Friday, September 26, 2014

Fang Time

I am stupendously excited because tonight I am volunteering at the Fangoria booth at the Days of the Dead horror convention in Los Angeles. The magazine has been a centerpiece of the fright community since its inception in 1979, featuring top notch articles about hundreds and (I haven't counted but probably) thousands of horror films and filmmakers. I'm truly honored to be able to participate in even a small slice of this legacy so today's article is

The Ten Best Fangoria Cover Films

Over the years, Fangoria has featured dozens of genre-changing films on its covers, but the beauty of the thing is that it is inextricably caught up in the time it was produced. Due to the nature of shifting trends, some films featured on the cover never achieved infamy outside of a certain year, while others have long-lasting legacies even today. It's nearly impossible to predict, especially with such left-fielder (at the time) hits like Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street, neither of which graced the covers of the magazine during their initial runs.

But more often than not, this leading rag hit the nail right on the head and I've selected ten of my personal favorite films that have appeared on Fangoria covers through the ages.

#10 Pan's Labyrinth (Issue #259 Jan/Feb 2007)

Struggling to find words that adequately imply the enormity and scope of Guillermo del Toro's violent fantasy masterpiece would challenge even the greatest of humanity's writers. Fitzgerald would head for the hills. Dickens would disguise himself as a beggar and escape out the chimney. Kafka would- Well, maybe Kafka would get it.

Pan's Labyrinth is set in the Spanish Civil War, detailing the journey of a girl trapped in circumstances beyond her control as she explores the dark supernatural world hiding in the corners of everyday life. The special effects are exquisite, the story is heartfelt and powerful, and the gore is nightmarishly visceral. Although it's not even explicitly a horror film, Pan's Labyrinth is more likely to give you nightmares than any film on this list.

Unfortunately, I have no full review of this film up on my blog yet, but I have reviewed one of the
Cover Articles: The terrific meta slasher Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon.

#9 Little Shop of Horrors (Issue #60 Jan 1987)

I've watched the original Corman picture, the movie musical, and even performed it onstage five nights a week, yet I will never tire of Little Shop of Horrors. For a movie with so little reason to exist (the movie is based on a musical based on another movie), it's just so terrific. With songs by the unstoppable duo of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman and a wall-shattering performance by original Broadway cast member Ellen Greene, Little Shop has a relentless doo-wop energy that can brighten even the darkest days.

Telling the story of a poor Rick Moranis who has to feed blood to a hungry talking plant in order to make his dreams come true, this film harnesses all the B-movie energy of the 50's and synthesizes it into something totally modern and compelling, featuring Steve Martin in one of his best roles as a sadistic dentist and a gut-splitting cameo from Bill Murray.

Cover Articles: Re-Animator; From Beyond; And although I don't have a review of The Terminator, I wrote this article on it long ago.

#8 An American Werewolf in London (Issue #14 Aug 1981)

Hands down, An American Werewolf in London is my favorite lycanthropy movie of all time, although it's not like there's much competition in that department. John Landis' seminal horror film features state-of-the-art effects by make-up maestro Rick Baker that haven't aged a day (OK, maybe they've aged an hour, but they're still terrific) and a thorough sense of humor that The Howling briefly scrabbled at, but almost entirely failed to grasp.

In fact, the porno theater scene might just be one of the funniest moments in movie history. And all this in a horror film that is actually scary as well, along with providing ample thematic material (a stranger in a strange land, guilt over a friend's death, and all the mess that comes along with body transformation - take your pick). A must-see for anyone who's even remotely a fan of the genre.

Read my original review here.

#7 Hellraiser (Issue #67 Sept 1987)

Clive Barker is one of the most important modern voices of the macabre, one of the greatest horror writers alive (now that we've lost Poe, Lovecraft, and - more recently - Matheson), and his directorial debut was sure to be a whammy one way or another (it's a real gamble, as evidenced by Stephen King's Maximum Overdrive). But luckily he erred on the side of the truly fantastic.

Hellraiser is an unstoppable work of glistening cerebral horror, replete with dark sexual imagery and a tense family drama to boot. Pinhead and his Cenobites would soon become overworked stock franchise villains, but here they are representatives of something even more sinister than pure evil - the dark, secret desires of humanity.

Cover Articles: The Lost Boys; Evil Dead II.

#6 28 Days Later/28 Weeks Later (Issues #223 Jun 2003 & #263 June 2007)

I really need to jump on reviewing these bad boys before I'm 28 months too late. But regardless of the fact that 28 Days Later and its sequel 28 Weeks Later do not appear on the pages of this blog, they are essential movies for any modern genre fan. They kick-started the zombie resurgence in the early 2000's, paving the way for my single favorite film of all time, [REC].

While 28 Days Later was an intense British political allegory, 28 Weeks Later was an expanded look at the aftermath of a large scale crisis. Both are fantastic in their own unique ways (the opening scene of 28 Weeks is among the scariest film moments of all time) and both have a sharp wit that keeps them fresh, but it's up to personal preference to pick a better of the two. I'd prefer not to, myself, letting them stand together as one of the most beautiful, brief horror franchises to ever grace cinema screens.

#5 Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (Issue #36 July 1984)

Although there are definitely Friday the 13th films that I've watched more often, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter is almost inarguably the best in the franchise, at least in terms of what a slasher movie is supposed to be. Tom Savini is at his finest here, pulling out all the stops to destroy Jason, the monster he accidentally created. This entry has the most nudity in the entire franchise (a plus for fans of cheesy exploitation and fans of breasts - pulling in all the demographics here) and an all-star class including a pre-fame Crispin Glover and Corey Feldman.

