Friday, May 29, 2015

Fast And Furious

Year: 1981
Director: George Miller
Cast: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Michael Preston
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

True legends are born, not made.

I'm holding on to that. Because otherwise I might beat my head against the wall in envy at George Miller, an Australian medical doctor who, with no formal film schooling, managed to create an iconic film franchise of astonishingly increasing returns, make a star out of Mel Gibson, and continue to make revelatory action pictures well beyond retirement age, along with a series of inexplicably successful children's films.

How can I possibly believe that this career just came from working hard? He must have been born with it.

Or maybe it's Maybelline.

The source of today's undue rage is Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, which is not only a terrific action film, but a terrific sequel, vastly improving upon the innovative low-budget cult gem Mad Max, released a scant two years earlier. 

Following the titular Max (Mel Gibson) after the death of his wife and son at the hands of a murderous motorcycle gang catalyzed his transition from Calm Max, The Road Warrior launches us headfirst into the apocalypse. Max is a lonely nomad. With only his dog, Dog, for company, he wanders the barren wasteland of Australia in search of precious gasoline for his car, the last of the V8 Interceptors, which is totally a big deal because cars (Herbie: Fully Loaded, anyone?).

During his quest for Black Fuel, he stumbles upon The Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence), a whirligig pilot whom he takes captive and reluctantly befriends. After attempting to steal some oil from a car he watched get attacked by Marauders, he ends up taking the victim back to his camp back at an oil refinery in exchange for some of his company's supply. In the process, he becomes accidentally embroiled in a war between the refinery colony and the gang of leather-clad Marauders, led by the villainous Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) and his be-mohawked cronie Wez (Vernon Wells).

Wez (right) with his living motorcycle figurehead/leatherslave boyfriend. Gas might be in low supply, but evidently there is no shortage of hair dye in the apocalypse.

As you will discover, the common theme in this review will be "this awesome part of Mad Max is now bigger and better," but the most percussive and (literally) explosive of these elements are the newly ramped-up action sequences and the perilously strip-mined world they take place in. We first rendezvous with Max in the middle of a chase, the fiery denouement of which sees him sopping up precious gasoline from a bloody puddle.

This scene is but the first of many such moments that underscore the desperation, violence, and meager resources of the new world. In such an environment of loss and pain with many people attempting to cling to the last vestiges of old society (perhaps most notably in a shot where the Gyro Captain dabs his lips with a handkerchief after devouring the last morsels of a can of dog food), it is all too easy to slip into the mindframe of Max as his need to survive clashes with his instinct to help others.

This utterly real, utterly terrible world is fully realized with only a choice few setpieces scattered among the Outback, implying a vast and unforgiving world beyond. The grimy reality of The Road Warrior provides a dazzling venue for what are some of the most spectacular and kinetic car stunt sequences ever committed to film, and certainly the best to ever be seen by that point in 1981.

Wham, bam, thank you ma'am.

The slower sections of Road Warrior also serve meaningful purpose, etching in the particulars of the new world and elevating Max and his exploits to suitably lofty mythic proportions, and allowing the supremely talented actors to maneuver between the gritty and campy tones seamlessly but the real heart of the film is on the open road, where it works its unutterable magic. 

The climactic closing sequence is a high-density burst of nitro that puts pedal to the metal and slams the viewer into their seat, but it is nearly matched by every single such sequence in the film. Cars ram and lunge and claw and bite into one another in endlessly creative, unendingly appetizing ways that would make even the most accomplished mechanics' hearts quail in their breasts.

All of the masterpiece-level work that would be found 34 years later in Mad Max: Fury Road is present here in spades: the pulse-pounding music, the seemingly endless deluge of screeching metal, and the epically insane proportions of its own ambition. In fact, The Road Warrior is perhaps an even more impressive feat, proving that George Miller has always had creative genius flowing through him, and that he was capable of achieving it at any level of budget, anywhere in the world, with any technology available. The man is an automotive movie god, and there is a seat waiting for him in Valhalla.

You'll forgive me if I prefer Fury Road more, but the bounty of the past is unfit to scoff at. That film would not exist without this one, nor is this one deficient in any way, save a slightly more stately pace.

But cut him some slack, the dog needs to keep up with him.

It's a great shame upon my ancestors that I have come this far without extolling the virtues of the costuming, provided with gusto by Norma Moriceau. Piecemeal and strange though the costumes of Mad Max may have been, they could hardly hold a birthday candle to the roaring bonfire of Road Warrior.

George Miller's aesthetic blossoms into its fullest form here, dominating the screen with its unhinged fervor. With the film's profusion of wipes, staccato-framed action, and abundance of fetish leather, it's rather like Buster Keaton paying a visit to a Pride Parade, all jolting motion and exposed flesh.

