Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Week 2008: Stage Fright

My final Halloween pick comes in the form of one of the best Italian horror films I've ever seen. Michele Soavi combined the best elements of the American slasher film with the Italian giallo; creating a unique, eerie film called Stage Fright, or Deliria as it was known in Italy. It was called Aquarius....and Bloody Bird. Alternate titles aside, this one of the most original hack and slash type films that is heavy on atmosphere, low on acting, and through the roof on innovative deaths. Oh, and there is lots and lots of gore.

The story is about a cast for some kind of musical show where there is someone in an owl suit. The members of the show are your basic cliche dance types and Soavi really shows no interest in developing characters; I mean after all the whole point of the movie is to scare you. This isn't Rent! So when one of the dancers is missing some of the crew catch on that there are odd goings-on, and decide to try and leave....ah but they can't because the person in the owl costume is the killer and wants them all dead so he can place them on stage in an order he deems artistic.

Clunky plot aside there are some real striking images in the film. Soavi has a great eye for framing scary shots. For instance when the owl-masked killer is approaching one of the actors we get a POV shot from the victim, which makes the scene much scarier than if it were from the killers point of view and all we saw was the blood spewing forth. This sense of dread and waiting for the horrible inevitability of death is something that Soavi taps into and makes the film more intense than its contemporaries.

The other thing Soavi does well is take the conventions of both the American slasher film and the Italian giallo and tweaks them just a bit to create a nightmarish, ethereal experience often associated with Italian master Dario Argento (who Soavi did work for as an assistant on Opera). These moments include the bizarre scene where nobody realizes that the person in the owl costume isn't the actor, but the killer. They are rehearsing a scene, and the director tells the masked "actor" to really make it look like their killing the female character. What's creepy about this scene is that it really is the killer and he really is killing the actress, but the director and the rest of the cast aren't aware of it right away; so they are impressed by the realism of the scene. Also, the ending of the film or "key scene" is a tremendous example of pacing and keeping the viewer as tightly wound as possible. That's all I'm going to tell you....that scene is worthy of comparison to the old Hitchcock adage about the ticking bomb underneath your seat. It's as tense a scene that I've seen in a horror film.

It's not just Soavi's control of film techniques that's amazing, but the way he is able to create an innovative and creepy slasher/giallo film when both genres had been dead years before Stage Fright's 1987 release. Sadly after some successful films including the zombie film Cemetery Man, Soavi quit filmmaking to care for sickly son. He's returned recently with a lot of Italian crime films made for TV. I hear he hasn't lost his artistic touch.

I highly recommend Stage Fright for those looking for an innovative take on the American slasher film and for those who are dying to see a decent post-Tenebre giallo film. There are many insane deaths in the film: pick axe's through the mouth, torso's being torn in half, drills, chains saws, and one of the most hilarious explanations of a bullet going through someones head. If you've never seen an Italian horror film before try Stage Fright, it's a good place to start. It contains enough of the popular American slasher elements, but has those odd, dream-like images (seriously, the killer is a guy in a giant owl mascot head, how is that not creepy) and moments that make Italian horror so unique. I highly recommend Stage Fright, one of the best horror films of the 80's.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Halloween Week 2008: The Fly

Be Afraid.
Be Very Afraid.

This famous tag line for David Cronenberg's remake of the 1950 horror camp classic The Fly is one of the all time great tag lines. What's so great about it is that it leads the viewer to believe that something horrifying and quite scary is waiting for them when they sit down to watch the film; there is horror in this film, just not in the conventional sense. This is not your typical horror or sci-fi scare fest, in fact there are not even that many scary moments in the film. Here is a sophisticated allegory for what is truly horrifying: having to watch the person you love die. Whether it's a physical death or a metaphorical one, Cronenberg takes the basic plot of the original film, and tweaks it into a romantic tragedy that just happens to exist in the genre of horror.