Of course, we all know by now that this wasn't really the final chapter, but it did end an important era in Jason's career - the Crystal Lake Saga, as I named it just now. With its blood and guts and boobs and butts, as well as the John Hughes-esque slate of teen Meat, it's the perfect capper for this Golden Age of slasher cinema.

Read my original review here.

#4 From Beyond (Issue #59 Dec 1986)

From Beyond is a very recent discovery of mine, and I am deeply ashamed that I wasted so much time watching any other movies besides this one. This film is Stuart Gordon's second H. P. Lovecraft adaptation following his smash hit Re-Animator and it pitches everything that cheery, gory, naughty film did all the way up to the rafters.

The film brings back genre superstars Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton, adding a dash of Dawn of the Dead's Ken Foree, and tossing them into a pool of technicolor goo and Lovecraftian horror. Its stomach-turning charms (and high volume sexual overtones) aren't for everyone, but for fans of practical effects magic, colorful 80's horror, or lamprey basement monsters, this is a veritable Mecca.

Read my original review here.

Cover Articles: Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives.

#3 The Descent (Issue #254 July 2006)

There are only two films from this century that have chilled me to my bones. The first is [REC] but you don't need to hear me babble about that same old crap again. The second is The Descent, which pulls off the incredible horror movie task of having a first act that is just as scary, if not even more terrifying than the rest of the movie, shoving its characters into dark, claustrophobic, utterly real cave environments.

All the bloodshed and monsters are just a delicious afterthought in a wall-to-wall petrifying film. Those who say that horror movies just aren't made like they used to be clearly have blocked The Descent from their memory to prevent nightmares.

Read my original review here.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors/New Nightmare (Issues #62 Apr 1987 & #137 Oct 1994)

Although my heart will always lie with Jason Voorhees, it's impossible to deny the sheer volume of good sequels that A Nightmare on Elm Street got. In fact, Wes Craven's New Nightmare is just plain one of the best horror movies in the history of cinema. I don't throw my hat in the ring for a lot of movies, but I'm willing to put it to fisticuffs if anybody disagrees on that one.

Wes Craven's influence over the horror genre is incomprehensibly vast and the intelligence he brings to everything he does created one of horror's most enduring phenomena. The mystique and allure of Freddy Krueger survives far beyond his tawdry comedies and that crappy remake because in everything Freddy does, there remains that spark of inspiration that makes Craven one of the most important filmmakers in the genre.

Read my original reviews here and here. Or read my essay on Craven here. Or read my essay on the Nightmare franchise here. I got you covered.

Cover Articles: Evil Dead II; The Lost Boys; Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood; Interview with the Vampire.

#1 The Evil Dead (Issue #23 Nov 1982)

Evil Dead II gets all the credit because it's funnier and consolidates Sam Raimi's style of storytelling into a more mature entity, but I love the rough and ready DIY aesthetic of the original Evil Dead. It's one of the most original horror films ever made, all hung on the most tried and true framework story in the history of the known universe populated with one-dimensional characters.

The beauty of Evil Dead is the simplicity of the story - Cabin. Woods. Zombie things. This allows Raimi room to stretch his creativity in a way that sent the craft of cinema soaring years ahead of its time. I'm too dazzled by the film to make much sense at the moment, but I daresay I've been more coherent on the topic before.

Read my original review here.

So that's that.

Thanks for trucking along on this historical, fangorical tour. If you happen to be at the convention tonight, stop by and say hi!

Word Count: 1860

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Bleeding Heart

For the crossover review of this film over at Kinemalogue, click here.

Year: 1981
Director: George Mihalka
Cast: Paul Kelman, Lori Hallier, Neil Affleck
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The legend goes that My Bloody Valentine's producers, when tasked with creating a new slasher film, decided to set the film on a holiday that hadn't been used up already in the early slasher boom. This was no small accomplishment considering that, only one year into the genre's heyday, Christmas had already been used a whopping four times (three in 1980 alone), Halloween was pretty well taken care of with John Carpenter's classic, New Years had been used twice, and even minor/non-existent holidays like Mother's Day, Friday the 13th, and Prom Night had already received the slasher treatment.

So they settled on Valentine's Day, just about the only recognizable holiday left after the developing genre had razed the calendar. By all accounts this should have been a supremely average affair, just like (most of) the rest, but this being Canada (well regarded as the best country for slasher films) and this being 1981 (the consensus pick for best year of the slasher Golden Age), the stars were aligned, producing a highly enjoyable film, even after being mercilessly slaughtered by the MPAA.

And it is here, even more than any other slasher film with similar problems (and there are more slashers hurt by the MPAA on this planet than there are trees) that we reach a point of contention. The unrated cut of My Bloody Valentine, finally released in 2009 in concurrence with the release of the remake, adds so much to the film that it renders it virtually unrecognizable. The addition of extended gore scenes makes the film undeniably better and far more coherent, although the original cut is still nothing to shake a stick at. Although I would rather gush (quite literally, in some cases) about the unrated version, I'll be sticking to the original theatrical print for this review, considering that it was the only one that existed for some thirty-odd years.

Sorry to strip mine the film, man, but it's only fair.

The small Canadian mining town of Valentine Bluffs (unique for the sub-subgenre of Canadian slashers, there is no visible strain to pretend it takes place in America, allowing the regional accents and Moosehead beer to flow freely) has a problem. They haven't had their traditional Valentine dance in twenty years thanks to a horrific accident in which a group of miners were buried alive because their supervisors left early so they could attend the dance.