Though each member of the Marauders and the refinery colony has their own uniquely compelling design (notable examples include the Feral Boy with his Niagara mullet, a blonde citizen with a ponytail reminiscent of Cindy Lou Who, and the pink-bearded bloke in his hot pink sports car), perhaps no single character in the history of cinema is more memorably costumed than Humungus himself.

All towering muscle and imposing bulk, Humungus' burned skull is hidden by a molded hockey mask that reduces him to a Michael Myers-type figure of blank-faced evil. And that's just about the only part of his body that isn't exposed. He... Well, take a look for yourself.

Please remember that this film was made by a straight man. Praise be to Australia.

Really, The Road Warrior is a very special, balls-to-the-wall, off-kilter masterpiece of homoerotic, ultra exotic, automatic, hydromatic, exhaustively creative, high-octane fun. Don't let it pass you by.

TL;DR: Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is revelatory action cinema, an inspiring, electrifying entry in the genre.
Rating: 9/10
Word Count: 1164
Reviews In This Series
Mad Max (Miller, 1979)
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (Miller, 1981)
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (Miller & Ogilvie, 1985)
Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, 2015)

Thursday, May 28, 2015

They're Not Going Away

Year: 2015
Director: Gil Kenan
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Kennedi Clements
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

It's a bad sign when a movie betrays its inferiority by the time the opening logos finish. The MGM lion begins his signature roar, but before it finishes the screen flickers and glitches. Just like, oh, every single haunting movie from the years following Paranormal Activity. We're off to a good start.

Could Poltergeist, the remake of the classic 1982 film of the same name, have ever captured the iconic, haphazard looniness of its predecessor? Well, no. That was never gonna happen. But I have my doubts as to whether it had to be laboriously generic, disastrously unfrightening piffle that clings to the original film's every beat while simultaneously using it as a crutch to smooth out its inexplicable profusion of bald patches and limp its way to 90 minutes.

"The original movie just had one hand? Pssh, we can do better than that!" - Some (Probably Drunk) Executive

This Poltergeist revolves around the Bowens, our copy-and-paste-without-attributes middle class family: dad Eric (Sam Rockwell), mom Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt of United States of Tara), teen daughter Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), son Griffin (Kyle Catlett), and youngest daughter Maddy (Kennedi Clements), who isn't blonde so it's totally different and new, I promise. The HD TV inexplicably erupts into static, their complex was built on a cemetery, Maddy is whisked away into the Other Side, madcap paranormal hijinks ensue. Game, set, match.

In the film's most transgressive break from the Reagan-era plotting of the original film, the family is no longer a successful suburban paradigm, rather a victim of the economic turmoil plaguing the new millennium. When Eric is laid off from his successful job at John Deere, the family is forced to move to a new house in a lower income suburban complex, and the bulk of the family's thematic struggles revolve around their efforts to maintain their prior lifestyle and status.

The opening act is all "let's just try to make this work" and "it's not much, but it'll do," as they attempt to still mingle with their bourgeois friends who titter about their bad neighborhood over wine and canapés. This creates an atmosphere which is industriously undermined by the fact that their new house is still basically a palace.

What a hovel. Let's cross the street so we don't have to walk in front of it.

This flippant disregard for the actual realities of the economy is matched only by the film's ignorance of what made the original Poltergeist work: namely, state-of-the-art effects anchored by skilled performances and a sneaking allegory about the dark side of the American dream. The absence of these elements leaves a huge sucking void in the center of the film, especially when the effects sequences come into play.

To be fair, the visuals would have been state-of-the-art had they come out the same weekend as Shrek.  Unfortunately for everyone, the CGI (on the corpses especially) would be embarrassing in a Once Upon a Time episode, let alone a feature film that producers had the audacity to charge money for. It's not like it's not still cheaper to buy real corpses. Just chuck some in there and call it a day, curse be damned. 

I couldn't find a picture of the CGI, so here's a picture of something equally uninteresting.

But moan all I might about some of the more egregious computer-generated insults to the collective intelligence of the human race, there is one central thing Poltergeist 2015 gets wrong above all else: it's not even bad enough to reasonably hate. 

It is only ever a pale scene-by-scene imitation of the original plot slathered liberally with the ripest clichés the modern paranormal genre has to offer: flickering iPhones, inexplicable rabid animals, creepy dolls, and the like, imbued with flop sweat by the most achingly unoriginal score ever committed by a studio orchestra. It is not scary. It is not appealing. But it's blandly competent in the worst kind of way.

For their part, Rosemarie DeWitt and Sam Elliot do considerably well endowing their nothing roles with warmth and chemistry, even managing to elevate the unquestionably anemic child actors to something halfway decent to watch. And there are exactly two sequences that approach a feeling similar to horror, like the anticipatory tingle you get in your gut when somebody is reaching out to tickle you.

Why does the doll market continue to thrive? Haven't we learned by now?

There are exactly two modes under which Poltergeist operates at all times, both of which have a trickily incestuous Buster-and-Lucille relationship with the 1982 original.