The story is simple enough: Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is a genius physicist who has created a way to transport matter. Geena Davis plays Veronica, a reporter who is looking for an exclusive on Brundle's invention. Fearful that his secret will leak to the scientific community (which will cost him thousands) Brundle pursues Veronica at her office and pleads with her to not write the story until he has everything working for certain. Thus begins their relationship which soon blossoms into a romance. Veronica is just getting out of a relationship with her pretentious, yet caring, editor Stathis (played by the always smarmy John Getz) who is immediately jealous of the Veronica hangs on every word Brundle says. This was probably his affect on her sometime in the past. One night Veronica leaves Brudle's place to finalize some things with Stathis, however, Brundle too is weary of why she must leave and gets drunk, which leads to "something going wrong in the lab. Very wrong." You know the rest of the story from there.

The story may be simple enough, but the emotions within are poignant and true, and What follows is a story of true horror; not in the traditional sense, but in the always unique and unconventional Cronenberg sense. Cronenberg has always been a director who directs his films with objectivity and coldness of scientist or doctor. His films never go beyond what is on the screen, in terms of damning or praising characters and their actions, and he has always been a director that keeps the audience at arms length. Oddly though, I find myself drawn to his icy embrace. I find Cronenberg to be one of the most watchable of directors working in film today. Sure his style doesn't reach the masses, but he always gets great performances out of wonderful, but almost always misused, actors like Christopher Walken, James Spader, Peter Weller, James Woods, and in The Fly he provides Jeff Goldblum with material to deliver his best, and as of yet unsurpassed, performance.

It's true that Cronenberg almost always keeps his characters intentions at arms length from the audience (one of the major criticisms of his recent foray into the crime genre), but I appreciate that about the director, because unless I'm in the minority, I like a director who doesn't hit me over the head with the themes of his films. Case in point: The Fly. At the time of its release a lot of people praised the film for being an astute allegory for the AIDS epidemic. However, the always elusive Cronenberg debunked those critiques and said that he never had intentions of making The Fly a message picture. He appreciated the correlation, but really he saw the film more as an allegory for watching someone you love metamorphosize into someone completely different, right before your eyes. This allegory works well within the horror genre, and especially with the story of Brundle and his fly.

The Fly contains oodles of Cronenberg's favorite themes: the degradation of the human body, passionate love and romances that are derailed by freak accidents, and "special powers" (a vague label no doubt, but I am thinking of Brundle morphing from loner nerd to sexy athletic fly, and also Christopher Walken's burden in The Dead Zone) acting as the onus for his films protagonists. There are many memorable moments in The Fly, one of my favorites being the scene where a pissed off Brundle (because Veronica has left and challenged his new powers as something awful) goes to a bar and challenges someone to an arm wrestling match. The moment that follows never gets old. Also Cronenberg's intense focus on Brundle's body and the way certain parts of his body morph, change, and fall apart or fall off altogether (I'm thinking of the really gross fingernail scene).

Yet, through all of the grotesqueness, Veronica still loves Brundle. And for all of the grotesqueness, the audience is still emotionally invested in the story; that is the triumph of The Fly and what Cronenberg is able to accomplish. Also, Cronenberg is able to conjure up suspense by element of surprise; we are never quite sure, once Brundle's metamorphosis takes place, what he is going to look like, or bad it's going to be. By keeping the audience guessing, the film does have a true horror genre feel to it, but it transcends the genre and cuts through the grotesque appearance of Brundle by maintaining the human element; the love Veronica has for Brundle, and him wanting her to remember him as he was, not what he is becoming.

One of the reasons why The Fly is one of my favorite films is because of that transcendent nature of the script and the all out performances from Goldblum and Davis. True, the film has icky and gross visuals to constitute a good Halloween viewing, but it is also a film that will make you want to wrap up the one you love. When Brundle is mid-stage of his metamorphosis he tells Veronica to leave, and that he doesn't want to hurt her because he is changing and wants her to remember him as he was, not how he is. The moment is poignant and powerful; not just because of the performances by both Goldblum and Davis, but because the scene can be an allegory for what it must feel like to communicate with someone you love while they submit to cancer or Alzheimer's or any other disease where you watch a loved one slowly change from the person you knew. What's truly transcendent about the film is that after the credits role and all is said and done, it's not the state of the art makeup or effects of the Brundle Fly, or the blood and gore that have you remembering the film, it's the poignant relationship between Veronica and Brundle. Love trumps all.