Harry Warden (Peter Cowper), the sole survivor of this ordeal, sought revenge the next year and cut out the supervisors' hearts, putting them in heart-shaped candy boxes and delivering them to the dance, vowing to seek revenge on any future Valentines celebrations the town will ever have. The town officials assume enough time has passed that the institutionalized Harry will no longer loom over the citizens' minds, so they reinstate the dance for the first time. They'll soon learn that maybe they should have stuck with candy hearts and pre-packaged Snoopy cards.

Our Meat for the evening is a sizable array of young miners, preceded by a delectable tray of hors d'oeuvres - a larger than usual adult presence. There's Howard (Alf Humphreys of Funeral Home), the obligatory prankster who, as an apprentice, is the butt of scorn from the older workers; Dave (Carl Marotte), a handsome wallflower who becomes significantly less handsome when he inexplicably shaves halfway through the film and turns into a twelve-year-old; Michael (Thomas Kovacs), a human male with - presumably - a pulse; Hollis (Keith Knight), who thanks to his bristly mustache and burly frame looks like a cross between the walrus and the carpenter; Axel (Neil Affleck, also of Visiting Hours, and who is now a supervising animator on The Simpsons of all things), a hotheaded, jealous blond; and TJ (Paul Kelman), the mine owner's son who has just returned after attempting to make it on his own in the west coast. Which coast - and whether he was trying to be an actor in California or a fisherman in British Columbia is anyone's guess.

Because there is a holiday framework here, nearly every single one of these men has valentines, but the only three we should be concerned with are Harriet (Terry Waterland), a virginal barmaid and eventual recipient of Michael's member; Patty (Cynthia Dale), the bubbly counterpart to Hollis; and Sarah (Lori Hallier), a spunky blonde and Patty's best friend, who is currently dating Axel although she pines for TJ, with whom she was going steady before he left town. His unexpected return racks up tensions between him and Axel, but while they prepare to go all MMA on one another because a lady is a prize to be won by fisticuffs and spitting, Sarah quietly makes her own decision and sits back to watch the punches fly.

I mean, it's not like romantic rivalries within this winsome group are exactly fraught with tension.

After several ominous deaths (in which the town leaders receive valentines with threatening poems), the dance is cancelled for good, but the Hubris of Teenager knows no bounds. One boner leads to another and the kids end up having a party in the mine, accidentally incurring the wrath of The Miner (Peter Cowper), a pickaxe-wielding bully in a gas mask who is presumably Harry Warden out for his promised revenge. 

The deck is stacked with such a solid premise (don't you just love baroque, holiday-related killer MO's?) that it barely even registers that the characters aren't perhaps quite as fleshed out as they could be. Though, this being Canada, they are all immensely likable and easy to tell apart, a blessing which I shall not overlook.

And even in spite of the butchering My Bloody Valentine received from the MPAA, the kills are remarkably scary, an astronomical achievement in the genre. Cowper's physical performance as the Miner is looming, threatening, and bubbling with seething anger. If he were but two stories taller, he could give genre legend Kane Hodder a run for his money. But his physicality combined with the menacing oddity of his costume - a gas mask and a pickaxe - provides a truly memorable villain, a unique occurrence for a one-off slasher like this.

It also helps that he's so thoughtful - look, he even gave us a present!

With intense kills and a classic antagonist, it would take a whole lot of going wrong to undo the value of this film. This patently does not happen although, as I have mentioned, many of the characters are a little more one-dimensional than they could have been. Some early scenes tend to drag before we get a bead on who this group is and how they interact, weighed down a little too much by shaky acting.

This dynamic is typically buoyed by the presence of Hallier, whose performance as Sarah is leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the cast, including the adult performers. It's a crying shame that she is forced to wring chemistry from the damp dishrag that is Paul Kelman's TJ, but her performance is so committed and pitch perfect that it glosses over many of the clunkier moments in the script.

Really, it's not even as bad as I'm making it out to be, it's just a slight annoyance. Much like the gamely sexist cockfighting between Sarah's romantic rivals, which thankfully peters out by the end of the second act. But for all the issues presented by the ensemble, Valentine Bluffs really feels like a small town, an ambience achieved by the characters' familiarity with one another and the limited, familiar-looking locations. Grounding these characters firmly in a reality makes it much easier to overlook some of their shortcomings.

And the final act of the film is so tremendous, it's impossible to complain at any length about anything in the entire movie. As the kids descend into the mine and begin to be picked off in earnest, an elongated chase sequence begins as the split-up survivors attempt to escape the twisting tunnels. It is a rapid, harrowing jumble - nobody knows where anybody else is or even who might still be alive as the desperate groups fight to find a way out.

The darkness in the mineshaft scenes is shot with aplomb, utilizing shadows significantly instead of showering the frame in blackness as even the best of Canadian slasher directors were wont to do. It's claustrophobic and frantic with an admittedly mystifying but electric conclusion. 

It's a true shame My Bloody Valentine never earned itself a franchise, because it's absolutely one of the best standalones in the business, a flawed but thrilling bit of Golden Age terror.

Before we sign off, it is absolutely imperative we discuss the unrated cut for a brief moment. The extended gore scenes are essential viewing, providing some of the grimmest grue of any slasher I've ever seen. It's exactly the kind of scintillating gore that would have sent this film over the edge, injecting the film with enough fun to overpower the slower moments in totum.

Also a gore shot is crucial in understanding just what the hell happens in the final reel. Its absence is sorely felt in the theatrical cut. With these additions, My Bloody Valentine is a just about perfect slasher movie. Unfortunately, it's rather too late to consider them "canon" but I would urge anybody and everybody interested in this film to seek out this version, not the original DVD release.

