to be a prison chaplain. He preaches about the cost of evil… Which he knows intimately, of course. The townsfolk love him, thinking him a respectable, honorable man. Considering her former husband was a criminal, everyone encourages Willa to marry Powell. When he preaches in church, his speeches have a delirious aspect to them. As the film goes on, it reveals that Powell’s sermons are strictly ways for him to vent his rage at the world. Everyone follows and listens, ignoring the warning signs. Religion encourages conformity, even if it’s in service of a serial killer.

James Agee’s screenplay, adapted from a novel by Davis Grubb and rewritten by Laughton, is especially critical of the church’s treatment of sex. Powell constantly rants against “perfume and lace.” He visits a burlesque show, seething in rage at the stripper on stage. On the first night of marriage, he reprimands Willa for expecting a consummation of their relationship. She buys into his rhetoric, preaching his word, condemning the world of material things and sensual pleasures. Before the wedding, Icey Spoon dismisses sex rather bluntly. It’s obvious Powell hates women, because of the sexual desires they create in him. When his lust is aroused, he murders with his knife. By aligning these view points with a misogynistic serial killer, Laughton is clearly condemning anyone who denies the importance of a regular sex life.

Yet as critical as “The Night of the Hunter” is of the church, it isn’t dismissive of all religion. After fleeing Powell, John and Pearl meet Miss Rachel Cooper, a kindly old woman played by silent screen legend Lillian Gish. Cooper has taken in many lost children, raising them as her own. Like Powell, she’s well versed in scripture. She sings hymns, prayers, goes to church every Sunday. However, like the kids, she immediately recognizes Powell as a crazy conman. One of her adoptees is Ruby, a teenage girl coming into her own sexually. Rachel doesn’t judge Ruby for her desires, unlike Powell and his lots. If Powell represents everything wrong with organized religion, Gish’s Cooper represents the positive values. She believes in charity, in protecting children, in love and forgiveness. Gish is great in the role, though one can’t help but wonder how Elsa Lanchester, Laughton's wife and first choice for the part, could’ve done.

There are no conventional heroes in “Night of the Hunter.” No brave police officers or big strong men appear to protect the kids from the wicked Reverend. Instead, it’s up to little John to protect himself and his sister. Before the police take their dad away, he makes the boy promise he’ll always keep Pearl safe and never disclose the location of the money. John, showing an honor beyond his age, never goes back on this promise. While everyone is fooled by Powell’s act, John immediately smells a rat. Pearl believes Powell yet can't turn on her brother. By following two siblings, pursued by a monster and lost in a big world, “Night of the Hunter” blatantly recalls a fairy tale. It also takes place in the secret world of children. The location of the money is only one secret John and Pearl share. They have to survive on their own, necessitating they learn to communicate on their own terms

Several other details further that fairy tale feeling. First off, the film is not shot in a realist manner. Instead, Laughton looked to Expressionistic silent cinema for his visual inspiration. “Night of the Hunter” is defined by shadows and light. As John tells Pearl a bedtime story – itself a fairy tale variation on their life – Powell’s shadow looms into view. Willa and Harry’s bedroom has an arched ceiling, framed like a church itself. Spotlights are shined behind structures, rendering them black outlines haloed by white light. Wide shots are often seen primarily in silhouette. Laughton often places strange objects, like torches or hands, in the foreground of shots. It’s a gorgeous looking film, whose sense of design still brilliantly burns sixty years later.

Davis Grubb’s source novel was greatly inspired by Depression era West Virginia. Harry Powell was based off Harry Powers, a real life killer from Quiet Dell, West Virginia. The film version uses this Depression setting as another way to root the story in a different time and place. The Ohio River looms in the background, the children eventually making their escape down the river. A friend of John’s is an old man who works at the docks. The importance of religion among the group seems to be a result of living so close to the poverty line. In 1955, the Depression wasn’t that far away. However, the distinct setting is another way for Laughton to establish a story apart from our regular world.