Mode #1: Do the Same Thing (Only Worse)

Poltergeist is as devoted to Spielberg's script as Madonna is to making sure nobody forgets who Madonna is. Scene after scene drifts by with arbitrary sameness and in those moments where it breaks from the road more traveled, without fail it lurches sickeningly back into place with an overfamiliar monologue or bastardized visual quotation.

Unfortunately, the adaptation is only skin deep, lacking even a scrap of meaning. The film rushes through its key points, blowing its wad way too soon with overexplained metaphysics and overly severe first act disturbances that change the family from curious onlookers to dumbass horror movie fodder. Oh, and the key "they moved the bodies but not the headstones" scene? It's not even discovered, it's just a tossed-off line that we're supposed to take for granted.

It's too fast, too furious, and the dialogue is skin-crawlingly inane. If you ever hear me say "I'm not less scared. But I feel a little braver." in real life, please feel free to spray me with a fire hose.

Mode #2: Change Things (For the Worse)

Obviously nobody can replace the late, great Zelda Rubinstein. But a reality TV huckster in a porkpie hat doesn't capture the appropriate tone whatsoever. It's hard to care about his paranormal antics when you're actively, devoutly wishing that he'll perish. Jared Harris does what he can with the role, but the character devours him with smarmy deficiency.

The other additions are equally inane and fruitlessly "modern." Camera drones! GPS beacons! Words With Friends (an already outdated reference that belies the film's tortured production history)! Poltergeist desperately strains to connect to the modern suburban experience, but the end product is something like this film's depiction of the Other Side (which we've learned from experience is best kept offscreen): a whirling tube of shrill nonentities, howling and reaching for something impenetrably far from their grasp.

It's saying something when we care more about Maddy's stuffed unicorn/pig doll than we actually do about her.

To sum it all up, Poltergeist is a waste of time. It attempts to recapture the burning brilliance of the original film but flies too close to the sun with uninspired contributions from cast and crew alike. It is too similar to the original Poltergeist to be interesting, yet too far from its vastly superior quality to be fun in any way.

And so another remake struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

TL;DR: Poltergeist is blandly generic piffle, bad enough to be annoying but no so much that it's enjoyably atrocious.
Rating: 4/10
Should I Spend Money On This? No. And if the box office pull is anything to go by, you haven't. Good job.
Word Count: 1252
Reviews In This Series
Poltergeist (Hooper, 1982)
Poltergeist II: The Other Side (Gibson, 1986)
Poltergeist III (Sherman, 1988)
Poltergeist (Kenan, 2015)

Saturday, May 23, 2015

They're Back

Year: 1986
Director: Brian Gibson
Cast: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O'Rourke
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

It was only a matter of time before they made a Poltergeist sequel. After all, the original film came out in 1982, just one year after the 80's sequel inferno ignited with the success of Friday the 13th Part 2

It's a mystery why they waited so long, but presumably the filmmakers wanted to be respectful of the legacy of Dominique Dunne. The actress, who played the Freelings' teen daughter, was tragically murdered shortly after the film's release, forming the first in a series of unfortunate deaths that became known as the "Poltergeist Curse."

But I'm not here to write about Hollywood gossip and tenuous paranormal theories (though if the show Ghost Hunters is any indication, there's a market for that). I'm here to write about some horror sequels, because that's what I love to do. 

God help me.

Poltergeist II: The Other Side is the dictionary definition of diminishing returns. The box office was lower, the returning cast was altogether weaker, and the special effects extravaganza that defined the original film had subsided into the background. The plot could have given away this fact all on its own, with its ultimate revelation that the Freelings' house in the Cuesta Verde suburb complex was built on a burial ground which was... built on a different burial ground. This time, the tomb of an unlucky cult.

One of my favorite things is when horror franchises get desperate enough to resort to crazy plot devices to keep their overarching narrative going. This is like Christmas for me.

So anyway, the Freelings - father Steve (Craig T. Nelson), mother Diane (JoBeth Williams), son Robbie (Oliver Robins), and daughter Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) - are back, and this time they're living with their grandmother (Geraldine Fitzgerald). When the demonic cult leader/ghost/whatever the needs of the scene require Reverend Henry Kane (Julian Beck) begins haunting their new abode, inflicting the power of the spirit world upon the family yet again, they realize that their nightmare isn't over.

Nor are the effects that look like a Scooby Doo computer game come to life.

Of course Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) is back, but the utterly weird effect she instilled upon the first film is dashed through overfamiliarity, a too early appearance, and its dilution through the utterly inadequate Taylor (Will Sampson). Taylor is at once a grotesque caricature of Native American shamans and a purveyor of dangerously concentrated Sequel Explanation nonsense. When he's not sitting in his teepee or trying to steal Steve's car, he is portentously babbling about the evil forces that are hard at work at not scaring us at all.