Killer: The Miner (Peter Cowper) [aka Axel (Neil Affleck)]
Final Girl: Sarah (Lori Hallier) feat. TJ (Paul Kelman)
Best Kill: Sylvia is impaled on a shower rod and water (mixed with blood) squirts out of her mouth.

Sign of the Times: Not only do the boys seem afflicted with such terrible arthritis they can't button their shirts, but TJ's neckerchief chokes out any chance of this film being timeless.

Scariest Moment: The survivors must climb up a narrow shaft on a ladder while Patty undergoes a mental breakdown.
Weirdest Moment: TJ and Axel share an angry harmonica duet in a junkyard.
Champion Dialogue: "You're supposed to be decorating the room, not each other."
Body Count: 12; not including four miners killed in a flashback cave-in.
  1. Blonde Woman is impaled on a pickaxe.
  2. Supervisor is pickaxed in the chest.
  3. Supervisor #2 is killed offscreen.
  4. Mabel is pickaxed and stuffed into a clothes dryer.
  5. Bartender is axed through the chest/eye, depending on which cut you watch.
  6. Dave has his face shoved into a pot of boiling hot dogs.
  7. Sylvia is impaled on a shower unit.
  8. Michael and
  9. Harriet are impaled by a mining drill offscreen while they have sex.
  10. Hollis is shot in the face with a nail gun.
  11. Howard is hung and (in the unrated cut) decapitated by the rope.
  12. Patty is pickaxed in the gut.
TL;DR: My Bloody Valentine is hurt by some shallow characters, but is a surprisingly scary and effective slasher.
Rating: 8/10; 9/10 if we're counting the unrated cut, although considering that it only surfaced five years ago, I daresay it doesn't count.
Word Count: 1854

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Nuke Kids On The Block

Year: 1989
Director: Steve De Jarnatt
Cast: Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham, John Agar
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Nuclear war was a common topic in American film of the 1980's, rivaled only by the glut of "whoops, we made a radiation monster" films of the 50's. Perhaps the most famous is 1983's WarGames, in which a young Matthew Broderick almost incites the nuclear holocaust by playing a computer game - something avid fans of online gaming might have experience with if they've ever cost an experienced team a round.

It's not like the threat of nuclear devastation has ever completely gone away, but in today's everyday world it seems about as far-fetched a possibility as an asteroid smashing into the planet. It's something people might fear, but in a more abstract, less immediate way. However, because I am a connoisseur of finding things to worry about, I have a unique empathetic skill among my age group - the ability to put myself in a position where I can relate to the nuclear fears of the generations before my own.

For that reason and that reason alone, I was able to extract every last crumb of tension from the premise of the remarkably silly late-nuclear period movie that is 1989's Miracle Mile. However, if you are not me, this movie will almost entirely fail to rile you. But it's fun enough as a hunk of 80's trash that I'd still recommend it to the non-discerning viewer.

And any fan of dollar store brand Dolph Lundgrens.

Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards) is a struggling musician living in Los Angeles. When he meets Julie Peters (Mare Winningham) at a local museum, it's love at first sight. For the first twenty minutes or so, the film progresses like a generic indie rom-com (They do quirky things like visit the tar pits, play with a prism, and buy lobsters from a restaurant only to set them free. Also Julie's grandparents are deeply in love but haven't spoken with one another for 15 years.), made even stranger by the fact that this genre wouldn't be in vogue until a couple decades later. My guess is that they were going for a straight romance but the stars they chose were so flippin' nerdy that they accidentally shunted the script into being ahead of its time.

Not exactly Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler.

But after he sleeps through their second date, Harry ends up eating away his feelings at a diner at 4 in the morning. As if that wasn't enough stress to deal with, he answers a call on a pay phone and discovers that the American government has ordered a nuclear strike and the retaliation is due to come in 70 minutes, destroying the city.

Thus begins an epically cheesy cross-city journey as Harry attempts to locate Julie and get her to an escape helicopter - featuring a Tangerine Dream soundtrack, Nightmare on Elm Street 5's Kelly Jo Minter, and Mare Winningham's orange feathered mullet - a tangerine nightmare, if you will. 

But first, the single best scene in the movie and perhaps the only moment where it operates on a level outside of fatuous 80's frivolity. You see, the original concept for Miracle Mile was that it would be a segment in Twilight Zone: The Movie, evoking classic episodes like "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" with a single location depicting various individuals bouncing off of one another under the strain of a potentially imaginary threat.

And if you're looking for a group of unique individuals with diverse backgrounds to populate your story, you could do worse than an LA diner at 4 in the morning. Here we get two womanizing workmen, a flight attendant in training, a stern businesswoman, a snarky drag queen, a hapless waitress, and a hotheaded cook struggling to face the harshest reality the cultural climate could possibly provide.

This section of the film is taut, edgy, and clever, providing a thin slice of true humanity in a movie that will soon devolve into admittedly enjoyable but much less rewarding excesses. But for those shining moments, Miracle Mile exposes the truly remarkable anthology segment it could have been.

Although the stranglehold of the 80's can never be fully eradicated.

Although nothing else can quite match the dizzy heights of this scene's incisive tension, the rest of the film is pure confection SPOILERS [save for the shockingly bleak ending that would be emotionally resonant if it didn't follow 50 minutes of pure 80's tomfoolery]. Once the cross-city antics begin, character motivations fly right out the window. In fact, they smash headfirst through a wall and call it a window.