I spend a lot of time talking about horror films, as it’s my favorite genre. “The Night of the Hunter” is sometimes classified as horror. It made Bravo’s list of scariest movie moments. They Shoot Zombies, Don’t They? ranks it as the 171st best horror film. The film more accurately belongs to the noir or thriller genre. However, “Night of the Hunter” is undeniably an intense experience, full of macabre imagery. After Powell kills Willa, her body sits in a drowned vehicle at the bottom of the lake. The film devotes a solid minute to the image of her frozen body, hair flowing back and forth, both angelic and deathly still. Another frightening moment occurs when John and Pearl first escape Powell. In a deeply shadowed basement, he threatens both kids. After John outsmarts him, Powell’s hands shot outward like an undead ghoul. In this scene, he becomes a boogeyman, as scary as any cinematic monster. His dogged pursuit of the children also marks Powell as something like a horror villain. While obviously on the marginal end of the genre, I think one can make a good case for “Hunter’s” horror bonafides.

The first time I saw “Night of the Hunter,” I found its first hour to be brilliant but its last thirty minutes to be somewhat unsatisfying. On this viewing, the whole movie strikes me as great. An especially impressive sequence occurs while John and Pearl float down the river, towards Rachel Cooper. As their little boat pass along the water, the camera focuses on small animals in the foreground. We see rabbits, a tortoise, and a toad. In the background, Pearl sings a haunting song. The parallel is obvious but Agee’s script puts a finer point upon it later. After an owl scoops up a rabbit, Cooper notes that “it’s a hard world for the little things.” The Harper kids are comparable to the small animals, vulnerable but good at hiding. Powell, meanwhile, is a predator, capable of killing at any moment and always on the look out for his next meal.

“Night of the Hunter” also features a decidedly off-beat ending. After Powell is finally captured by the police, after Cooper corners him in her barn, John dramatically reveals the hidden location of the money. While at the trail, John is reluctant to identify Harry as his mother’s murderer. At the same trial, the townsfolk who previously loved the Reverend loudly scream and condemn him. As the police drive Powell to the gallows, the same people town insist on lynching him. Cooper and the kids, meanwhile, have a peaceful Christmas morning together, exchanging gifts and reestablishing their love for one another. It’s the film’s final jab at conformity and those who preach the Bible but ignore its values.

The influence “Night of the Hunter” has had on cinema is wide and far reaching. It would not surprise me to read that it’s one of the Coen Brothers’ favorite movies. It has many of the same elements: A combination of rustic location, quirky characters, sharp dialogue, and a tone that mixes humor, thrills, and moral lessons. You can certainly see David Lynch finding something of value in its dream like tone, predatory villain, and old fashion setting. And like all great films, “The Night of the Hunter” will continue to influence future filmmakers. One of the best movies ever made? That’s not for me to judge. However, it certainly is an extraordinary cinematic achievement. Many bemoan that Charles Laughton would never make another film. Yet who can blame the guy, when he got it so right on the first try? [9/10]

Friday, July 29, 2016

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Baby’s Day Out (1994)

A lot of people love him but I don’t get John Hughes. I actively dislike Ferris Bueller, am indifferent to “Pretty in Pink” and “Sweet Sixteen,” and barely tolerate “The Breakfast Club.” “Weird Science” is okay. Of course, even a Hughes hater like me knows “Home Alone” was actually the screenwriter’s biggest hit. In 1994, Hughes attempted to recreate that film’s massive success by skewing even younger. “Baby’s Day Out” brought the same level of brutalizing slapstick to the pre-K crowd. The film fell short of expectations and mostly endears as an in-joke among nineties nostalgists. So, I ask the question once again: Why do I own this?

Baby Bink, short for Bennington, is the infant child of a millionaire in New York City. While his dad works and his mom obsesses over status, Bink is actually cared for by a nanny. Bink’s mom hires a new photographer to take Baby Bink’s yearly photo, replacing the elderly family photographer. A trio of crooks poses as the photographers in order to kidnap the baby and hold him ransom. Bink, however, turns out to be harder to contain then expected. The baby leads the three men on a journey of hellish slapstick through Manhattan while Mom and Dad frantically search for him.