Because, let's face it, Poltergeist II: The Other Side is about as scary as a bowl of milk. The special effects are mostly nonexistent, only perking up beyond "a third grader drew lightning on the screen" on two occasions. Now, one of these moments is pure H. R. Giger nightmare fuel, but for the most part the film can't focus on anything long enough to wring true terror from it.

To be fair, this was a film beset with difficulties. Following Julian Beck's untimely death from stomach cancer during the middle of filming (The Curse! Burn the witch!), the filmmakers were forced to retool the ending sequence, throwing off the balance of the story immensely. While Kane's visage and Beck's performance are suitably extravagant, he never comes across as a truly potent evil figure, and his being shuffled out of the film halfway through renders the entire third act aimless and perplexing, during which arbitrary characters are bestowed with inconsequential clairvoyance left and right and the plot wastes away, wheezing in the corner.

A series of deus ex machina moments prolong a perfunctory and muddled ending that occurs without finality or triumph, merely a slight whiff of putrid air.

The power of family continues to prevail over the power of hack screenwriting.

Despite featuring performances from more or less the exact same cast, the years and the decreased production values have sucked the impact out of things. Previous standout JoBeth Williams is shunted aside aside in a role that highlights the ineffably weaker Craig T. Nelson's Steve as the central figure. His already unsteady performance is toppled by a script that requires him to wear a terrible haircut and a more or less permanent scowl, then parade around without a shirt an inexplicably numerous amount of times.

Zelda Rubinstein and Heather O'Rourke, the two most ethereally compelling figures from Poltergeist, are likewise given short shrift. O'Rourke had some raw talent, but with any child actor, she needed a good director to draw it out of her. Brian Gibson (of the Tina Turner biopic What's Love Got to Do with It - so at least he has some experience with horror) was evidently not that director. And poor Miss Rubinstein seems actively bored in a paranormal role turned as mundane as the neighborhood milkman.

She looks like she just dropped by to borrow a cup of sugar.

But in spite of its cavalcade of flaws, there's something mildly interesting lurking just beneath the waxen surface of Poltergeist II. First off, some of the original film's humor survives, especially in the family's reaction to their previous predicament (i.e. they have no TV and are forced to listen to sports on the radio; they discuss what exactly they should say on their insurance forms considering that their house crumpled itself into the void).

In addition, there is an occasional gesture toward the political acuity of Poltergeist. Where the first film was all about the dark side of Reagan-era suburbia, the sequel shines a light on the crisis of American masculinity. It's not nearly so intelligent as I made it sound, but the chink in Steve's armor is his doubt about being able to keep his family together. With his position as patriarchal authority figure in question, he allows the spirits to manipulate him through his weakness and fear.

There's an additional subplot that, while I wish it were explored more in depth, stings with truth. It comes to light that Diane initially wanted to have an abortion when she found out she was pregnant with Carol Anne. This revelation allows a rift to grow in the family unit as the ghosts gain strength, but is defeated when their love for one another overcomes this obstacle.

I don't have a caption for this. I just like this picture.

So all in all, Poltergeist II: The Other Side isn't remotely scary, falls prey to a disorganized screenplay, and doesn't truly explore the consequences of the titular other side. It's not particularly worth watching for any but the true faithful haunted house fandom, but if you decide to pursue it, there are several nuggets that you can manage to mine. Preferably if you're writing a thesis on ghost films or something, because at least you can make productive use of your wasted time.

TL;DR: Poltergeist II: The Other Side is a lackluster sequel that lacks direction and scares.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1193
Reviews In This Series
Poltergeist (Hooper, 1982)
Poltergeist II: The Other Side (Gibson, 1986)
Poltergeist III (Sherman, 1988)
Poltergeist (Kenan, 2015)

Friday, May 22, 2015

Drive Angry

Year: 1979
Director: George Miller
Cast: Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

In the grand scheme of things, going from Mad Max: Fury Road directly to the original Mad Max is probably inadvisable. They are both utterly remarkable, but in very different ways. Though both bear the DNA of series auteur George Miller on their sleeve, the 2015 film is a showstopping spectacle of Hollywood filmmaking gone right whereas the 1979 original is a little miracle of low budget indie resources being stretched to the max.

Pun 100% intended.

Mad Max isn't keen on spelling out the logistics of its plot or universe, but here's what's going on, gleaned from franchise knowledge and details around the edges: Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) is an Australian policeman in the not too distant future. The Earth's resources are dwindling and his force are the lone defenders of Justice among the marauding anarchists that roam the streets. 

When a motorcycle gang led by the murderous Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) exacts revenge on another cop, Goose (Steve Bisley), he decides to exit the force for fear of becoming too embroiled in the terminal craziness of the pre-apocalyptic bedlam. However, his mind begins to change when the gang targets his wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) and their young son Sprog (Brendan Heath).

Perhaps they've decided that he's an unfit parent, based on the evidence of that name.

