Tuesday, October 31, 2017

We Could Leave This Town And Run Forever

Year: 2005
Director: Andrew Douglas
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Melissa George, Jimmy Bennett
Run Time: 1 hour 22 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Here we are, folks. The end of the line. Well, actually that’s not accurate. This is my stop. The line continues to stretch on into oblivion, because huckster filmmakers will keep on exploiting the Amityville name until either the art of cinema comes to an end or the heat death of the universe plunges us into eternal darkness, whichever comes first. What we can – for lack of a better word – call the “pure” Amityville franchise ends here, with the high-gloss studio remake of 2005, smack dab in the middle of the tremendous new millennium run of godawful remakes of classic horror titles. Most of these were shepherded into existence by Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes, and oh – would you look at that title card.

Generally speaking, remakes tend to put to rest even the most robust of franchises. We haven’t revisited Crystal Lake or Elm Street since they were interred by their respective Platinum Dunes reboots, and a franchise as rickety as Amityville couldn’t stack up to those giants. So it went the way of Freddy and Jason. Mostly.

You see, unfortunately for the general populace, six years later turbo-indie filmmakers cottoned on to the fact that a town’s name ain’t copyrightable, so slapping the word into the title of their chintzy microbudget ghost project was a ticket to earning a couple extra bucks. Since 2011, one or two faux-Amityville projects have seeped into the market from its darkest, dankest corners every year, with a whopping four dropped onto the world like an anvil in 2016 alone (The Amityville Terror, Amityville: No Escape, Amityville: Vanishing Point, and The Amityville Legacy. I’m exhausted just listing them).

As much of a completist as I am, I don’t consider these universally ignored, artistically anemic works as movies, let alone viable entries into a dotty but venerable franchise. I feel no shame about ignoring them and sparing my already ailing patience. You wouldn’t want to read that much useless bile anyway, and I’ve already wasted my breath on the little-seen back half of this marathon, which nobody needed to be warned away from anyway. So! The buck stops here.

The house screamed “Get Out!” and for once, I’m going to heed that warning.

I daresay we’re pretty familiar with the plot of The Amityville Horror at this point. In the mid-70’s,, newlywed couple Kathy (Melissa George) and George Lutz (Ryan Reynolds) find a home with a price they can’t refuse in Amityville, Long Island. They move in with Kathy’s three children (the most important being played by Chloë Grace Moretz in her film debut) and naught but 28 days later are driven out by the same demonic forces that caused a boy to murder his family with a  shotgun just a year earlier, who this time have their sights set on corrupting George.

The same general plot beats and scare gags play out, with a few notable exceptions:
  1. The addition of a rooftop setpiece they loved so damn much they used it twice
  2. Liberal application of a shirtless, wet-whenever-possible Ryan Reynolds
  3. Not only is the ghost Jodie not a sinister invisible presence, she might as well get third billing
  4. It’s hella dumb.
Platinum Dunes strikes again.

To be honest, I was convinced that a remake with a shirtless Ryan Reynolds could only have been an improvement on the original Amityville Horror. I found that film incredibly tedious and lackluster, and the run time of the new version was already a massive improvement. The propaganda artists who wrote the back of the box would have you believe that the film is 90 minutes long, but it clocks out at a fleet hour and twenty, lopping a good 40 minutes off the 1979 entry.

While that was always and continues to be the right decision, every other choice the filmmakers made seems to have been the wrong one. I’m completely used to and even enjoy some sequels and remakes where the ethos is “the same thing, only worse,” but when the original thing was already pretty bad, this all just becomes incredibly punishing.

Amityville ’05 is mirthlessly stupid, top to bottom. It has one of my favorite hallmarks of dumb movies (Melissa George reads aloud the headlines on the microfiche she’s investigating, in case you weren’t paying attention) but that’s just the tip of the iceberg, baby! This is a film where shining a flashlight into someone’s face knocks them over like a bowling pin, and where their solution to the haunted house problem is to take a boat and sail to the middle of a lake (in full view of the house, mind you), as if they saw the end of Friday the 13th and were impressed by Alice’s genius decision-making.

Literally, they just sit on a boat and wait to see if Ryan Reynolds decides to kill them or not. This is beyond stupid Horror Movie Decision-Making, it borders on literal child abuse.

It’s hard to pinpoint the primary problem with the movie, because there’s just so damn many of them. The one that bothered me the most though was how brutally unsubtle the whole thing is. I already touched on how Jodie has been converted from an offscreen menacing presence to a bloated CGI-laden spook who pops in every ten minutes or so for some of the goofiest fright gags you ever did see, but another scene that really ruffles my feathers is the following:

Ryan Reynolds is outside, chopping wood and being sexy. Melissa George runs out, frantically asking where their daughter is! It has been in no way established that he was supposed to be watching her. For all we knew, she’s been chilling in the house this whole time. But now, we’re suddenly supposed to care about this dunderheaded scene that leads to a frightfully silly non-scare that assumes that because Chloë Grace is standing on a boat, she must be in danger(?). None of it makes any sense, but it’s so brutally injected into the screenplay that it isn’t even supported by any sort of context. It just is, and what it is is moronic.

I will admit that there’s one incredibly effective jump scare buried in the mire here, so the movie has that going for it. But the rest of the scares are so effortful that they misjudge their impact and clang uselessly against the screen. The camera goes wild, swopping and whirling in an unnecessarily complicated display that hopes to distract us from the fact that refrigerator magnets moving around isn’t a super scary thing.

The one thing that could have salvaged any sort of atmosphere was the lead performances. Ryan Reynolds is a performer I generally like, and Melissa George is… Melissa George. But they both fumble the ball here. Reynolds especially lets his beard do most of the acting for him. He’s charming in the first act as a handsome, hopeful newlywed, but his descent into madness is accompanied by some of the worst horror movie screaming I’ve ever seen. He yips like a dog, adding extra aftershock screams after long pauses, each yelp a painful stab into your brain.

Amityville ’05 is just exhausting. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it has the wisdom to use Reynolds’ shirtless body as a crutch during some of the shakier scenes, but other than maybe The Amityville Curse, this is the biggest waste of time in the entire franchise, and that is not something I expected to be saying when the marathon finally swung back around to a movie with an actual budget.