Harry wanders through a barren Los Angeles at a speed more suitable for a trip to the supermarket than a frantic escape making terrible decisions left and right, including but not limited to leaving the helicopter pad to explore a neon-spandex nightmare gym and refusing to tell Julie what's going on until the very last second, rendering her completely useless to his cause. Also a guy decides to avoid ten years in jail for stealing stereos by lighting two cops on fire. It's like the screenwriters exhausted themselves after the diner scene and just let Mare Winningham's mullet write the rest of the script as it brushed across a keyboard.

An American Hero.

The 80's signifiers take care of the rest, bulking up the back half of the movie with enough content to remain engaging. And the filmmaking itself is decent, especially in the first act - in which nearly every camera shot just begs us to look to the skies:

And I'm sure this is symbolic of... something. Ice age = nuclear winter? Kevin Smith's new movie sucking? I dunno, I'm sure someone can fill in the blanks. I can't move my eyes from her hair long enough to focus on the composition.

Miracle Mile, for what it's worth, could be much much worse than it is. As it stands, it ranges from being a delectable nuclear thriller to an ebullient cheese tray, so at the very least it's never boring. I wish the third act could sustain its tone more to really bring the apocalyptic mayhem home, but this depiction of the end of the world is not at the end of my list.

Solid effort. Would detonate.

TL;DR: Miracle Mile is a cheesy 80's train wreck, but at times manages to be the taut nuclear thriller that it wants to be.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1038

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Census Bloodbath: The Mild, Mild West

Year: 1981
Director: Byron Quisenberry
Cast: Joe Allaine, Pepper Martin, Joseph Alvarado
Run Time: 1 hour 22 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

If you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all.

If I devoutly adhered to this philosophy, you wouldn't be reading this right now. You see, the first slasher film released in the cornerstone year of the slasher Golden Age was the exception that proves the rule - i.e. such a crappy film that it makes even the thinnest dregs of 1980 look like blockbuster masterpieces. Although the film is popularly known as Scream, as it was titled during its desperate 1983 re-release, we shall be calling it by its original title, The Outing, so as not to besmirch the grand esteem that title should hold within the slasher genre.

I was actually quite excited to see this film, having discovered it on Netflix when I was originally watching the Scream franchise. So imagine poor little Brennan with the image of that cover art in his head, stewing for years and years as he imagines what this film could be like. You can't buy that kind of hype. But the thing about obscure film is that, while some are hidden gems, others should stay hidden.

And thus I give you The Outing, the (so far) worst slasher movie of Census Bloodbath.

Once we get into the direct-to-video age, it may be knocked off its perch, but I have a feeling it might have what it takes to go all the way.

The shot you see above you is three things. One of those things is the first shot in the movie. The second of those things is the best shot in the movie. The third of those things is the most expensive shot in the movie. With actual lighting and a visual effect (the doll's eyes turn toward the camera), the basic competence of this shot, when compared to the quality of the rest of the film, allows one to infer that they squandered their entire budget right here at the beginning. This theory becomes even more compelling when you learn that the film was shot in sequence.

This weird but intriguing opening shot provides a brief spark of interest in a film that quickly becomes a black hole of withering, bleating awfulness. Also it has next to nothing to do with the actual plot. Which is...

A group of rafters get stranded in a ghost town up in the mountains and end up being pursued by a mysterious killer. These people are of such varied ages and creeds (and arrive in such massive quantities) that the film seems like it might actually become a unique character study in which different types of people bounce off of one another while the body count piles up dramatically. Alas, not many of them actually perish and the reason the group has chosen to be together is never explained. They are but paper dolls, tossed upon the winds of fortune.

Forgive me, that metaphor went too far. These characters are thinner than paper. Although there are around 14 rafters involved in the goings on, only a couple are given names and even fewer are given rudimentary personality traits. But let's slough through them, for that is what my format requires. There's Lou (Joe Allaine), our de facto protagonist (if only because he is mysteriously given the most screen time despite obviously being a side character) and resident slobby idiot of the group; Ross (Gregg Palmer), a jovial builder who is taking a vacation; Al (Alvy Moore, also of The Horror Show and Intruder, both from 1989), a grouchy businessman; Marion (Ann Bronston), Al's wet moppish granddaughter; Bob (Pepper Martin of Return to Horror High), Marion's pre-enlightened, chain-smoking, chauvinist douche of a husband who "don't take no lip from any damn female"; Andy (Bob Macgonigal), a douchey jock who gains a substantial amount of weight as the movie progresses; the two handsome cowboy tour guides Stan (Ethan Wayne) and Rudy (Joseph Alvarado); and an annoyingly large ensemble that refuses to die even though they're only meatsacks that take up space - Laura, Janice, Maggie, Fred, and Len, according to the credits.

As if that wasn't enough, two bikers - Rod and Jerry - show up in the middle in what would be an obvious act of body count padding if the film actually deemed it advisable to kill its own characters.

Half of these people survive. This wouldn't be annoying in any other genre. But there's just too darn many to keep track of.

These characters spend two nights in the ghost town in a poorly edited haze of what amounts to nothing more than a string of tedious vignettes about people walking into dark rooms where nothing much happens, standing on dark porches where nothing much happens, or panning the camera demurely away when something actually happens.

Even more than the waste of a good body count is the execrably watered down kill sequences. In a movie where characters don't do anything but sit around and wait to be killed, it's a common courtesy to dispatch them in creatively gruesome ways. But the few characters who do kick it tend to do so offscreen in an entirely bloodless manner. Rude.

This is literally the goriest shot of the movie.