I wrote all of this with a bias as the driving force. There is something deep and profound and moving about this film that affects me so much. I haven't even mentioned that when we get to see the Brundle Fly at the end of the film, it is truly one of the scariest moments in horror. The final moments of the film are scary, no doubt, and if you haven't seen the film, and are not a fan of the usual stab and slash type of horror film, then rent The Fly. It's a brilliantly crafted, sophisticated horror film.

Halloween Week 2008: The Burning/Hatchet

Already behind a in an attempt to cram as many recommendations as I can I will have two posts with four suggestions today. The final review coming tomorrow, Halloween morning. Enjoy.

The Burning is nothing special. How's that for a reason to rent it? Okay, it does have one thing going for it: gore. Here is a typical American slasher film, with typical results, and yes, despite the infamous "raft scene", it has typical gore. I only say that because other 80's slasher films were just as gory, it's just that nobody remembers them because when they got to video (during the whole 'video nasties' era) they were chopped to hell as if Jason himself took a machete into the editing room. The Burning is unique and kind of infamous for being the first movie the Weisnstein Bros. produced, and for having early sightings of actors like Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, and Holly Hunter.

The story: In the New York and New Jersey areas there is a famous legend of a man named Cropsy who terrorizes campers. Of course he only does this because, SPOILER ALERT, he was teased as a child at the very same camp. No way! Okay, so the story is a wee bit uninspired, in fact it's typical 80's slasher fodder, but the "raft" scene is pretty damn cool if you can find it. I think there might be some clips of it on youtube, and rumor has it that even though the recently released MGM version on DVD says it's the complete uncut version....apparently it's not. But I haven't seen it on DVD, so I can't say one way or the other.

The film is a Halloween recommendation only for those of you that like your slasher films, because well, this one is better than any Friday the 13th movie, and it has Tom Savani the gore master in charge of dispersing the blood and guts. Plus it's fun to watch Jason Alexander play the cool guy. His overacting is amazing.

Overall if you REALLY want a slasher film to watch, and you have already seen the original Halloween and don't like foreign horror films, well then try to find The Burning, it won't disappoint with it's copious amounts of blood and gore and cool villain with a great name. Seriously, Cropsy that's a great slasher name. The original title was Cropsy's Revenge. I would have gone with that title, it sounds a lot cooler.

If The Burning was kind of an above average 80's slasher, then Hatchet is an above average toungue-in-cheek 21st centtury horror film. In the wake of Eli Roth's uber snarky Cabin Fever (which I have to admit made me laugh a lot....I mean come on: Pancakes!) Adam Green released Hatchet, a film not at all unlike The Burning. Hatchet is also about a killer in the woods named Victor Crowley who may or may not be an inbred monster from Hell. It's irrelevant really because the film is just one big excuse to get horror icons in cameos and kill lots and lots of people. Freddy Kreuger, Jason Vorhees, and Candyman all make appearances (okay, well the actors that played them) and really Green's film is just an exercise in reminding the audience that the filmmakers are in on the joke too.

Despite the films obvious flaws (the acting is horrible, although the actor from Trippin' is in it, so all is not lost) Hatchet does have some faint semblance of charm. If you were a child of 80's slasher films or just a rabid fan of the genre, then the film will probably entertain you the same way Cabin Fever did if you were a fan of the Evil Dead pictures. The film is extremely gory and pretty good in the entertaining department once the teenagers get away from the Mardi Gras set piece (and gratuitous nudity) and get on the boat that spells their doom. I think Green had The Burning in mind when he made this film, because much like The Burning, Green's film uses buckets upon buckets of violence and gore in an attempt to seperate itself from your average slasher; Hatchet was also heavily re-edited after its initial release where it was slapped with the dreaded NC-17 rating for violence and gore.