In “Home Alone,” John Hughes wrote a film about a ten year old torturing two grown men. And it made millions. “Baby’s Day Out” follows a very similar formula. Instead of a kid, it’s a baby. Instead of a home, it’s New York City. And instead of two incompetent crooks, it’s three. The slapstick comedy, meanwhile, is pushed into even more cartoonish and brutal directions. Joe Mantegna suffers abuse that should be fatal very early, falling between two buildings, landing crotch first on an air conditioner. The movie is obsessed with brutalizing the men’s crotch. An extend sequence is devoted to the baby grabbing, punching and burning Mantegna’s genitals. The other two crooks drop down buildings and land, balls first, on wooden or steel beams. They fall from skyscrapers, land in wet cement, and get hot glue pour on them. The longest gag is devoted to a gorilla – not Rick Baker’s most convincing suit – beating the men up in many exaggerated ways. As in “Home Alone,” such cartoony slapstick becomes practically disturbing in live action.

At least “Home Alone” had a winning cast. “Baby’s Day Out” could not lure in the likes of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. Joe Mantegna’s Eddie is angry all the time. (And probably rightfully so, considering his balls are getting smashed throughout like 65% of the movie.) He’s a hateful schmuck with few other defining features. Brian Haley’s Veeko is the big dumb oaf of the group, which distinguishes him little from the others. At least his clueless utterances can occasionally be mildly amusing. Of the three, only Joe Pantoliano as Norby brings anything to the material. His song and dance number for the baby is sort of cute. It’s one of the movie’s better moments and occurs very early in the run time.

As in “Home Alone,” “Baby’s Day Out” ends with the mother learning to love and appreciate her child more deeply. Lara Flynn Boyle plays the aforementioned mom. Despite how ridiculous the rest of the movie is, the script plays Boyle’s despair over loosing her child weirdly straight. There’s an odd sequence where, after walking into an apartment with several kids, Boyle has a serious conversation with the mother. Dramatic moments like this are totally out of place. Slightly better are scenes devoted to how cute Bink is. Because the kid is adorable. After being reunited with mom and the nanny, he points the way to the crook’s lair. This leads to the funniest joke in the movie, when future senator Fred Thompson talking about tick-ticks and booboos.

Why Do I Own This?:  “Baby’s Day Out” is ninety-nine far too long minutes of painfully unfunny gags. The film does not grasp the sincerity it reaches for. The actors can not rise above the material. So why do I own this? I actually have a very specific reasoning. I rented the film a few times as an easily amused child. When I was moving into a new place a while back, I went shopping with my mom. We wandered into a video store. We went home with a bunch of DVDs, some picked by me, some picked by her. She picked this one, saying it was “such a sweet movie.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell her I wasn’t interested in owning it. And I haven’t been able to bring myself to sell it either. Hopefully, stinkers like this don’t bring down the overall quality of my entire film collection. [3/10]

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Director Report Card: Tobe Hooper (2013)

20. Djinn

“Djinn,” when filming was just beginning, was greatly hyped by the company backing it. The producers trumpeted it as a proud co-production between American and Middle Eastern cinema. A quote-unquote major director like Tobe Hooper making a movie in Dubai was treated like a big deal. It was sold as the first horror film in both English and Arabic languages. Horror films are generally rare in the Middle East, making “Djinn” an anomaly in that sense as well. Whatever hopes the producers had for the film were undermined by its protracted post-production. Though filmed in 2011, the film wouldn’t see a state-side release until 2015. It is, as of now, the last film Hooper has directed.

Following the death of their infant child, Arabic couple Sarah and Khalid are convinced to move back to the United Arab Emirates. While Khalid is happy to be back near his family and has a new job waiting for him, Sarah hates the idea. She misses America. The two move into a towering apartment complex, built along the coast. Deserted in the foggy winter time, both Sarah and Khalid find the building unnerving. Local legends claim the area is haunted by djinn, the mystical beings of fire of Islamic beliefs. While Khalid is away at work, Sarah has an up close encounter with the djinn, who seek to punish her for past crimes.

Being a co-production between two separate countries, “Djinn” is rightfully a culture clash stories of sorts. This is clear in the way the film often leaps between English and Arabic. It’s not uncommon for characters to speak two different languages in the same scene. Beyond the language barrier, the film is clearly about the Westernization of the Middle East. The cutting edge apartment is built on traditional land, full of legends of its own. An early scene shows a white millionaire, riding around in a big ass truck, falling victim to the djinn. Sarah is thoroughly westernized, spending the entire movie wishing she was back in America. American ideas meeting traditional ones is fertile ground to tell a horror story.