TL;DR: The Amityville Horror is a horror film by blunt force trauma, a brutally unsubtle exercise in pointless remaking.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1303
Reviews In This Series
The Amityville Horror (Rosenberg, 1979)
Amityville II: The Possession (Damiani, 1982)
Amityville 3-D (Fleischer, 1983)
Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes (Stern, 1989)
The Amityville Curse (Berry, 1990)
Amityville 1992: It's About Time (Randel, 1992)
Amityville: A New Generation (Murlowski, 1993)
Amityville Dollhouse (White, 1996)
The Amityville Horror (Douglas, 2005)

Monday, October 30, 2017

Cardboard Science: O Brave New World, That Has Such Aliens In 't

Year: 1956
Director: Fred M. Wilcox
Cast: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen
Run Time: 1 hour 38 minutes
MPAA Rating: Approved

There’s a lot of good that comes out of this Cardboard Science crossover with Kinemalogue (where I exchange three of my 80’s slashers for three of Hunter Allen’s 50’s sci-fi flicks), but perhaps the most rewarding thing for a Rocky Horror nerd like myself is slowly coming to understand the references in the opening song “Science Fiction, Double Feature.” The tune name drops a dozen classic B-movies and today we get to visit a landmark entry that appears in the chorus itself in this immortal – if not particularly creative – line: “Anne Francis stars in Forbidden Planet.”

And now I can confirm that the line is, indeed, accurate.

Forbidden Planet takes place in the distant future, sometime after the invention of hyperspace travel in the 23rd century (strangely, this is the first Cardboard Science flick I’ve encountered that takes place in the future rather than having something futuristic or alien arrive in contemporary America). A space vessel led by Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen long before he became synonymous with deadpan genre parody – in fact this was his feature film debut) lands on the planet Altair-4 to look for survivors of the starship Bellerophon, which crashed there 19 years ago.

They discover the planet abandoned, save for the crew’s only survivor, the sketchy Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon). As if that name weren’t enough reason to cast doubt on his good intentions, he constantly warns away the crew, saying that an invisible monster killed his coworkers all those years ago, though he got out mysteriously unscathed. To his dismay, the crew discovers that he has a daughter – the lovely and mini-skirted Altaira (Anne Francis) – and boy is it convenient we waited 19 years to meet her, innit? Anyway, they are introduced to the technological wonders of the long extinct Krell race that once resided on Altair-4, meet the instantly iconic metallic megastar Robby the Robot (body and voice by Frankie Darro and Marvin Miller respectively), and eventually must face the return of the giant invisible monster.

Also, the characters and themes are loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, something I only noticed because I re-read it literally last weekend, but now I get to feel smart.

Forbidden Planet is incredibly unique among its B-movie brethren by virtue of not really being a B-movie at all. The subject of a budgetary experiment by Hollywood, the movie was bestowed with a whopping two million dollars. That’s enough money to have made Godzilla, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Beginning of the End, It Came from Beneath the Sea, The Brain from Planet Arous, Invaders from Mars, and I Married a Monster from Outer Space and still have enough money left over to buy two houses and a fleet of cars. And Forbidden Planet puts its money where its mouth is. It’s a full-color Cinemascope spectacle with state-of-the-art special effects so good that a handful of them even hold up in 2017. I’ve seen worse VFX shots from movies released sixteen years ago, let alone sixty.

In 1956, Forbidden Planet must have been truly mind-blowing. The elaborate sets, the pleasingly busy clockwork design of Robby, and the laser/monster effects provided by none other than the Walt Disney Company (the monster’s outline – when eventually revealed – is reminiscent of the Chernabog by way of a gnashing bulldog and is genuinely threatening, as silly as it is) exemplify an attention to detail and care of craft that few science fiction projects ever received. It doesn’t hurt that the sci-fi world presented here is both functional and fun, showcasing the odds and ends of future living like reverse fire poles and disintegrator garbage disposals without batting an eye, knowing the audiences will gape in wonderment even more because the characters are totally unfazed by it all.

But that budget extends to every single aspect of the production, including the generally solid actors (who – hilariously – had to be persuaded to take it all seriously), the lush color cinematography, and the groundbreaking all-electronic score by Bebe and Louis Barron (credited – quite rightly – for “electronic tonalities”). The incredible opening theme has been in no way diminished by the ravages of time or legions of imitators. And although the music occasionally dovetails from the intended tone of a scene in an unpleasantly jarring way, it’s an incredibly idiosyncratic and successfully eerie, evocative piece of music that makes its mark on the film more than any other single element.

OK, other than Robby, who is by far the best character of the movie, maybe of the decade.

So, Forbidden Planet is a cutting-edge piece that pushed the envelope of what sci-fi could be. That point has been made, so now I can start complaining about it. You know that part in 1984 where George Orwell stops the story dead to paste in three chapters of a textbook about oligarchal collectivism? Forbidden Planet drifts hard into that territory with a half hour of Dr. Morbius explaining the made-up bullshit science of the Krell for no real reason I can discern other than to shoehorn in yet another metaphor about how mankind can’t be trusted with ultimate power. It teeters over the cliff of terminally boring, and is only pulled back when the invisible monster pokes its head back in to cause some more mayhem.

This is the one case here where a scene that may have been fascinating back in the day has no use for a modern audience. There’s something about fictional hard science from six decades ago that just doesn’t click anymore, and I really don’t feel the need to be lectured on it by a verbose space magician. These scenes (yes, there are multiple) drag down the movie heavily in my estimation, but luckily everything else about it is so top notch that it passes with flying colors anyway. I feel like Hunter has really been treating me right over these past two years, and I can’t thank him enough for that.