Mad Max is a remarkable achievement, if not a truly great film. With a budget far south of $1,000,000, George Miller constructs an intimate, unknowably strange variation on our own world seasoned with some quite wonderful car chase action. 

Persons much more studied in the ways of action cinema than I have declared that the style of Mad Max held heavy influence over the nascent automotive genre, changing the game forever. I have virtually no experience with the history of car movies (Herbie the Love Bug, anyone?), so I will take their word for it. 

The film is full of motion. Clever, rhythmic editing keeps the action sequences humming along at a propulsive pace (and hides the most glaring limitations of the visual effects with great zeal) while the shots of bulging eyeballs that pepper the car crashes stamp the film with Miller's distinctive creative signature. Cars dodge and weave and smash and explode into screaming pieces with alarming frequency. It's pretty dang awesome, if I do say so myself.

I had to lash my fingers together with a belt to avoid typing a "Greased Lightning" joke here.

But apart from the rousing action pulled from the wisps of a budget, Mad Max holds an inimitable aesthetic, clear even in the first stirrings of what would soon become a franchise dominated by a strong visual presence. The heavy use of leather, combined with the arbitrary piecemeal of the set decoration and the biker gang's costumes form a mélange of winking lunacy and high camp. 

The world is populated with characters of all shapes and sizes, including some with numerous physical and mental disabilities that are in no way used as gimmickry, merely an accurate and tender representation of how the less fortunate among us have an equal drive to succeed in the midst of apocalyptic anarchy. Toss in a toddler with a gun and Jessie playing the saxophone on an idle evening, and you've got yourself an unforgettably idiosyncratic mise-en-scène.

I would be remiss if I neglected to mention dat ass.

The performances of the film are all equally skilled at tapping into the heightened reality of Mad Max, but young Mel Gibson is the anchor that holds the film together, providing an utterly believable character that is not only the ambassador of Peace and Justice and Other Good Stuff among the land, but a fallible and realistic human being.

It's harder to achieve this in leather pants than one might think.

Unfortunately the remarkable wealth of material extracted from an unforgivable dearth of resources is still subject to the deficiencies of many an independent film. The music, which is inevitably keyed a little too high in the mix, feels more like Night of the Living Dead catalogue music, too portentous for many of the scenes it accompanies, occasionally veering into loopy Batman-style interstitials. In addition, there are several technical inconsistencies with the lensing of the film, but they are too negligible to truly damage the narrative.

And I hate to say it, but in the beginning of the first act and the middle of the second, the plot gets a little saggy, deflating some of the air from the movie. And the third act culminates in the worst kind of deus ex machina. It's fortunately redeemed by the most stunning chase and subsequent revenge of the film (cementing the transition to Mad from what could only have been previously described as Calm Max), but a little disappointment goes a long way when it comes to dispatching the main villain of a story.

He didn't even get to cut any toes!

All in all, the production Mad Max is about as chaotic and slapdash as its universe, which lends it its driving, aggressively one-of-a-kind tone, but also reduces the film to slightly below a true classic of the form. Nevertheless, it is an inarguably fun movie that shouldn't be neglected when reviewing the franchise, though its best function is admittedly as a bridge to bigger and better things.

TL;DR: Mad Max is beholden to some low budget deficiencies but it more than makes up for that with exhilarating action and a bone-deep sense of fun.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 939
Reviews In This Series
Mad Max (Miller, 1979)
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (Miller, 1981)
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (Miller & Ogilvie, 1985)
Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, 2015)

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Census Bloodbath: As We Go On, We Remember All The Lives We Lost Together

I know a lot of my features have been leading up to this, so it can't come as a surprise, but... I'm graduating college today. As I prepare to be punted out onto the football field of life, let's take a moment to reflect on all those poor young souls whose futures were cut short in the name of the American slasher film. 

Year: 1981
Director: Herb Freed
Cast: Christopher George, Patch Mackenzie, E. Danny Murphy
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Troma is not known for making good films. I've explored this to some length on Popcorn Culture when I reviewed the decadently unfunny Mother's Day, the clichéd and insipid Splatter University, and the dull as dishwater Girls School Screamers. But the thing about the company is that they throw themselves so wholeheartedly into churning out crap that you can't help but have the faintest glimmer of appreciation for them. 

And I mean the faintest.

1981's Graduation Day is an early Troma slasher, so it's thankfully free of the over-baked slapstick abortions that would soon typify the company's output, but it's still a bottom of the barrel entry with a scatterbrained plot, a dismal paucity of gore, and a nasty attitude problem. And yet there's that glimmer.

Glimmer doesn't cost a lot.

Graduation Day opens on a high school track and field event edited so choppily and rapidly that you need to slam the pause button to even see anything but a pulsating mass of color and fleshy form. It is so clearly playing off of the MTV aesthetic that it's legitimately shocking to find out that the film precedes the network by several months. I guess the dirty truth is that MTV ripped off of Graduation Day. Slashers are all about skeletons in closets, amirite?