Disappointing, “Djinn” has an unsightly conservative streak running through it. One of the things Sarah misses about being in America is working. In Dubai, she’s expected to stay at home all day. Moreover, she’s expected to have another child, to become a traditional mother. As the story progresses, the djinni haunts Sarah with images of her dead child. Near the end, it’s revealed Sarah actually murdered her infant son. While the story reasons for this is because the child was half-human, half-djinni, the results come off as hopelessly puritanical. In other words: She never wanted to be a mother and, the film suggests, that’s bad. Another dispiriting element has the female villain being shown as sexually forward. The horror genre is often reactive and “Djinn” falls into this traditional in the worst way.

At least “Djinn” has a decent idea at its root. As screenwriter David Tully pointed out, there aren’t many horror films about djinn, despite them being a notable component in a major world religion. Using an underutilized mythological figure from another culture is always a good basis for a horror flick. Early on in “Djinn,” a minor character tells a ghost story of sorts. He presents the legends behind the film’s central villain. That of a baby-snatching female djinni with a history of seducing human men. That’s a mythological archetype with a long history, stretching through the Hebrew Lilith, the Greek Lamia, and the Slavic Lady Midday. “Djinn,” too often, plays like a typical ghost story but at least it has an interesting set-up.

Being a Tobe Hooper movie, “Djinn” naturally features a memorable location. The apartment building rises out of the fog, looking alien and unusual among the landscape. Once inside, the architecture is clearly modern in design. Yet there are small symbol towards the location’s traditional history. Stone pillars points towards Arabic temples. The air vents are decorated with stars. The room where the djinn hang out feature the same black and white checkered floor that have shown up in other Hooper films. The director even manages to make a relatively normal looking building seem sinister, when his camera peers around the hallways and doors of the apartment.

As a horror film, “Djinn” is goreless. There’s maybe a little bit of blood in one or two scenes. Instead, the film seeks to get chills out of atmosphere and ghostly effects. Occasionally, these moments are effective. When Sarah is attacked by the djinni, alone in the apartment, there’s a handful of spooky elements. She watches on a monitor, as a ghostly images moves through the hallways. While praying in the foreground, a blurry image in a black veil creeps across the ceiling after her. Lastly, the movie makes the most of its foggy setting. The image of a truck suddenly emerging from the fog is one of the film’s genuinely effective jump scares.

Too often, though, “Djinn’s” attempts to be scary totally lack bite. The film utilizes close-up zooms on the ghastly faces of the djinn. When the camera is snapping back and forth between shots of eyes or teeth, the audience is just irritated, not frightened. An increasingly goofy gag the film returns to repeatedly is someone’s eyes turning black, as a sign that the djinn has taken control of them. Ghostly sounds are utilized too often. The first time Sarah hears a baby crying down the hall, it’s mildly effective. Every time afterwards is much less interesting. Sadly, before the movie’s over, it even relies on the kind of shaky-cam, rock video edits that I thought Hooper was above.

Once credits are subtracted, “Djinn” runs under eighty minutes long. Despite that brief run time, the screenplay for “Djinn” still fruitlessly spins its wheels for extended periods of time. The entire middle section of the film is built around Sarah being alone in the apartment. Khalid totally exits the story, being stuck at world. This classic horror troupe – of a woman alone and in peril – seems to be the only idea the script had. After that sequence ends, “Djinn” searches hopelessly for more story. The exact nature of the haunting varies from scene to scene, different characters being associated with the titular spirits. There’s a long scene devoted to the female djinni inviting Khalid and Sarah to a party, attempting to poison both with contaminated food. A long scene is devoted to Khalid having flashbacks while in the bathroom. These scenes bumble around hopelessly before “Djinn” finally lurches towards its underwhelming conclusion.

The acting in “Djinn” is uneven. The cast is actually fairly small, which seems to point towards the film’s low budget. Aiysha Hart plays Sarah. Most of the film revolves around her, a tall order that Hart is relatively prepared to handled. She panics nicely, rooting the character’s reaction to the supernatural events in something realistic. As Khalid, Khalid Laith is less consistent. When playing off Hart, Laith does okay. However, when the script calls on him to react to the spooky events of the story, Laith is totally unconvincing. Considering the actors are best when together, the script separating them for long times is a problem. A bigger problem is when the story reveals both of them to be assholes by the end. Hart’s Sarah is a child killer. Laith’s Khalid is an adulterer.