So in between the deathless swaths of nothing happening to a sea of characters who stand around until the time comes to wander off alone, we are treated to a variety of underlit shots of the town overlaid with cricket sound effects where the track is quite clearly too short because it skips and restarts right in the middle.

I offer you this question: Is it possible to retain any interest in a film where the actors are visibly bored? It's an interesting philosophical discussion to have, I think. I would present The Outing as evidence - considering that there are pauses in the dialogue wide enough to fit the entire cast laid end to end and phrases like "the killer stacked their mangled bodies in this shed" are met with a simple "oh" - but I would never ever, even in my darkest hour, consider allowing another human being to lay eyes on this movie. Not even Perez Hilton. 

This is a film where characters stand stock still on a porch in the same position for about three minutes like they're training to be a department store window display. This is a film where the meat cleaver is clearly made of papier-mâché. This is a film where even the campy elements (a ghost sailor rides up on a horse at midnight) are so drenched in tedium that it makes you lose all respect for yourself for even watching it all the way through.

And to top it all off, there's not even a reveal. The killer is never shown. Not a single frame. We can infer that he's probably some sort of piratey ghost, but considering that he is felled by a shotgun (admittedly wielded by a ghost) that theory doesn't hold water. But by the time this "climactic" (see: "so poorly edited you can't tell what the hell is going on") moment appears, every single movie-related brain cell has died so it's not valuable to expend the effort to actually attempt to decipher any of it.

Legend has it that director Byron Quisenberry (perhaps most famous as a stunt man on the 1989 nuclear train wreck Miracle Mile - review coming soon!) didn't reveal the ending of the script to the actors while they were shooting. Evidently he neglected to inform the audience as well.

Avoid at all costs.

Killer: For the first time in this entire process, I have no clue who the killer was. It could have been the wind. Or maybe a possum. Who knows.
Final Girl: There's like 8 people who survive, none of whom deserve it, although a good portion of them are women. So there's that.
Best Kill: Andy is slammed against a wall and thrown from a balcony, but the most entertaining part is how he weakly stumbles backwards up the stairs while clutching his throat before it actually gets axed.
Sign of the Times: The score sounds like the aftermath of the Seinfeld bassline gaining sentience and seeking revenge on its human overlords.
Scariest Moment: A tarantula crawls onto Lou's hand.
Weirdest Moment: A (presumably ghostly) sailor shows up, hands them the body of their friend, says a monologue about the Great Horn Spoon, then vanishes into the night.
Champion Dialogue: "The ice chest is in the jail."
Body Count: 8; reluctantly including the killer.
  1. John is hung with a noose.
  2. Ross is killed offscreen, presumably cleaved.
  3. Al is hacked with a cleaver.
  4. Rod is tossed through a door.
  5. Jerry is killed offscreen.
  6. Andy is thrown from a balcony and has his neck axed.
  7. Bob is axed in the face.
  8. The Killer [sic] is shot with a shotgun. 
TL;DR: The Outing is boring as hell and one of the worst slasher movies I've ever seen.
Rating: 1/10
Word Count: 1511

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

He Mixes It With Love And Makes The World Taste Blood

Year: 1992
Director: Bernard Rose
Cast: Virginia Madsen, Xander Berkeley, Tony Todd
Run Time: 1 hour 39 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

You can't stop people from complaining. For many, it's what they do best. And I may not be excluded from that list. A quick comparison of my negative reviews and my positive reviews won't do much to dissuade that line of thinking.

It's easy to not like something. It's much more of a challenge to praise something in a humorous way than to put it down. So I understand the flak the horror genre in the 90's tends to get, especially considering that Leprechaun, Uncle Sam, and Jack Frost present themselves so prominently, low-hanging fruit ripe for the picking. But this is the decade of Scream, of Army of Darkness, Wes Craven's New Nightmare, and The Sixth Sense.

We may want to forget about the denim outfits, but it does us no good to ignore the vast array of important contributions to the genre that wedged themselves in among the muck. Just like any other decade of horror filmmaking (and popular culture in general), there will be good, there will be bad, there will be godawful. We're only humans.

I'm getting to a point here, I promise. What I'm saying, in a nutshell, is that any decade capable of producing a grim-faced and sophisticated psychological horror film like Candyman - our topic for today - can by no legitimate means be considered a bust.

Even if some of the more horrifying elements include how dated the technology is.

Candyman, adapted by Bernard Rose from a story by Clive Barker, is a tale about urban legends. Specifically, the story of Candyman - a hook-handed murderer that haunts the imaginations of the residents of Chicago's notorious failed urban housing project, Cabrini-Green. Rumor has it that if you say his name five times into a mirror, Candyman will appear and gut you like a fish. They say that he is the ghost of a slave's son, killed by a lynch mob after impregnating a white woman. Over the years, he has become a local boogeyman, a way to scare children away from the crime-filled outdoors.

He captivated the minds of many with his unique calling cards, as well as the fact that he died covered in a swarm of bees (bees - great for eerie effect, terrible for the bee-phobic blogger). For this reason he is the subject of grad student Helen's (Virginia Madsen) thesis. She and her partner Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) have decided to study the story of the Candyman and how it's connected to a recent hook-related murder in Cabrini-Green.

When her skepticism washes over the residents of the projects, including young mother Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams) and helpful little boy Jake (DeJuan Guy), Helen is visited by Candyman (Tony Todd) himself and thus begins a dark seduction. You see, he needs her help. Without the belief of his "congregation" and his constant presence in their thoughts and nightmares, Candyman loses his power. He's like a homicidal Tinker Bell.