God, it's gonna be one of those reviews, isn't it?

When promising young track star Laura Ramstead (Ruth Ann Llorens) is pushed to the edge of her endurance by Coach George Michaels (Christopher George of Pieces and Mortuary), a blood clot crashes into her brain like a shot put, sending her to an early grave after she passes the finish line.

Two months later, Laura's sister Anne (Patch Mackenzie) arrives from her Navy service in Guam for the high school's graduation ceremony, at which she is accepting an award on Laura's behalf. However, what is meant to be a solemn, but happy occasion is marred when the day before the ceremony, a killer in a fencing mask begins stalking and murdering the surviving members of the track team, timing his kills with a track stopwatch.

That's pretty much it for the plot, which consists almost entirely of lackluster stalking sequences, semi-creative kills, and utterly unnecessary side characters' antics, pitched between which are preposterously long swaths of filler that stop the film dead in its tracks. The most notable of these moments is the five minute-plus segment of the semi-known New Wave band performing their song "Gangsters of Rock" at a roller disco in that screeching goat style that only teenagers have the iron will to listen to, although other dead patches include a fully rendered gymnastics routine and the "Graduation Day Blues" hootenanny and harmonica jamboree.

"Felony" member or John Waters' long-lost son? The world may never know.

As you might have been able to surmise, Graduation Day is a tad bit disjointed. Each scene wholeheartedly rams into the next with all the finesse of a bumper car on PCP, rarely if ever having anything to do with the plot at hand. The heroine vanishes for a great portion of the middle of the film, the red herrings are thin on the ground, and there is no dimension whatsoever given to the vast majority of the overgrown potatoes that dare to call themselves "characters."

The more prominent of these figures include Kevin (E. Danny Murphy), Laura's ex-boyfriend who has taken her death hard, Principal Guglione (Michael Pataki of Halloween 4 and Sweet 16), who could hardly give a rat's ass that his students are going missing, and Mr. Roberts (Richard Balin), a lascivious music teacher who sleeps with Linnea Quigley and subsequently evaporates from the film. As the scriptless meanderings unspool across the screen, random squealers Joanne (Karen Abbott) and Doris (the Vanna White) wander in and out of situations, improvising incoherent babble like a drunken, giggling Greek chorus.

To call Graduation Day unprofessional would be an insult to amateurs. I've eaten croutons more professionally made than this film. The first and second acts are about as lively as microwaved roadkill, and the third act is even worse, lifting entire passages from the score of Psycho and rendering its military protagonist a screaming hysterical girl as she flails through an overlong denouement. The cinematography is murky at best, the gore is sparse and undercooked, the men of the film are uniformly disgusting, misogynist creatures, the editing works at far too fast a clip to maintain any semblance of tension, and most of the actors seem actively bored. 

Patch Mackenzie can only display emotions in brief, emphatic flashes, Christopher George obviously can't hear through the cloud of hair dye around his head so he shouts all his lines, and E. Danny Murphy alternates between sleepwalking and high-pitched kettle shrieking as he attempts to obscure the fact that he's clearly 10 years too old for the part behind a curtain of greasy ringlets. And let's just say that it's a good thing Vanna White found a steady job touching letters, because reading and speaking them is not her strong suit.

That pink blouse/shimmer belt combo is also not a strong suit. ...Geddit? ...Please don't leave, I'm only in the second year of this godforsaken decade project.

But no matter how many insults I can lob at Graduation Day, they just keep pinging off like bullets against Superman's chest. It is not, was not, and will never be a good movie, but there's just enough enjoyment to be eked out of the thing to not render it totally useless. First off, its utterly strange editing pattern is kind of endearing, like a first grader's drawing stuck to a fridge. It's admirably wonky, zipping back and forth between shots at a speed that defies the capacity of the human eye, launching from an inexplicable profusion of POV shots into a machine gun clatter barrage of flashback footage, half-glimpsed movement, and unknowable, subconsciously-received imagery. It's not successful, but at least it's trying something

Second, it's campy as all hell. This fact is frequently masked behind the sheen of technical incompetence, but enough of the potent stuff squeezes itself out to keep the film from tipping over the edge. The slasher hadn't quite reached its decadent era yet, so many of the kills are uneventful, but several of them are utterly unique, especially the scene where a jock is stabbed with a football attached to a javelin. You just don't get that every day.

He wide-received that pigskin right in his penalty zone.

Whether it's a gymnast being killed while shaving her legs in the sink, the camera lingering on the pert ass of a deceased victim, or the heavy woodland that seems to be located in the middle of school property, Graduation Day is a barrel of unintentional laughs. Not to mention that the dialogue and production design are out of this world, in the sense that they must have been improperly translated from Martian.