Despite the small cast, there’s still one or two notable supporting role. A number of actresses play the main female djinni, with Kristina Coker, with her piercing eyes, being the most memorable. As Sarah’s mother, Razane Jammal is okay, especially once she becomes possessed by the spirit. I like May Calamawy as Aisha, the younger sister. Her part is much too small. Saoud Al Kaabi shows some boisterous energy as the father, Mubarak. In the brief role as the American asshole in the first scene, Paul Luebke is very entertaining in a ridiculous way.

Like everything else in “Djinn,” the special effects vary in quality. CGI is utilized too often. Sometimes, like when one of the djinni is moving in the distance, this isn’t too distracting. Obscure figures in black veils, jittery in the background, even borders on creepy at times. However, when the creeping djinn are in the foreground of a shot, how fake they are becomes apparent. Too often, shoddy CGI is used to enhance an actor. Where the real person ends and the computer generated images begin is too obvious. The most awkward special effect in “Djinn” is actually one of its most simple. At the end, a character dangles from the edge of the towering building. This is clearly shot on a sound stage, the characters never once appearing to be in actual danger.

There’s a reason “Djinn” took nearly five years to reach theaters. The film was re-edited and re-cut multiple times during pre-production. As a co-production between Americans and the Middle East, perhaps the film faced extra scrutiny. Extensive care was taken not to offend local sensibilities. This is probably the reason why “Djinn” feels so disjointed. There are definitely tell-tale signs of too many cooks in the kitchen. And it’s a shame too. The chance to fuse American and Eastern sensibilities could have resulted in something really interesting. The resulting film is too often uneven and forgettable. [Grade: C]

Hooper worked steadily throughout the nineties and two-thousands. However, he's slowed down a lot this decade. "Djinn" is, thus far, the only film he's made in the new tens. In 2011, he co-wrote a meta horror novel called "Midnight Movie." His IMDb profile lists a film from 2009 called "Destiny Express Redux" but the film apparently isn't real and exists only as a plot device in the pages of the book. I assume some prankster added the listing to IMDb.

I went into this Director Report Card with low expectations, knowing Hooper has directed many forgettable and out right bad films. While this is true, I've come away from this project with a new appreciation for Hooper. With the exception of "Crocodile," even his worst films aren't all that bad. There's even some interesting reoccurring quirks throughout his career. He's not responsible for as many outright masterpieces as his seventies horror brethren. But this has still been pretty fun.  

Bangers n' Mash 92: Ghostbusters!

Hey, July is nearly over! Shouldn't you put out a podcast episode or two this month?

I'm glad you ask, hypothetical reader! Of course, I'll be rushing out two episodes of the Bangers n' Mash Show this month. Don't you know my method by now, which is to procrastinate until the last minute and then rush everything out in a mad daze?

Anyway, JD and I recorded an episode recently. This actually went up, like, four days ago. It's about the Ghostbusters movies, including the new one. Also, we talk about the cartoon shows and toys too. Another one of these is in the editing bay and should be out in a few days. Probably on the 31st because, let's face it, that's my technique.

If you can't get enough of me talking aimlessly about movies and/or TV on the internet, I also talk on The So Weird Podcast and the Jean-Pod Van Damme. My Tobe Hooper Director's Report Card will conclude later today, after I get roughly six to eight hours sleep and work enough to justify receiving a paycheck. Thank you and good night.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Recent Watches: Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013)

Few of the follow-ups to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” have been good. Most of them haven’t even made that much money. Despite that, Leatherface and his favorite power tool are too iconic to be left alone for long. Platinum Dunes’ last “Chainsaw” movie made well over three times its budget but, as the company had done with other horror properties, they chose to not make anymore and sat on the rights for a few years. As soon as that option lapsed, Liongates and Twisted Pictures – the folks behind the “Saw” movies – scooped up the rights, leading to many puns about the company switching one saw for another. They hoped “Texas Chainsaw 3D” would launch a new series. It didn’t but a few horror fans still found the film to be the best entry in the franchise in years.