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • In the opening monologue, the narrator explains that mankind first visited the moon in the late 21s century, massively underestimating the 13 years it would take for NASA to send its folks up there.
  • I’m pretty sure this movie invented the wireless microphone. NSYNC owes Forbidden Planet a lot.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • “The Lord sure makes some beautiful worlds…” Don’t worry, folks at home! Space and God can coexist, don’t boycott this movie!
  • The minute Adams and Altaira kiss, the movie assumes that we know they’re soulmates and unceremoniously shoves her out of the movie.
  • The nude bathing scene is extravagantly racy for the time, but when Altaira gets out of the water, she is covered from the chin down by a comically large shrub.
Sensawunda:
  • This movie is really excited about Freud in that gee whiz way that only a 50’s sci-fi flick can manage.
  • The part where Robby the Robot analyzes the chemical content of bourbon by taking a swig and burping might be the single best sci-fi scene ever filmed.
  • Also, I can’t get over how Morbius named his daughter after the planet she was born on. Really, you couldn’t get more creative? Your name is literally Morbius!
TL;DR: Forbidden Planet is almost undone by an excruciatingly boring middle, but its high-budget spectacle is still a stunner.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1254
Reviews In This Series
It Conquered the World (Popcorn Culture - Corman, 1956)
I Married a Monster from Outer Space (Popcorn Culture - Fowler Jr., 1958)
Forbidden Planet (Popcorn Culture - Wilcox, 1956)
The Slumber Party Massacre (Kinemalogue - Jones, 1982)
Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (Kinemalogue - Pittman, 1987)

Friday, October 27, 2017

We'll be Together For One More Night

Year: 1996
Director: Steve White
Cast: Robin Thomas, Starr Andreeff, Allen Cutler 
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

We’re almost there! The end is in sight! Before the remake swept the franchise back into theaters for a brief cultural resurgence, the Amityville franchise was quietly drowning in the muck of the direct-to-video swamp of the 90’s. The last bubble of air the series let out before sinking to a watery grave was the 1996 project Amityville Dollhouse. That’s right, the last feeble attempt to remind the world that this once respected haunted house staple used to thrum with life and vitality was called Amityville Freaking Dollhouse.

I’d lament how the mighty had fallen, but I didn’t even like the original all that much.

So… Guess what this movie’s about. Actually, you know what? That joke isn’t fair. It might seem obvious, but not one foot trod fiery ground in Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (not to mention that it certainly was not the last one) and there was no cackling broomstick jockey in Halloween III: Season of the Witch, so it’s not wise to make assumptions. But yes, the eighth film in the Amityville franchise is about a haunted dollhouse, shaped exactly like the abode that haunted a million late-70’s nightmares.

Frankly, if this was the only way we could return the excellent spooky design of the original house to the fold, so be it. I’ll sacrifice logic for one last prolonged look at the best piece of imagery any of these infinite, mostly dreadful films had to offer. Logic be damned!

So this dollhouse is located in a locked shed on the grounds of a home that was burned down, leaving only the chimney standing. A new house has finally been built on the property (the film seems to strongly imply that this is the very same Long Island lot that has visited so much grief on so many terrible families, even though it was so clearly shot in Southern California that you can practically smell the In N Out) by one Bill Martin (Robin Thomas, who most recently played a main character’s father on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). He’s attempting to Brady Bunch his family with his new wife Claire (the brilliantly named Starr Andreef, who had a brief horror career starting with 1983’s D&D slasher Skullduggery), but her obnoxiously nerdy son Jimmy (Jarrett Lennon) is having a tough time fitting in.

Bill’s young daughter and Carol Ann stand-in Jessica (Rachel Duncan) gets along with him fine, but his teen jock son Todd (Allen Cutler) doesn’t know a life outside of pummeling dweebs. Actually, come to think of it, nobody knows a life outside of this house. Neither Claire nor Bill seem to have jobs to go to, and the kids clearly don’t have school because they’re home at all hours of the day. Maybe they’ve slipped into some sort of pocket dimension created by the evil dollhouse.

Anyway, Jessica receives the titular dollhouse as a last-minute birthday present, and it quickly becomes clear that it exerts a wicked influence and whatever happens to the miniature happens to the real house, centralized around that original fireplace. So, spooky-ish things happen for an hour and change, almost nothing that gets set up is ever paid off, Claire develops a hankering for Todd’s young flesh because at least one out of every three of these films has to have a creepy Lannister vibe, and the dollhouse eventually manifests as the slowly moldering corpse of Jimmy’s dad (Clayton Murray) á là An American Werewolf in London.

Like, I’m pretty sure Griffin Dunne could sue.

Even for a film called Amityville Dollhouse, this one is kind of a mess. The plot, as basic as it is (it’s about creating family relationships – mostly between Jimmy and Todd and Jimmy and Bill) spins in circles for so long it vomits all over itself, then barely recovers in time to slap in a resolution via voiceover seconds before the credits roll. In its dizzying rampage, half a dozen subplots fall to the ground, shattering horribly (most notably an absentee mother who is mentioned twice and never brought up again). And while the dollhouse is never adequately explained and no would one wish it to be (how could that explanation not have been incalculably stupid?), it doesn’t even follow the rules it sets up for itself, and even more egregiously fails to explore its own potential.

In a key scene, a pet mouse crawling into the dollhouse manifests as a giant rodent rattling Jessica’s bed with its sheer bulk. It’s cheesy and cribs more than a little bit from The Exorcist, but that genuinely interesting concept is tossed aside in favor of scenes like the random family members who are also convenient witches performing the most clichéd séance in the history of cinema.

Although I shouldn’t have expected more of a film so unsubtle that the way it develops Jimmy the Science Whiz’s character is to have him drop some unspecified chemicals on ghost goop, watch it fizzle, and mutter “fascinating.” This never comes up again.

Science, y’all!

Amityville Dollhouse is about as nuanced as a kick to the crotch, but it has one or two good things going for it:

Thing #1: Todd is actually pretty hot, and he gets way more sex scenes than a domestic family drama really ought to have. Also there’s some naked breasts lying around, if you’re into that.

 Lord knows, we all need something to get us by in these trying times. 

Thing #2: The inconsistency of the plot provides a sense that just about anything can happen, and it very frequently does. Unshackled from any sense of logic or narrative decorum, the dollhouse’s manifestations are birthed from a feverish pit of haunted house tropes and creative decay. Rubbery Troll 2 monsters rub elbows with giant dead wasps in voodoo dolls and piñata tarantulas in this movie’s desperate quest to reach the finish line. 