It's anticlimactic, it's erratic, and it's just plain weird so much of the time that you can't help but feel like you've stumbled across a psychedelic art piece that taps into that secret space between dreams and reality. Graduation Day challenges everything that we know about contemporary filmmaking, not in an experimental way, but in a manner reminiscent of a baby attempting to mimic its parents' voices. 

It's a deranged, bifurcated reflection of films like Friday the 13th as viewed through the dirty, coke-smeared looking glass of somebody who either knows nothing about life or way more than we can ever imagine. It's an experience, is what I'm saying, and while I don't have the patience to find it a true bad-good gem, it's a relentlessly compelling, awful, delirious, heart-wrenching, apocalyptic, quasi-satisfying film experience. Watch at your own risk.

Killer: [Kevin Badger (E. Danny Murphy)]
Final Girl: Anne Ramstead (Patch Mackenzie)
Best Kill: A pole vaulter falls onto a mat with spikes hidden inside.

Sign of the Times: This guy is straight.

Scariest Moment: Anne approaches Kevin's grandma, who appears to be dead. She is not. ...This isn't a particularly scary movie.
Weirdest Moment: The truck driver insists that he gets to cop a feel on Anne because he's "a taxpayer."
Champion Dialogue: "Sit on it and rotate!"
Body Count: 9
  1. Laura's heart explodes while she's running track.
  2. Paula has her throat slit.
  3. Sally is stabbed in the neck with a saber.
  4. Ralph has a football with a blade attached thrown into his chest.
  5. Tony is decapitated with hedge clippers.
  6. Dolores is decapitated with a sword.
  7. Pete pole vaults onto a spiked mat.
  8. Coach Michaels is shot to death.
  9. Kevin is impaled on spikes. 
TL;DR: Graduation Day has a valuable campiness that is somewhat tempered by how extremely dull and erratic it is.
Rating: 4/10 (though my sliding scale for grading slashers is taking a lot of strain on this one - but what the heck, I'm in the graduation spirit)
Word Count: 1573

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Fright Flashback: They're Here

It's that time of year again! While you're getting out the sunblock and your big floppy hat, please give a warm summer welcome to Fright Flashback! Every week I will be reviewing an old horror movie that shares a theme, cast/crew member, or genre with the week's big release: a sort of spiritual predecessor. Again, very special thanks to Tim Brayton at Antagony and Ecstasy for the idea I more or less shamelessly ripped off and modified. I stand on the shoulders of giants, what can I say? It's comfortable there.

This week's new release is the long-delayed remake of just about the only horror classic left on the chopping block: Poltergeist. In celebration, we are heading back to 1982 to appraise the original property.

Year: 1982
Director: Paul Blart: Mall Cop
Cast: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O'Rourke
Run Time: 1 hour 54 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

I haven't seen the original Poltergeist since I was a child, and there is perhaps no better condition in which to view it. As one grows older, one gains a more mature appreciation for the deeper themes present in what is a truly remarkable movie, but the level on which Poltergeist works best is in its pure spectacle, and the childlike wonder and appreciation for the terrors that lurk in the dark shadows of the suburban idyll.

Also, frankly, children have a higher tolerance for chintzy 80's special effects.

There has long been contention about the directorial authorship of Poltergeist, and I would be remiss by not at least nodding toward the controversy. Though the credited director is Tobe Hooper of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and, one year previously, The Funhouse, reportedly the bulk of his work was performed by producer Steven Spielberg during a break on his own film, E. T. (both films came out within a week of each other - what a time to be alive, am I right?). 

Honestly, my money is on heavy Spielberg involvement, but it's rather beside the point. We'll never know the true answer, and the fact is that both of them were there, resulting in an indisputable classic of the genre. What more is there to say?

Just let sleeping clowns lie.

Poltergeist's plot is a simple one, albeit dressed up with some rather detailed theological accoutrements. The Freelings are a middle class family who live in one of the identical houses of the Cuesta Verde suburb of an unnamed California town. Father Steve (Craig T. Nelson) is a realtor responsible for selling a good half of the properties in the district, mother Diane (JoBeth Williams) is young and loving, but softly frustrated with her responsibilities as a parent.

Having had her first daughter, Dana (Dominique Dunne), at the tender age of 16, her youth has been compromised. Robbie (Oilver Robins), the only boy, and Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke), the youngest, don't exactly subtract from her strain. The conflict of Poltergeist reflects the conflict inside Diane: despite making every effort at achieving the trappings of domestic bliss, something is insidiously, indelibly wrong with the whole affair.

The very nooks and crannies of the Freelings' familiar abode become a hotbed of paranormal activity when a ghostly presence asserts itself through the static on the television (Remember when TV actually ended? I don't.). At first, the disturbances are harmless, almost playful, but they quickly crescendo into a nightmarish conglomeration of terrors, culminating in Carol Anne's being spirited away into another realm. With the help of the paranormal crack team of Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) and her associates, as well as a third act showstopper appearance by the advanced medium Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein), the family attempts to reclaim their lost child from the unknowable menace.