Choosing to ignore all prior sequels and remakes, “Texas Chainsaw” opens days after the events of Tobe Hooper’s original movie. After Sally Hardesty made it back to civilization, she told everyone about the cannibal clan in the Texas countryside. The police tried to intervene but not before some good ol’ boys burned the Sawyer home to the ground. Leatherface was thought dead. Some decades later, a girl named Heather receives news that she’s adopted. Her birth parents were part of the Sawyer clan. She’s set to inherent the family mansion. As she drives down with her friends, Heather discovers the mansion isn’t the only thing she’s inheriting. Leatherface lives.

Truthfully, after a nonspecific sequel, a reboot, a remake, and a prequel to the remake, another continuity reset is the last thing the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” needed. This is clear, as the only thing worse then what Leatherface does to his victims is what this movie does to the series’ timeline. Heather’s actress, Alexandra Daddario, was 26 at the time of filming. One presumes the character is around the same age. If the film is set twenty-some years after the original, that would put the story in the late nineties. Then why do the characters have state of the art cellphones? The filmmakers were apparently aware of this gaff, as they go to great lengths to block any dates. Either way, Leatherface has got to be in at least his sixties by this point. You wouldn’t think he could chase teens the way he used too. He’s awfully spry for a guy his age and size, is the point

The film proclaims adherence to Tobe Hooper’s original but clearly models itself after the remake. It’s hard to believe that the Sawyer family in that original, so poor they had to eat people, could be related to someone who owned a big mansion. Instead, the expansive Hewitt estate seen in the remake is a likelier inspiration. All of the twenty something victims have perfectly sculpted bodies. To prove they’re all former underwear models, they spend a lot of time in their underwear. They’re also all terrible people. Heather’s boyfriend and best friend are sleeping together behind her back. The hitchhiker they pick up is a petty thief. The other friend has stupid ear piercings and listens to terrible music. Despite their L.A. good looks, they’re trashy people. Pretty much everybody in the movie is.

One aspect of the remake series this sequel ditches is the mean-spirited violence. Oh, “Texas Chainsaw 3D” is incredibly gory. Leatherface saws a guy in half right on screen. He smashes a head with a hammer, impales people on hooks, cuts a face off, and chops someone up with a cleaver. The climax has a body torn apart inside a meat grinder. As bloody as these scenes are, the focus on suffering and agony is gone. It’s more like a classic eighties slasher pic, more interested in special effects potential then pain and anguish. It doesn’t reach the grand guignol sick humor of Hooper’s first sequel. But it seems to be reaching for something similar. It’s kind of fun, in a way horror fans may only appreciate.

The whole movie has a similar, sort of goofy Halloween spook show atmosphere. The movie is actually set at Halloween. A notable sequence takes place at a carnival, featuring Leatherface’s quasi-comedic reactions to normal Halloween partiers. The old mansion features a giant iron gate, creepy photographs on the wall, secret rooms, and comically oversized key rings. That brings a certain classical spookiness to the proceedings. Of course, there’s that 3D element too, which manifests in many ridiculous ways. A chainsaw is tossed directly at the camera. While Heather hides inside a casket, Leatherface’s saw buzzes right in her face. Leatherface leaps from the shadows, saw buzzing. (Refreshingly, there’s a lack of obnoxious jump scares.) Not to mention the melodramatic plot, with its birthmarks, dark family secrets, decade old revenge, and angry mobs.

“Texas Chainsaw 3D” is pretty dumb. It’s numerous plot oversights, ridiculous characters, and tacky tone proves that. However, unlike the empty nihilism of the remake, at least the sequel is actually about something. As the lynch mob circles Leatherface’s ancestral home, previously unmentioned members of the Sawyer family arrive to protect him. They all die insuring his safety, burnt or shot. The people who adopt Heather are white trash garbage. Even though she’s never met a Sawyer before, upon arriving at the mansion, she feels an immediate kinship. When she discovers her birth family was murdered, she gets pissed off. She begins the film frightened of Leatherface but, after the killer realizes she’s family, the two start working together. The obvious emerging theme is that blood is thicker. Yeah, it’s ridiculous. But at least the film is trying to do something more then just gross the audience out with graphic murder scenes.

Even that’s not the main reason I like “Texas Chainsaw 3D.” Of all the non-Hooper flicks in the series, this one gets Leatherface the most right. In his old age, Leatherface has basically become a pathetic nerd. He lives at home, in the basement, spending his considerable free time on his hobbies. The film returns the childish element Leatherface had in the original. (He also, pointedly, doesn’t have a facial deformity.) By the end, the redneck mayor and his cronies are beating him with chains, torturing him. Leatherface may be a cannibalistic serial killer but you feel bad for him. When he turns his saw against his tormentors, you cheer. During most long running horror franchises, the audience begins to root for the monster eventually. There’s something perversely amusing about making the brutal slasher more-or-less the hero of the movie. Considering how much personality Leatherface has, I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.