It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but at least it’s presented in a pattern so inscrutable that it almost feels fresh.

Amityville Dollhouse numbers among the worst entries in the franchise, but at the very least it’s squarely the best of the worst. And frankly I’m shocked we’ve gotten this far without some truly egregious acting (Dollhouse fares the worst, with a  moment where Jessica utters a disappointed “oh…” in what is supposed to be sheer terror - but even this entry had inoffensive performances all around), so that’s at least something to be thankful for. But seriously, who needed the Amityville franchise to get this far? The movie was bearable, but there’s no reason for anyone to watch it ever again, even for ironic camp value.

TL;DR: Amityville Dollhouse is a dumb, derivative movie, but at least it's just weird enough to carry itself across the finish line.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1150
Reviews In This Series
The Amityville Horror (Rosenberg, 1979)
Amityville II: The Possession (Damiani, 1982)
Amityville 3-D (Fleischer, 1983)
Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes (Stern, 1989)
The Amityville Curse (Berry, 1990)
Amityville 1992: It's About Time (Randel, 1992)
Amityville: A New Generation (Murlowski, 1993)
Amityville Dollhouse (White, 1996)
The Amityville Horror (Douglas, 2005)

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

If I Could Find You Now, Things Would Get Better

Year: 1993
Director: John Murlowski
Cast: Ross Partridge, Julia Nickson, Lala Sloatman 
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

This deep into the series, two films from the end, it’s almost disappointing when a movie turns out to be decent. That would mean that this whole slog has been worthwhile, and I don’t know if I’m mentally sound enough to want to admit that. But alas, such is the case with 1993’s Amityville: A New Generation, hot on the heels of the also pretty OK Amityville 1992: It’s About Time.

To account for its success, I could point to the source material. A New Generation pulls yet another haunted object from the dusty, heavily fictionalized tome that was Amityville: The Evil Escapes (which provided the haunted clock to It’s About Time and the haunted floor lamp to Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes). It’s true that I’ve enjoyed all of these charmingly dumb films more than their miserable peers, but I’m loathe to give credit to such a lazy, exploitative piece of work.

Besides, all signs point to the influence of a titanic figure of retro horror who never gets the credit she deserves: casting director Annette Benson. An unsung heroine of the 1980’s, Benson is responsible for the casts of movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Night of the Comet, and Christine. She’s second only to Fern Champion in her run of hits, and yes of course I know about 80’s slasher casting directors, are you surprised? Now, I’m not saying she’s the only person responsible here, but there is a noticeable step up between this film and the previous one. The most recognizable cast member since Amityville sank into the direct-to-video swamp has been freaking Kim Coates, so it’s astonishing that she gathered even the small coterie of semi-recognizable faces she did here, seven films in. And that has made all – or at least a healthy portion of – the difference.

All hail Annette Benson!

The haunted object coming down the pike this time is an ornate mirror, gifted by a mysterious hobo named Bronner (Jack Orend) to Keyes Terry (Ross Partridge, most recently spotted in Stranger Things as the Byers patriarch), a bohemian photographer with tragically 90’s sexyhair and a penchant for layering oversized button-downs. He lives in an impossibly enormous loft with his gainfully employed girlfriend Llanie (Lala Sloatman) and his painter roommate Suki (Julia Nickson), who falls in love with the antique and proudly displays it in her room.

Unfortunately, the mirror (which hung in the original Amityville house or whatever, OOOooooOOO) acts as a portal for vicious demonic forces, who introduce a chain of death and destruction into the lives of Keyes, Suki, Llanie, their landlord Dick (David Naughton of An American Werewolf in London), their sculptor friend Pauli (Richard Roundtree, AKA Shaft!), and local investigator Detective Clark (Terry O’Quinn of Lost and The Stepfather). The film also finds room for horror genre stalwart Lin Shaye, who always spices up whatever project she’s given. Score another point for Benson.

Swish! Nothing but Annette!

I really really liked Candyman 3: Day of the Dead. No, I didn’t lose my train of thought. I just want to remind you that I may be a crazy person before I tell you that Amityville: A New Generation is my second favorite movie in the franchise so far. Maybe I just have a weakness for 90’s DTV quickies with their weird high concepts and leftover 80’s cult actors, but there really is something here that wasn’t there before.

Aside from the unusually competent cast (I won’t say “overqualified,” because who really is shocked to see any of these names appear in a forgotten horror title?), A New Generation has a reasonably solid, coherent plot (Keyes finds that this mirror is a link to his buried past) that strings together a healthy set of pretty excellent scare gags, at least on the sliding scale of a beaten-down reviewer this far into a franchise marathon.

No Amityville film since the original trilogy has produced a sequence as compelling and visually bizarre as the moment where Suki’s mirror-inspired paintings of demons (attached to the wall via a series of swinging nooses) dance up and down, tear themselves apart, and launch her into an expressionistic tunnel of their own tattered remains. And that’s far from the only interesting idea at play here. I wouldn’t necessarily call anything in the film ‘scary,” but it’s definitely the product of someone exercising their creativity and not just submitting to the doldrums of the cookie cutter sequel format.

In short, it’s the Citizen Kane of Amityville movies.

Let me give you some insight into the process of how this movie got on my good side. Take the sexy/terrible hair and hilarious 90’s fashions of the cast of Friends, toss them with the pretentious aspirations and bohemian self-indulgence of the Rent crew, then drizzle on a heaping helping of paranormal antique mayhem, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a fun-ass movie. Sure, it’s an off-brand version of all the things it reminds me of, but throw in some dimestore Suspiria music and Lin Shaye and we’re off to the races! So what if I’m an easy lay? I just want to have a good time.

Plus, A New Generation is pretty much the only Amityville film since the original trilogy to evoke the evil eye windows of the house in any meaningful way. In the decade since that glorious set was left behind, many films have tried to create their own interpretation of that iconic look (Amityville 1992: It’s About Time had a tract home that looked more like a squinting Milhouse than a glaring, angry façade), but this film harnesses its quasi-Elm Street nightmare sensibility to turn a pair of emergency doors into a striking, evocative silhouette. Also, you gotta love the world’s worst cop Terry O’Quinn, who waves off the violent ravings of a madman in favor of a juicy quip.