The housing market was really rough in the early 80's.

First and foremost, Poltergeist is a rapturous showcase for MGM's state-of-the-art special effects. Second, it is a lovingly detailed character drama about the American family. Third, it is a down-home shocker chockablock with instantly iconic moments.

Let's begin with the first, especially because that most cherished element is perhaps the weakest of the film. I don't mean to say that the ample special effects are anything but spectacular. They are, but if we're going to be completely honest, most of them have aged about as well as the Flock of Seagulls haircut. 

It's easy enough to still find tension in these moments thanks to the emotional heft of the characters and storyline, but the film devotes a great deal of time to curdled milk visual effects that remain charmingly cheesy but dangerously challenge the truth and reality at the core of its narrative.

Sometimes it feels a little like an Eldritch Horror-themed high school prom.

That's all well and good, but if you dig a little deeper under the topsoil of shiny chrome ghoulies, Poltergeist has an impenetrably solid thematic bedrock. The entire first act serves to deliver the ultimate experience in suburban bliss, only to tear it down time and time again for the remainder of the film. In its ineffably phantasmagorical way, it peels back the facade of the American Dream to reveal that, in fact, all is not good in the neighborhood.

The trappings of suburban bliss become conduits for hellish monstrosities: chairs, dolls, closets, televisions, and even the very landscape surrounding the house. And yet the family unit remains strong. No, Speilberg and Co. are not warring against the nuclear family - his many many films during this era would disprove that immediately - but rather the Reagan-era greed and materialism that led them to this moment in this place surrounded by these suburban trappings (obtained to the detriment of the graveyard that once stood on that very ground, forcibly evicted by a mercenary realty company*).

Behold: The Suburban Nightmare!

Not only is this fascinating, it's downright terrifying. As I said before, the special effects have long since lost their luster as anything other than a sideshow amusement, but the film so firmly believes in its world that its easy to get caught up in the undertow. 

JoBeth Williams especially sells the hell out of even the most Novelty Barn-looking effects, dragging the film into raw, unadulterated reality with an unfiltered performance of pure strength. Craig T. Nelson can't quite match her (his eyes are remarkably uninvolved in whatever he seems to be doing or saying), but as the useless patriarchal figure he does the trick.

And don't even get me started on Zelda Rubinstein, whose exorbitant weirdness sets the film ablaze with a new inferno after its pace starts to flag a bit in the third act, during which we must sit through an alarming amount of philosobabble. It is in this quadrant of the film where it hits the peak of its strangeness, but her unrestrained performance breathes life into a scene that, when you think about it, is literally just a small woman throwing tennis balls at a strobe light. 

Honestly, the simplicity of the finale ignites the imagination rather than exhausting the eyes, providing the perfect backdrop for the film's emotional climax.

But I digress. I was speaking about acting, and I would be remiss if I neglected to mention Heather O'Rourke. Although her untimely death at age 11 casts an eerie pall over the entire performance, she deserves immense credit for what she was able to deliver without the shadow of tragedy. Simultaneously angelic and uncanny, her performance crystallizes the tension of the film with a thoroughly engaging, disturbing, immensely adorable charm. It's hard to explain rationally, and it may just be a credit to whatever director happened to be coaching her, but it's a performance that you feel in your gut, not your brain.

I'm a little in awe of how mystifyingly unsettling she is, and what happened to her is a damn shame.

But for all that Poltergeist is genuinely frightening, it also packs a keen sense of fun. Another tally mark in the "Spielberg" column, the film is like an amusement park adventure ride, with an unflagging levity weaved throughout the horror. Jerry Goldsmith's score compounds this tone tremendously, with a leeringly creepy spin on childhood nursery rhymes that tilts unexpectedly into open-faced childlike wonder.

I have some personal qualms about the overlong ending, which plays off like a laundry list of VFX sequences that were conceived in the brainstorming process but were forgotten until the end of production and haphazardly shoved in one after the other like shiny playthings in a toddler's toy box. 

It also doesn't help that nearly every single one of these effects are by far the best (and most credible) of the entire film (a personal favorite being the elongating hallway). And all of them take place after the conclusion of the film's climactic sequence.

But honestly, any faults with Poltergeist, no matter how large, are mere nitpicks. There are enough that I hesitate to instantly proclaim its masterpiece status, but as a whole the film is an unutterable classic of the form, and I would scarcely dare to impeach that.

*Side Note: It is explicitly noted in the film that the house is not built on an ancient Indian burial ground. That little tidbit seems to have slipped away on the wind.

TL;DR: Poltergeist is a lavish, effects-filled thrill ride, but its most important value is as a treatise on the hazards and fears behind American suburbia.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1568
Reviews In This Series
Poltergeist (Hooper, 1982)
Poltergeist II: The Other Side (Gibson, 1986)
Poltergeist III (Sherman, 1988)
Poltergeist (Kenan, 2015)