“Texas Chainsaw 3D” is a very silly horror film. In many ways, it’s no less crass and pointless then Platinum Dunes’ remakes. Compared to the visceral part one and the inspired gore-comedy of part two, this one comes off as almost embarrassing. Having said that, it’s still more entertaining then any of the other entries in the series. That’s faint praise but, to an old slasher fanatic like me, it counts for something. Despite “Texas Chainsaw 3D’s” uninspiring box office performance, the buzz will naturally be back. A – groanprequel called simply “Leatherface” has been sitting on the shelves for a while now. It remains to be seen if it’ll match the brain dead fun of this one, whenever it’s released. [7/10]


That's right, guys, I have now guest hosted TWO separate podcast beyond my own! You may recall, a while ago, that I marathoned a bunch of Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. This apparently inspired Marcus Jones - who runs his own very fine website called Crushed Celluloid, which you should definitely check out - to reach out to me with a proposition. He has decided to start a podcast devoted solely to the cinema of Van Damme entitled the Jean-Pod Van Damme podcast. He also, very kindly, asked me to co-host his first episode concerning, of course, "Bloodsport." How could I say no to that?!

The very first episode went up today, which you can listen to here. Marcus and I have already discuss me returning for future episodes, which sounds like a blast.

As for Film Thoughts, stay tuned. A new episode of the Bangers n' Mash Show has been up for a few days and I'll post a link here tonight, unless I forget. Another episode of Bangers n' Mash is in the editing bay and should be out this weekend. My Tobe Hooper/Texas Chainsaw Massacre retrospective will also continue later today. New No Encores, Why Do I Own This?, and Memories columns will also be released before the end of the month. As always, things are very busy here. See you soon.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Recent Watches: Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)

Despite being a film totally without any interesting elements, 2003’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was one of the biggest horror films of the year. Since Platinum Dunes obviously made the first one to be as commercial as possible, it’s unsurprising that they would produce a sequel. There were two problems through. First off, Dimension Films threatened to buy the rights to the name from Michael Bay, delaying production while more money was allocate to retain ownership. A bigger issue was a narrative one. The remake concluded by cutting Leatherface’s arm off, making future chainsawing difficult. While there were solutions around this – the comic books gave him a hook hand – the producers decided to make a prequel instead. With its uninspired subtitle in hand, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” sawed its way into theaters in 2006.

In 1969, the slaughterhouse and meat packing plant that has supported a rural Texas town shuts down. This directly affects the Hewitt family, especially Thomas, the hulking youngest child with a deformed face. Knowing he’s being fired, he murders his boss, steals a chainsaw, and heads home. Afterwards, his adoptive brother Hoyt murders the town sheriff and assumes his role. Meanwhile, a quartet of teens are headed towards California, the boys about to be deployed to Vietnam. Along the way, they encounter the Hewitt brood, both of them falling victim to an earlier chapter of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Being a prequel, “The Beginning” attempts to lend a mythic quality to several key moments. When the future Leatherface first discovers his chainsaw, triumphant music blares. The creation of his first flesh mask is comparable to Bruce Wayne putting on the cape in “Batman Begins.” A mildly clever moment has Leatherface literally being born on the slaughterhouse floor. After hearing about it for years, there is something mildly satisfying about seeing the meat packing plant that closes and forces the family towards cannibalism.

Yet specifically being a prequel to the shitty remake saddles the film with all sorts of stupid mythology. Yes, this Leatherface has a facial deformity. Before donning his skin mask, he wears some weird Hannibal Lector get-up. Yes, he’s bullied as a kid, making his murders specific acts of vengeance. The prequel even takes the pains to set up minor events seen in the remake. We see Hoyt get his sheriff suit and loose his front teeth. We see Monty looses his legs, in one of the script’s dumbest decision. The family’s cannibalism is explained as a habit Hoyt developed as a POW in Korea. The prequel clinically sets out to resolve every element introduced in the last one.