Do I recommend that you rush out and immediately rent Amityville: A New Generation from your local Blockbuster? Hell no! But this late in the season, it has been a real oasis of quality for me, and I feel newly refreshed in my approach toward Amityville Dollhouse and the looming finale to this godforsaken series.

TL;DR: Amityville: A New Generation is a surprisingly delightful entry in the 90's DTV canon.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 903
Reviews In This Series
The Amityville Horror (Rosenberg, 1979)
Amityville II: The Possession (Damiani, 1982)
Amityville 3-D (Fleischer, 1983)
Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes (Stern, 1989)
The Amityville Curse (Berry, 1990)
Amityville 1992: It's About Time (Randel, 1992)
Amityville: A New Generation (Murlowski, 1993)
Amityville Dollhouse (White, 1996)
The Amityville Horror (Douglas, 2005)

Monday, October 23, 2017

Cardboard Science: The Honeymooners

Year: 1958
Director: Gene Fowler Jr.
Cast: Tom Tryon, Gloria Talbott, Peter Baldwin 
Run Time: 1 hour 18 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

October is just flying by, isn’t it? We’re already on our second Cardboard Science review (in my annual crossover with Hunter Allen of Kinemalogue), and Halloween is right around the corner! But why don’t we take a breather from desperately trying to figure out what our costumes are going to be, sip on a mug of warm cider, and rejoice in the most spectacularly titled 50’s sci-fi movie there ever would be: I Married a Monster from Outer Space.

I couldn’t come up with a better title if a million dollars were on the line.

The thing that I find most unique about this movie is how, unlike its similarly titled brethren like I Was a Teenage Werewolf or I Bury the Living, the title character making that particular exclamation is – get this – a woman. I know, right? Almost accidentally, the premise gives protagonist status to an actual 50’s housewife and, whether it intends to or not, it draws its horror from the Rosemary’s Baby vein of a woman struggling against the fact that so much of her world is dominated and controlled by the men in her life.

That woman is Marge Bradley (Gloria Talbott), who is happily engaged to her strapping fiancé Bill Farrell (Tom Tryon, who really does cast a striking figure with his impossibly broad frame and chiseled cheekbones). Unfortunately, on the way home from his bachelor party, Tom is kidnapped by an alien creature that disguises itself as him and returns home. After the wedding, “Bill” acts unusually cold and distant, and a year later Marge is beginning to regret how much different her husband seems to be from the man she thought she was marrying. She finds out exactly how different he is one night when she follows him on a midnight stroll to his spaceship and witnesses his alien form firsthand.

Her desperate pleas to authorities for help lead her to discover that the aliens are slowly taking over all the men in town, and she’s forced to stay with Alien Bill – putting up a front that nothing is wrong – until she can find somebody who believes her and who hasn’t already been taken over.

But can you really blame the aliens? Who wouldn’t want to climb right into that body?

Again, I gotta say, good work with the subtext, folks. There’s something about 50’s sci-fi that’s just inherently political beneath the dumb, low budget sheen. It’s the same reason I love horror so much. The genre is subversive and even cavalier with its messaging, and the metaphor at the center here is chilling. It takes the concept that men change after they’re married and ramps it up a couple dozen notches. Instead of stagnating in the loss of the thrill of the chase and taking the ol’ ball and chain for granted in favor of nachos and football, Marge’s man instantly becomes a cold, impassive block of marble that she can’t begin to understand or break through. I might even go so far as to call it an abuse allegory, though the movie certainly shies away from that interpretation.

I meant it when I compared it favorably to Rosemary’s Baby, though there is one big difference between the two movies (though admittedly Rosemary came out a flat decade later): I Married a Monster from Outer Space is boring as hell. As much as that subtext is extremely interesting, there’s not a single peg of plot to hold it up. Three things happen in this movie: Marge runs around hysterically, Bill gives brooding stares out the window, and aliens slowly take over random people’s bodies with superimposed black smoke. There’s no real conflict here, and when the aliens’ plan is finally revealed (SPOILERS: Their race is dying and they want to impregnate Earth women, but they also find themselves falling in love with them), it’s not exactly an evil plot to blow up the world or something.

The aliens are certainly bad, but they’re not really evil, and they fall like dominoes when the time comes, so they never really pose a credible threat. And maybe this is just me and the way the chips fell this month, but I’m a little tired of Body Snatching shenanigans. I get that it’s a cheap and clever way to circumvent your effects budget, but not every alien invasion has to involve human meat puppets. I’ll give this film a pass, because these scenes are very crucial to the central themes, but they’re dishwater dull and make a 77-minute feel seem like a slog. 

That’s quite an achievement, but unfortunately there’s no Oscar for that.

All that said, once the climactic battle kicks in, there are some pretty decent creepy effects shots of bodies melting into goo. And one or two moments were the smallest bit spine-chilling, so this is one of the only entries in the 50’s sci-fi canon to provoke any kind of tangible fear in me. And let us never discount the fact that Tom Tryon’s jawline makes any of his scenes completely bearable to watch, even if he seems incapable of rearranging his face into any emotion other than “stoic constipation.”

Really, it’s frustrating just how frequently the movie jumps from fun froth with bite to an implacably tedious snoozefest. Around every corner is something like this beautifully crafted 50’s time capsule dialogue from a father of newborn twins: “That Southern belle of mine is really ringing. I think she’s trying to build her own Confederate army.” But all of that is constantly undercut by scenes like Marge following Bill through the woods, which goes on for what feels like twenty minutes of the actors picking their way through that arid Santa Clarita landscape that all these movies try to convince us is a forest.

I can manage that cognitive dissonance enough to come around to liking the movie, but not so much that I actually recommend it. Just look up some Tom Tryon screenshots and call it a day.