So there ya go. If you want a decent one-two punch for slasher films on Halloween night, and you've seen everything else, these are two decent, if not flawed, additions into the genre.

Both The Burning and Hatchet are available on DVD. The Burning can often be found late night on IFC.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Halloween Week 2008: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3

When Wes Craven was lured back to write this third installment in the Nightmare franchise, he was reluctant to do so since he never intended for his original film to spawn a string of (mediocre) sequels. He agreed to write the script as long as he could approach a taboo topic that intrigued him: suicide. Much like the original Nightmare Craven got his idea for the third film through reading articles about teenagers being so scared in their sleep that they would commit suicide in a state where it wasn't known whether or not they were awake. This idea intrigued Craven as well as the thought of bringing Freddy back to kill him off and to remove the bad taste the second film of the series left in the fans mouth. The result: a pretty good horror movie that is not a complete waste of your time.

Of course the minute the film opens and you see five different names of screenwriters on the screen, you know that they butchered Craven's original script; they did indeed do that, you can check out the original script online. In the original script Freddy was menacing and didn't talk much (like the original) and was more vulgar and scarier. Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) wasn't a medical expert on sleep or anything like that, she was looking for her missing father (John Saxon!), the last man to know where Freddy's body is buried. Also, there was no sub plot with the doctor of the hospital (where all the kids are having the same nightmares) encounters a ghost nun who just happens to be named Amanda Kreuger, Freddy's mom.

So yeah, the film is interesting for the reason alone that you can see elements of the original version Craven had in mind, but sadly the studio didn't go all the way with it, afraid that no one would want to pay money to such a serious subject broached in a horror film. Craven has always been a pioneer of getting these more serious subtexts into his films and then using the horror genre to explicate them further, but not here as it's kind of surprising that New Line, a studio notorious with taking chances, played it so safe with this one.

The quick and dirty version of the story: teenagers are having nightmares and Freddy is killing them in the real world through their dreams. Nancy returns to help the kids make sense of what's happening. Instead of each teenager having a dream and dying, Craven did something interesting with this one and had them all inhabit the same nightmare. While in their nightmare the kids could be anything they wanted to be, since it was their dream, thus giving them super powers (one kids is really strong, one is a wizard, one a punk rock chick with switch blades, etc.). So yeah, that's pretty much the're basic Nightmare storyline.

Still you get some great, weird moments that are synonymous with the Nightmare franchise. For instance the scene where Freddy turns into a giant worm like creature and starts to swallow Kristen (played by a young Patricia Arquette). Also, the deaths are as inventive as ever and the special effects are pretty good for the time, and the low budget director Chuck Russel was working with. Another interesting thing about the film is that it's the last entry in the series where Freddy is always joking and making awful puns as he kills people. It wasn't until Craven would come back to the franchise with New Nightmare that Freddy would be this quiet and this menacing.

The last watchable thing about this film is the amount of talent it had working on it. Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption, The Mist) re-wrote the screenplay, Chuck Russel (The Mask, Eraser) directed, and the film stars Patrica Arquette, Laurence Fishbourne, and of course John Saxon (who has a tremendous scene of overacting and pure scene chewing where he's in a bar drinking, slowly, and delivering his lines even slower).

I always remember being really scared by this movie when I was a kid. It had one of those memorable cover boxes that looked really cool with all the teens and their "special powers" , and then on the back the creepy image of Freddy as the worm swallowing Arquette. I could never get that image out of my head as it would cause me to have nightmares. Well, many, many years later I can say that the film isn't that scary. Even though there is nothing really scary about the film, it's a fun addition to your Halloween to-do list if you've never seen this installment. It has a good cast, talent working behind the scenes, and even a cameo from Dick Cavett! Oh, and Dokken sings the theme song. Yes....there's reason to see it right there.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors is playing the rest of the month on the Independent Film Channel.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Halloween Week 2008: I Walked With a Zombie