I said some pretty negative things about Marcus Nispel’s direction in the remake. That it was calculated and too slick. Jonathan Liebesman’s work on the prequel makes me wish I could take it back. Liesbesman’s direction is shaky, to the point of nausea. It’s not just the action scenes that shake, like when victims are running from Leatherface or during either of the film’s multiple car wrecks. Scenes of characters just sitting around and talking feature photography that spins all over the damn place. I don’t know what the point of direction like this is. It doesn’t make the movie feel immediate or gritty. It just makes the film feel unprofessional. I don’t think it’s too much to ask to be able to clearly see what the hell I’m watching.

The violence in the remake was grimy and sadistic, focused on the suffering of Leatherface’s victims. The prequel goes all in on this. The psychological torture Hoyt showed off last time becomes physical torture, as he repeatedly beats a victim with a club. Extended sequences are devoted to the chained up women, crying and panicking. Leatherface beats in kneecaps, yanks bones from flesh, and cuts a face off, all shown in sickening detail. Once the chainsaw comes out, the film delights in limbs being sawed away, bodies being cut in two or run through. There’s even a sickening suggestion of rape. Listen, I like gore in horror movies. But this is just mean, cruelty for its own sake, without flare or art.

The teenage victims in the “Texas Chainsaw” remake were indistinct, underwear model worthy performers with perfect abs, tight clothes, and glistening skin. That’s another trend the remake is disinterested in breaking. Despite being set in the late sixties, these kids look utterly modern. Matt Bomer’s Eric has perfectly trimmed facial hair. Taylor Handley’s Dean looks right out of a CW show, boyish and toned. Diora Baird’s Bailey is introduced in her underwear and spends most of the movie in lingered upon shorts. Jordanna Brewster’s Chrissie wears skin tight jeans and bends over frequently. If it sounds like I’m focusing too much on the actor’s physical appearances, forgive me. There’s nothing interesting about their personalities. Baird spends the nearly the whole movie weeping. Brewster doesn’t go mad like Marylin Burns. Instead, she remains defiant to the end, acting too much like a self-aware bad ass. The boys are both overly macho, thin sketches. There’s no reason to care about any of them.

Despite rarely bothering to make the story feel like its set in the late sixties, the script constantly references the Vietnam War. Eric is a veteran and ready to be deployed again. Dean, his younger brother, has been drafted but plans to flee to Mexico. When Eric discovers this, he’s aghast. (There’s also a subplot about some Hell’s Angels, which feels less like something the actual sixties and more like a sixties exploitation movie.) Hoyt uses this fact as an excuse to torture both boys. He drops lines about “staying the course” and freedom not being free. Wait a minute… “The Beginning” came out in 2006, right in the middle of George W. Bush’s presidency. Is the film trying to make a point about the Iraq War? Is it comparing the sadistic Hoyt and the slaughterer Leatherface to the second Bush administration? If so, this isn’t defined into a clear point. It’s just another unsatisfying aspect of the movie, lingering in the air.

If there’s any joys to “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning,” it’s in seeing R. Lee Ermey ham it up. Though the character is deeply unpleasant and wholly sadistic, Ermey’s glib sarcasm and long speeches are at least compelling. He’s certainly far more interesting then the rest of the undefined clan. The prequel includes the dinner scene excluded from the remake. It even has the heroine leaping through a window. While that’s kind of interesting to see, compared to the madness of the same scene in the original, it’s so stale. The Hewitts are too calm, their victims’ too comatose. Okay, there’s also a mildly funny scene where a big fat woman is used to block a door.

There’s another reason following up the remake with a prequel was a mistake. The audience already knows the ending. Despite teasing Chrissie’s escapes, she too is murdered by Leatherface. Everyone is dead, except for the sadistic cannibals. It’s such a needlessly downbeat, nihilistic ending that not even John Larroquette reappearing as the narrator can perk me up. The prequel only grossed half of the remake’s total. Since Platinum Dunes is only interested in profits, they did not feel the need to continue the story. The script hints at further victims by giving us Leatherface’s total body count. Yet the prequel being so determined to set up the remake leaves little meat on the bone. “The Beginning” is an ugly, senseless movie, with no heart or originality. It can’t even satisfy as a brain dead slasher flick. As bad as the remake was, the prequel is somehow much worst. [2/10]