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • For some reason, the aliens create their own human bodies and leave the kidnapped men aboard the ship, which just seems really inefficient to me.
  • Apparently the aliens’ biggest weakness is dogs biting their noses. Nobody tell M. Night Shyamalan.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • At one point Joan of Arc is described as a “career woman.”
  • The first clue that something is wrong with Bill is that he doesn’t open the car door for Marge, and it doesn’t seem to occur to her that she can open it herself. She’d have starved to death if she hadn’t called out to him.
  • I’m just astonished that there was a storefront on Main Street where you could just waltz in and send a telegram, like it was no big deal. It’s like looking through a window at a different planet.
  • Marge is worried that she and Bill aren’t having sex. Maybe they shouldn’t be sleeping in separate beds then.
Sensawunda:
  • There are certain nighttime scenes so brightly lit they can’t even be called “day for night.” They’re just “day.”
TL;DR: I Married a Monster from Outer Space has an incredible central idea and protagonist, but the plot just isn't strong enough to make for an interesting movie.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1241
Reviews In This Series
It Conquered the World (Popcorn Culture - Corman, 1956)
I Married a Monster from Outer Space (Popcorn Culture - Fowler Jr., 1958)
Forbidden Planet (Popcorn Culture - Wilcox, 1956)
The Slumber Party Massacre (Kinemalogue - Jones, 1982)
Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (Kinemalogue - Pittman, 1987)

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

There’s A Piece Of You That’s Here With Me

Year: 1992
Director: Tony Randel
Cast: Stephen Macht, Shawn Weatherly, Megan Ward
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I know we’ve had some rough times during this Amityville marathon, but overall I’ve been enjoying this second trilogy far more than the first, even if the production quality has taken a sharp nosedive. Part 5 was a bust, but it’s sandwiched between two films based on the loony short story collection Amityville: The Evil Escapes, about haunted objects from the Amityville home being bought by various unsuspecting antique enthusiasts.

I didn’t think anything could beat the haunted lamp of Part 4 in terms of sheer kooky inanity, but here comes Amityville 1992: It’s About Time, which throws a haunted clock into the mix. In addition to providing that delightfully idiotic title, the clock concept opens up a lot of avenues for crackerjack direct-to-video nonsense and I’m all in.

Once franchises are desperate enough for pun tiles, anything goes.

So, a clock. It’s not such a triumph of Evil Object design as the gnarled floor lamp two movies ago (god, this franchise just refuses to end), but it’s certainly spiny and baroque enough that no reasonable human being should want it in the house. Luckily, real estate developer Jacob Sterling (Stephen Macht) is not a reasonable human being. After he gets mauled by a dog that may or may not be a ghost, his hopelessly attached ex Andrea (Shawn Weatherly of Baywatch) stays in his Poltergeist-style tract home to take care of him and his two kids: be-earringed punk freshman Rusty (Damon Martin) and virginal teen daughter Lisa (Megan Ward of Joe’s Apartment fame).

The clock begins to exude its influence on the house, turning Jacob into a rabid Close Encounters-esque recluse, obsessed with sketching and sculpting images of the original Amityville house (the still-impressive design of which makes a glorious reappearance after being absent for the blasted entirety of The Amityville Curse). As his madness grows, time starts to fluctuate around the family, slowing, stopping, flipping, and reversing as they’re all haunted by images of black goo and various mildly spooky occurrences.

It’s so hard to summarize movies that are just random grab bags of scare scenes.

I’m going to actually say some nice things about It’s About Time, so I want to preface that by reminding you that it’s not a good movie. This is still a direct-to-video Amityville sequel, with a perilously low budget and actors who are basically competent but wholly unremarkable. The sets and props also have that curiously blocky look that haunts cheap productions, as if everything was roughly carved from Styrofoam seconds before being put onscreen. This is not top-tier filmmaking by any stretch of the imagination, but at least the project was put in the hands of a director with an imagination to stretch.

Tony Randel is by no means a master craftsman, but the man who cut his teeth on Hellbound: Hellraiser II has more to offer than the typical DTV Amityville director (the most they could collectively boast was a handful of episodes of Touched by an Angel). And while it’s clear that a bigger budget certainly would have allowed some of the core ideas to flourish more than they actually did in practice, there’s creativity and a sense of fun at work here, especially in the terrifically strange third act.

Plus, I have a soft spot for films that show handsome, bearded men in peril.

Actually, you know what, allow me to introduce you to the aforementioned handsome, bearded man. That’s Lenny, the second useless psychiatrist character in as many movies. He also happens to be Andrea’s boyfriend, who’s surprisingly chill with her living with her ex. So chill in fact that he’s willing to have a picnic on these strangers’ patio, bone down on Andrea mere feet away from the bedrooms of both her convalescing former lover and his underaged children, and somehow be willing to sit down and take a bath in this house after that very same former lover has threatened him with a loaded revolver. Lenny is awash in a sea of completely inscrutable character motivations, and I gotta say I love his moxie.

And who even takes baths anymore? So brave…

Bad-good characters aside, It’s About Time embraces the “rubber reality” of post-Elm Street horror with gusto, plunging everyone into bizarre situations that are occasionally quite visually distinctive and always totally bugnuts.

Some gags are legitimately chilling, like an invisible visitor who joins Andrea in her bed. Some are even a little gory, like the elderly neighbor who gets Final Destinationed by an ice cream truck. And some are just bizarre, like the Under the Skin-esque seduction murder that involves a model train. The final 35 minutes or so just pile on the wet and wild cheapie horror stunts, and it’s more than enough to keep you entertained, if you’ve already been inoculated against lousy DTV filmmaking.

Amityville 1992: It’s About Time actually provides an experience and avoids being a slog even during the not particularly interesting character moments. It doesn’t quite cross that dotted line over into “good movie” territory, but I enjoyed myself quite a bit with this one. It delivered a heaping helping of earnest weirdness, which is exactly what I require from a horror flick of its ilk.