As Helen gets blamed for a string of murders that ensue, endangering her friends and her husband Trevor (Xander Berkeley), she must fight the tantalizing call of becoming Candyman's next victim and living for eternity as the next great urban legend.

It's either that or lung cancer - I swear I got secondhand smoke from how often the characters lit up.

That's the magic of Clive Barker. No villain is a villain and no hero is a hero. Everyone is merely human - fueled by the battle between desire and morality, caught up in a sick, deadly, macabrely sexual game of cat and mouse, much like the writer's self-directed magnum opus, Hellraiser. Although his translation through director Bernard Rose makes the intimate details of the plot a little tough to follow the first time through, Candyman is so wholly and vividly experiential that is blares through you like a cannon blast just the same.

Among the many filmic elements battling for supremacy in the film, perhaps the most powerful is the setting itself - the projects are a bleak labyrinth of graffiti and exposed cinder block, virtually crushing the inhabitants with its sheer weight. Although it's so over-the-top it almost seems like the work of an overzealous production designer taking the idea of urban decay and running a marathon with it, Cabrini-Green is one hundred percent real. The tactile and bone-chilling awfulness of the projects seeps into your bones, providing a skin-crawling display of human degradation before the horror story even begins in earnest.

This is a location so dismal that the filmmakers had to get special permission from the gangleaders to shoot the movie there - in exchange for featuring them as extras, another alarming touch of realism. The building is far more wicked and soaked in bad energy than any mere film set could possibly achieve, and the fact that the people behind and in front of the camera barely made it out alive is palpable in the tension onscreen.

"The next film I do is taking place in a Marriott or I'm retiring." - Literally Everyone

So, besides the location, what else is good in the film? The answer: Pretty much everything. The score by Philip Glass is a gothic masterpiece of mood-setting (and knowing when to stop and let the imagery speak for itself). The acting (even from the children) is incomparably sophisticated for a film of this mint, and although I've never been a huge fan of Tony Todd as a physical performer, his voice can reverberate through your very soul. And the imagery evoked from nearly every frame is stunning.

Through the many aerial shots (intercut with Candyman's narration over a frame-filling swarm of bees), we can see that the city is laid out like a honeycomb, with the cars and people buzzing through it like drones. 

No funny caption here. Just appreciate the majesty.

Compound this with the subtly hexagonal lighting and the constant presence of buzzing bees and Chicago becomes one massive hive of activity. Hives are what destroyed Candyman (the literal bees) and hives are what brought him back (the drones buzzing around Cabrini-Green). Their oppressive presence in the film's visual schema locks Helen into her place in society until she is given a chance to break free, mirroring Candyman's escape from the cruel bonds of a world that viewed him as a monster.

As the people around Helen slowly start to perceive her the same way, the imagery becomes more and more focused and relevant.

And... alarming.

In addition to a heaping helping of actual symbolism, Candyman achieves the impossible - slasher death sequences that are actually scary. Because the focus is on the people being killed rather than how they are being killed, these scenes achieve a visceral impact largely with sound design and implication and approximately a cement mixer-full of Karo syrup. The deaths themselves aren't particularly gory but the aftermath will blow you away.

I'm getting close to signing off here, so I won't bore you with the (not so) gory details, but this is the one slasher movie in months that has made me and Sergio watch over our shoulders on the walk home. And that doesn't count for nothing.

I'm reluctant to give it as high a rating as this review would imply, if only because the intellectualism can get so dense at points that it obscures the movie (this renders the film not entirely scary in the moment - but after it's over the terror seeps down your spine like a sinister snake). But Candyman is a darn rewarding flick, straight from the supposed cinematic detritus of 1992. So there.

TL;DR: Candyman is a terrific, eerie, and intellectual slasher film.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1288
Reviews In This Series
Candyman (Rose, 1992)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Simpsons And Daughters

Today is a very special day in the lives of Sergio and I. Tonight we are attending the Fireworks Finale at the Hollywood Bowl celebrating the 25th Anniversary of The Simpsons, a show which he has held a lifelong adoration for and that I have been working exclusively with for the past few months.

When watching The Simpsons is your job (I'm super cool, I know), it's easy to view the task as a daunting and tedious affair, especially after a commute about the size of four episodes. But the show is an enduring zeitgeist hit for a reason and it's hard for me and my coworkers not to be giggling at our desks. For that reason, and in honor of the show tonight, I'd like to dedicate today's post to the show that has defined the last quarter of the century.

And now that I'm far more knowledgable about the inner workings of The Simpsons than I ever dreamed or hoped I would be, I'd like to put that knowledge to the test with

Ten Underappreciated Simpsons Characters

Sure, everybody knows Milhouse and Krusty the Clown. You don't even need to watch the show to know those characters - they've become part of the lexicon. But the Simpsonverse is brimming with exciting characters that have appeared many times throughout the show's 25 year run, but don't get quite as much credit for it as characters like Ned Flanders, Nelson Muntz, or Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. Let's take a moment to celebrate these stoic individuals.

#10 Drederick Tatum

Voiced By: Hank Azaria
Appearances: 23
Quote: "Hello, yeah, how you doin', I'd like to order two gazelles, an impala, and throw in a couple wildebeests. Oh, and a two-liter bottle of diet cherry cola. You just have one-liter bottles? Okay, cancel the whole order."

Drederick Tatum is Springfield's answer to Mike Tyson, a professional boxer and hardened criminal to boot. But Drederick has so much intimidating power, he never feels the need to use it, instead preferring to live his elegant lifestyle and/or eat Jello in peace while others bend over backwards to stay out of his way. His delicate whisper of a voice and his erudite manner of speech, combined with his brutal skill in the ring make Drederick a fascinating character. So much so that he appears on this list despite appearing in far fewer episodes than anybody else.