While watching Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie I couldn't help but think of a different a film, a completely different film in both genre and context. The film that kept popping up in my head was the Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful. The film stars Kurt Douglas as a ruthless producer in the vein of David O. Selznick; however there is one scene where Douglas' character reminds me more of producer Val Lewton, producer of I Walked With a Zombie. The scene I am speaking of is where Douglas and his friend, a director, are working on their first film, a cheap B-level horror film called Curse of the Cat People. They are stuck with cheap looking cat suits that don't fit a lot of the actors who are supposed to be wearing them. When they ask themselves the question: "what do you have when you have a bunch of actors in cat suits....a bunch of actors who look like they're in cat costumes.", they come to the realization that showing the cats is a mistake, and then they ask a better question that hints at the success to these kinds of horror pictures: "what are people most afraid of? The dark! Let's say the audience never sees the cats....". I can't help but think that this is similar to the types of conversation that producer Lewton and director Tourneur had on their sets for similar B-level horror pictures. This moment from a completely unrelated film is key to understanding the success of Tourneur and Lewton's horror pictures, especially I Walked With a Zombie.

Tourneur and Lewton are successful in taking a non-horror book for its source material (Bronte's Jane Eyre) and turning it into an atmospheric spook-fest. There is nothing that is overtly scary or even nerve-jarring about I Walked With a Zombie, but there are many unsettling moments that rely on what we don't see; a formula for success found in later horror films like The Blair Witch Project.

Shadows are always in play in these kinds of films, and in I Walked With a Zombie some of the best moments come from creepy imagery silhouetted or mysterious figures lurking in the shadows. The story is your basic voodoo horror plot where a naive Canadian nurse goes to the West Indies where mysterious voodoo medicine is practiced. Betsy has been contracted out by a wealthy man to try and figure out what ails his wife (he's tried everything of course....but there's always something more), and early on she tries not to let her optimism and naivete get the best of her, but she presses on, sure that she can save her employers wife, which leads to some odd encounters as she dabbles in the locals medicinal philosophies.

Despite the films title, the plot of the story has little to do with "gotcha" moments, and more to do with uncertainty; the old stand by of a "stranger in a strange place" horror formula. A lot of it works, especially the creepy scene where Betsy takes the woman she is caring for through a maze-like field marked with various voodoo emblems. The lack of cheesy, foreboding music or easy scares are what make this scene so memorable. All you hear is the wind and the gasps of Betsy; like her we too are making this uncertain journey through the voodoo maze. The scene has an eeriness and unsettling nature rarely found in today's horror films. Tourneur did the same thing in his other horror films, most famously Cat People and Night of the Demon, and by only showing certain amounts of what was around the corner, and by using shadows and eerie sound without cheesy music, he was able to create a unique horror film that relied more on your senses than the usual monster type film that was popular at the time.

It's not the kind of horror film for everybody; there's no blood or scary monsters or jump-out-of-your-seat moments, but there is a tremendous amount of style in how Tourneur and Lewton get the audience to believe something bad is going to happen when really, nothing is happening on screen. These two thought that the sound of shuffling feet waking you up in the middle of the night was a lot scarier than zombies trying to eat you in your cottage, and you know what, if you watch this film you'll understand why the sound of feet shuffling across pavement is more unsettling than seeing someone getting their guts ripped out by rabid zombies. A truly unique and clever B-level horror film, and a pleasant change of pace from the Saw movies, or the usual Halloween fodder found on video store shelves.

I Walked With a Zombie showing on Turner Classic Movies Thursday October, 30 at 9:00 AM

Friday, October 24, 2008

Halloween Week 2008 is upon us...

That's right...I will attempt to do a write-up every day about some random horror film that I deem worthy of your time. My aim is to showcase some unconventional choices, as well as some horror movies that just don't get the proper notoriety. Please feel free to add your own recommendations and reviews of horror films in the comments section and I will be sure to link to them. For now I leave you with the haunting images from the famous ending to a famous movie that I just watched for the first time this morning...