TL;DR: Amityville 1992: It's About Time is a reliably bonkers DTV sequel.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 903
Reviews In This Series
The Amityville Horror (Rosenberg, 1979)
Amityville 3-D (Fleischer, 1983)
The Amityville Curse (Berry, 1990)
Amityville 1992: It's About Time (Randel, 1992)
Amityville: A New Generation (Murlowski, 1993)
Amityville Dollhouse (White, 1996)
The Amityville Horror (Douglas, 2005)

Monday, October 16, 2017

Cardboard Science: Roger That

Now that we’re firmly settled into our Amityville marathon, it’s time for that other October tradition: Popcorn Culture’s annual crossover with Hunter Allen at Kinemalogue! I’ve given him three more Census Bloodbath slashers to peruse, and in return I shall be covering another trio of 50’s sci-fi pictures for Cardboard Science!

Year: 1958
Director: Roger Corman
Cast: Peter Graves, Beverly Garland, Lee Van Cleef 
Run Time: 1 hour 11 minutes
MPAA Rating: Approved

Can you believe we’ve been doing this project for four years now and I’ve never been assigned a Roger Corman movie until now? I’m trying to get into the Cardboard Science undergraduate program after all, and Corman is a pre-requisite. The man has worn many hats (including shepherding a host of Poe films for AIP, starting the careers of Jack Nicholson, James Cameron, and Francis Ford Coppola, and more recently producing a slew of SyFy Channel originals), but the man who can shoot a film in five days with a script written on a napkin has rightfully earned his status as an icon of 50’s B-movies.

I’ve only spent time with Corman-as-director in 1960, having seen two of his films from that year: Little Shop of Horrors and House of Usher. And if you’re surprised he had two films come out in the same year, you’re not paying attention. But I digress. Let’s get to the topic at hand, my very first 50’s Corman film and one of his four pictures released in 1956 (it must have been a slow year): It Conquered the World.

And no, that’s not a headline describing the box office of September 2017.

The It in question is an alien being from Venus, who is holed up in a hot spring cave in that exact stretch of rocky, deserty wilderness that lies just outside every small town in America, according to 50’s B-movies. It has been in communication with Dr. Tom Anderson (Lee Van Cleef, of every spaghetti Western you’ve ever heard of), a physicist who has become a laughingstock thanks to his theories about extraterrestrials spying on planet Earth. Unfortunately he turns out to be right when a team led by Dr. Paul Nelson (Peter Graves of Airplane! and probably some other stuff) launches a satellite into space, prompting It to pay earth a little visit.

While It uses its eight mind-controlling devices (attached to flapping plastic bats) to take over the town leaders by removing their emotion and humanity, Paul runs around trying to save the world and Tom attempts to help It carry out its dastardly plan, believing that It is helping to create a more sable, rational world in which he will be a high-ranking member. Meanwhile, Tom’s wife Claire (Beverly Garland) tries everything she can to talk him into resisting It’s evil influence.

It Ruined Her Marriage

At first glance, It Conquered the World is very derivative of a lot of other sci-fi flicks. When It arrives, it causes all the machines in town to shut down, á là The Day the Earth Stood Still. And there’s no ignoring just how similar the Controlled humans are to Pod People (Invasion of the Body Snatchers did come out in the same year, but the five months between the two should have given Corman more than enough time to steal the idea, considering his typical production schedule. Although it might be the case that both films were ripping off Invaders from Mars). But what works works, and when Corman sets his mind to it, he can make an allegorical B-movie even better than the next guy.

The way I see it, It Conquered the World is another treatise against communism and conformity, only with an unexpectedly rich philosophical duality between the red-blooded American Paul and nebbish outcast Tom. The movie is extremely wordy, with scene after scene of the men and their wives carving their way through mountains of dialogue, but the ideas at the center - while naturally pretty simplistic and retrograde – are fleshed out in a way that’s both consistent throughout the film and actually pretty compelling.

Plus, it’s for the best that the movie is mostly dialogue, because when we do pay a visit to the monstrous Venusian, it’s… rough. It resembles nothing more than an ice cream cone with fangs, drizzled in chocolate, wearing a condom on its head. Also it has lobster claws for some reason. It’s a perfectly hilarious B-movie creature, which is one reason I signed up to watch these things, but it makes it harder to take that parts that I actually like very seriously.

Behold his divine majesty!

Not only is It Conquered the World reasonably smart, it’s also unusually dour for a film of its vintage. More cautionary tale than rah-rah jingoistic fantasy, it has no qualms about straight-up murdering major characters. It’s not like we haven’t seen people being shoveled into the mouths of monsters by the handful in films like Godzilla, Beginning of the End, or The Giant Claw, but there’s something about the deaths here that are particularly brutal and violent. 

There’s no blood of course, but the deaths are perpetrated by other human beings rather than monsters. I dare you to watch through every 50’s sci-fi movie and find a single other scene where a woman is casually strangled to death or a man shoots his own wife point-blank. Hell, a portion of this movie’s microscopic effects budget was doled out to a plot-nonessential sequence of an airplane falling out of the sky and exploding! It’s very intent on grinding your face into the darker side of an alien invasion.

It Conquered the World feels like it’s breaking the rules of what these things are supposed to be, even as it’s trafficking in all the genre trappings, plot beats, and subtext that contemporary audiences had seen a million times before. Plus, although things end up pretty much exactly as expected, in the third act Beverly Garland takes up arm against the creature in a badass release of pent-up rage and feminist fury. Of course no 50’s movie was equipped to handle that type of scene well, but it’s one of the best, most exhilarating examples that I’ve yet seen. Forget film noir femme fatales, Beverly Garland is a proto-Linda Hamilton and I’m into. it.

In short, It Conquered the World is actually a pretty stellar piece, for what it is. It’s no minted classic like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it has a unique sensibility that propels it a very long way.