#9 Sherri and Terri Mackleberry

Voiced By: Russi Taylor
Appearances: 42
Quote: "Remember. The one you pick may not be the one you get."

Sherri and Terri are generally just used as background characters to populate the school scenes, but they have much more personality than their peers, like Richard or Database or Lewis. Are you saying "Who?" Exactly. A lot of my favorite humor comes from the duality of these two characters as they either interact as one being or exhibit creepy twin characteristics. I suppose its easy to see why considering my pedigree as a horror fan, but I'm always drawn to the sinister, dark, and creepy side of Simpsons humor. Of which, luckily, there's an abundance.

#8 Troy McClure

Voiced By: Phil Hartman
Appearances: 32
Quote: "Hello, Selma Bouvier? It's Troy McClure. You may remember me from such dates as last night's dinner..."

Troy McClure is a parody of the industry, an eternally washed-up actor who appears in instructional videos largely to remind people that he, as a matter of fact, did have a thriving career once and hey, wouldn't they like to buy a DVD or two? Of all of Phil Hartman's desperate, money-grubbing roles (including derelict lawyer Lionel Hutz), Troy McClure is the funniest, hiding his flop sweat beneath a deep voice and a handsome face.

#7 Squeaky-Voiced Teen

Voiced By: Dan Castellaneta
Appearances: 58
Quote: "I gotta go sort tortillas. Corn, flour, corn, corn, no gluten, corn, two stuck together?! Oh, now I gotta fill out a form."

The Squeaky-Voiced Teen has never been given a name, but he is a fixture in the Springfield community, having worked just about every crappy customer service job imaginable. You may wish that you, like the Simpsons, never aged beyond your current state, but one of the hazards of eternal youth is that you have 25 years of summer jobs to get through. Squeaky-Voiced Teen is a weak spirit, constantly pushed around in jobs that he has no passion for, and only The Simpsons can render that kind of dynamic completely hilarious. But believe me it is.

#6 Selma Bouvier

Voiced By: Julie Kavner
Appearances: 111
Quote: "Always a bridesmaid, only occasionally a bride."

Although Patty is her identical twin, Selma is by far my favorite of Marge's sisters. Fearless and grumpy, Selma charges her way through any given situation with chutzpah and bitter sarcasm. Although she could do to treat Homer a little nicer, her one-liners can't be beat. And her tough as nails attitude is what won over her sixth and final husband, the illustrious mafioso Fat Tony. Although it didn't work out (does it ever?), Selma Bouvier-Terwilliger-Hutz-McClure-Discothèque-Simpson-D'Amico continues to face the world as she always does - with gruff disgust.

#5 Snake Jailbird

Voiced By: Hank Azaria
Appearances: 63
Quote: "I am so going to enjoy pooping on their carpet."

Snake is just about the only criminal in town, so why is he so likable? With his valley girl accent, his unique, almost coworker-like relationship with captor Chief Wiggum and victim Apu, and his general agreeableness make him unique in the felon community. Also his hair is superb.

#4 Jasper Beardly

Voiced By: Harry Shearer
Appearances: 41
Quote: "All I brought is a dime. I didn't know there'd be pornography."

Jasper is Grampa's gruff best friend, and a constant acerbic presence in the community. His humor derives from his deadpan deliveries and unimpressed personality. But when he tries, Jasper can be really sweet, like when he brings Grampa along on a trip to Capital City so he won't be lonely. The Springfield Retirement Castle wouldn't be the same without him.

#3 Sideshow Mel

Voiced By: Dan Castellaneta
Appearances: 116
Quote: "Applause is an addiction. Like heroin. Or checking your email."

Everybody's favorite non sequitur character would probably be Ralph, the weird little son of Chief Wiggum, but I myself am rather partial to Krusty's sidekick Sideshow Mel. A wacky quasi-caveman who speaks like a Shakespearean actor, Mel is typically the first member of any crowd to react to the antics of the Simpsons, always in an erudite manner, but with a layer of absurdity as large as his hair.

#2 Martin Prince

Voiced By: Russi Taylor
Appearances: 141
Quote: "I'm not gay! I'm nothing yet!"

Martin's a huge nerd, an endlessly amiable classmate, and a coded homosexual in the vein of Arrestd Development's Tobias Fünke. His boundless enthusiasm for life and knowledge is infectious and he is prone to outbursts of intellectual fervor that get him on the bad side of the local bullies more often then not. But this little charmer is never going to stop and that's why I love him. He's impenetrably warmhearted and though he may only have one line in any given episode, it's always sure to be a corker.

#1 Hans Moleman

Voiced By: Dan Castellaneta
Appearances: 77
Quote: "My name is Hans. Drinking has ruined my life. I'm 31 years old."

Hans Moleman is the one character that consistently keeps me rolling in the aisles. A withered old man with a weak temperament, Moleman always finds himself in sticky situations, whether it be a car crash, a bad date, or not being extroverted enough to mention that he is still alive at his own funeral. He accepts the weight of the world with a sigh as life constantly provides him with new challenges. His begrudging acceptance of the state of things as terrible as they are is a constant crackup. Characters that have terrible things happen to them are a staple of the genre (Oh no, Mr. Bill!), but hands down Moleman is one of the classics of the form, and an alarmingly underappreciated one at that.

So what do y'all think? Are you happy I mentioned a favorite? Sad I skipped someone? Please let me know in the comments!  And have a nice day! I know I will.
Word Count: 1379