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • The idea that an alien intelligence would notice the launch of a single satellite has now become quite preposterous.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • When a lieutenant is informed that the town is now under martial law, he exclaims, “Golly!”
  • Claire’s tiny little woman brain can’t handle Tom and Paul talking science over dinner: “Maybe you’ve got something in space medicine I can use for a headache.”
  • When the satellite equipment malfunctions, the one woman in the room feels the need to apologize.
  • At one point Paul describes his too-small bike seat as being built for the “spanking size,” which I’m pretty sure can Only mean what I think it means.
Sensawunda:
  • At one point, Tom refers to having worked on the Manhattan project in “War 2.” In addition to being the 8000th B-movie to name-drop nuclear testing, it’s the weirdest way I’ve ever heard of referring to that war.
  • Dick Miller is featured here in only his third movie role, at the bright beginning of the career that would give him parts in dozens of movies produced by Corman and his compatriots.
TL;DR: It Conquered the World is a cheap, crappy sci-fi picture with a surprisingly violent sensibility and strong subtext that lifts it above a lot of its contemporaries.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1311
Reviews In This Series
It Conquered the World (Popcorn Culture - Corman, 1956)
I Married a Monster from Outer Space (Popcorn Culture - Fowler Jr., 1958)
Forbidden Planet (Popcorn Culture - Wilcox, 1956)
The Slumber Party Massacre (Kinemalogue - Jones, 1982)
Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (Kinemalogue - Pittman, 1987)

Monday, October 9, 2017

When I Sleep, I Dream And It Gets Me By

Year: 1990
Director: Tom Berry
Cast: Kim Coates, Dawna Wightman, Helen Hughes
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

And… here’s where this marathon is going to get tough, as if it wasn’t a hard pill to swallow from square one. After fending off the direct-to-video doldrums for four entries and eleven years, the swiftly declining haunted house series succumbed to the pull of its mediocre horror destiny with its fifth entry, The Amityville Curse.

At this point, I can’t help but worry that my reviews will begin to deteriorate, as there are only so many variations on “boring and poorly made motion picture goes through the motions of a haunted house thriller” that I can pull out of my brain. But let’s see if I can squeeze a few more drops out of this godforsaken franchise, shall we?

Lord knows Hollywood seems to be able to.

Well, at least there’s some semblance of a plot. Let’s talk about it. Twelve years after a priest (Jan Rubes) is shot to death in a confessional, his dilapidated house is bought by newlywed couple; Marvin (David Syerin) and Debbie (Dawna Wightman). It’s a surprise they’ve managed to stay together even this long, because they quite transparently loathe each other. Debbie is a psychic who has been receiving visions in her dreams of evil forces lurking in the house, and Marvin is a psychologist skeptic who scoffs at everything she believes in and stands for.

The couple is joined for the week by three friends who for some reason have agreed to drop everything and help them remodel the house. They promptly set into acting like a bunch of randy teens because this is a horror movie, even if they’re patently too old to be behaving this way. These bizarre houseguests include horny sex couple Abigail (Cassandra Gava) and Frank (Kim Coates of Sons of Anarchy in an early role), and Bill (Anthony Dean Rubes), about whom we know nothing other than he has a penchant for wearing stripes. Bill is by far the most mysterious thing in the movie, much more so than the shadowy presence who is bumping off the people in the house, starting with the one-eyed neighbor Mrs. Moriarty (Helen Hughes).

Also, spooky paranormal things happen, but they really take a back seat to scenes of remodeling and half-baked drama about Abigail’s fidelity.

Though that drama is so blink-and-you’ll-miss-it that you’d need a Clockwork Orange machine for it to even register.

As you may have noticed, this is the movie where the franchise really starts to lose the plot. Even the “haunted floor lamp in California” entry has stronger ties to the events of The Amityville Horror than Curse, which contents itself to merely present a paranormal story that takes place in the same town. As if Amityville, Long Island was built over a Hellmouth or something. As much as it behooves the franchise to break from the limiting confines of the “true” Amityville story, you just can’t expect to succeed when you oust the franchise’s most consistent and compelling character: the house, with its iconic arched, angry windows.

That house and its excellent expressionistic design went a long way toward delivering the chills even in the chintziest, most boring sequences the franchise had to offer. And The Amityville Curse is nothing if not chintzy and boring. The anonymous, squat pile of bricks at the center of Curse sucks out every last molecule of atmosphere, revealing the disappointingly bare foundation that all of these films have been built on.

The Amityville Curse revels in its own tedium, unspooling scene after scene of character interactions that have just enough flavor for you to despise every one of the players involved, but yet not enough to actually pique even the slightest amount of interest in their dealings. The plot seems to center around the vague shape of a mystery, but it’s so ineptly handled that the Huge Twist is something I just took for granted like 20 minutes in. There’s nothing to latch onto for at least an hour, other than a handful of lines written with an iota of pith and one or two shock gags that you can find scary if you really focus.

Forgive me for trying to feel something while sitting through this movie.

The only truly interesting thing about The Amityville Curse is that, by the end of the third act, it completely forgets that it’s a ghost movie. You see, the mysterious figure who has been murdering the hell out of folks turns out to be an actual flesh and blood human being, and just like that we have a slasher film on our hands. The Amityville Curse is so much of a slasher, in fact, that had this been released a year earlier, I would have had to strongly consider including it in Census Bloodbath.

And wouldn’t you know it, Debbie is actually a pretty capable Final Girl. Drawing inspiration from other hardcore heroines in terrible movies like The Demon or Lady Stay Dead, she gets creative when she’s in survival mode, using saw blades as Frisbees and even giving us a passable gore gag when crushing the killer’s fingers in a door.

Of course, this trick didn’t make me like The Demon or Lady Stay Dead any more, so it certainly doesn’t do the trick with The Amityville Curse. Ten relatively thrilling minutes don’t make up for all that wasted time sitting through this movie when I could have been doing something more interesting and rewarding, like watching a leaky roof drip water into a bucket, or pricking my own finger with a thumbtack.

TL;DR: The Amityville Curse make a surprising turn into decent slasher territory, but it's too little too late.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 963
Reviews In This Series
The Amityville Horror (Rosenberg, 1979)
Amityville II: The Possession (Damiani, 1982)
Amityville 3-D (Fleischer, 1983)
Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes (Stern, 1989)
The Amityville Curse (Berry, 1990)
Amityville 1992: It's About Time (Randel, 1992)
Amityville: A New Generation (Murlowski, 1993)
Amityville Dollhouse (White, 1996)
The Amityville Horror (Douglas, 2005)