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November 19, 2014

Future Cult Movie Alert: The Gays

A Review by Marvin the Macabre

The Gays (2014)
Directed by T. S. Slaughter

There’s a bit of advice I try to live by, despite it being a favorite cliché of slick-haired, plastic-faced self-help gurus worldwide: “Say YES to everything.” This is how I, Marvin the Macabre, the horror movie guy, came to be writing a review for a gay-themed indie comedy I would otherwise never even heard of. Producer Paul Serrano contacted me about reviewing the film, and how could I say no to a movie with a tagline like "The family that gays together stays together"?
Watching The Gays was like getting a peek inside the fever dream of a rabidly homophobic Baptist preacher from West Virginia. Every conservative suspicion about the depravities of the gay lifestyle is not only confirmed, but taken 8 to 10 steps further. There’s forced sodomy, child molestation, a quasi-incestuous family game night, and blasphemy against Christmas, fer Chrissakes! Twisted stuff to be sure, but the tone is that of high camp, a continual nudging reassurance that it’s all meant to be ridiculous and fun.
The premise is that the Gays are a family of gay men, headed by a father and a transsexual, biologically male mother, who mentor their sons in the ways of homosexuality. Mind you, it’s not your normal, garden-variety homosexuality, but a demented perversion of every gay stereotype in the book, magnified to show detail. In fact, The Gays would be deeply offensive to gays (and decent people of all stripes) were it not for the framing device.
Kevin pulls up a stool next to Alex. Insert stool pushing joke here.
The film is basically a series of vignettes that one of the sons, Alex Gay, is telling to a stranger at a bar. The stranger, Kevin, is just a normal gay dude who is new in town and trying to meet people. He moved to L.A. so he could live more openly, and is fascinated by Alex because he was raised gay and has never had to hide it. As the only reasonable character in the film, Kevin acts as the audience’s proxy. As Alex’s stories grow more twisted, Kevin's reactions become increasingly horrified, tipping the audience off that the film isn’t some anti-gay propaganda piece. Kevin reflects the reality of modern gay men, versus the warped, funhouse mirror parody the Gays represent. They are living stereotypes, playing their perversions for laughs to a knowing audience.
The Gays traffics mainly in vulgarity and shock value, with sex as the focus of nearly every scene. As such, the shock value wears off quickly and the vulgarity becomes tedious. There are genuine belly laughs to be had, but they are scattered gems among a towering slag heap of slack-jawed “What the fuck am I watching?”
Chris Tanner, as Bob Gay-Paris, turns in a particularly spirited performance.
The acting is suitably over-the-top, with likeable actors playing horrible people with an enthusiasm that wins you over despite the performances being unequivocally awful. But that’s part of the joke. This is a bad movie that knows it’s bad, in fact exists to be bad and therefore, theoretically, becomes good. But I wouldn’t go so far as to call it good. Fascinating, I think, sums it up best. The Gays is like a car crash or Willem Dafoe’s face: absolutely horrifying, yet you can’t look away.
Much of the film seems like it would work better on paper than it turned out on the screen. For instance, I find this concept hilarious: The two male parents had sons who are biologically their own through a rare occurrence of anal gestation. The babies formed in the lower intestine, and the “mother” gave ass-birth to them. Here it’s the concept that’s funny, but it falls flat when they explain it on screen.
The scene depicting the actual ass-birth works better because it is visual, physical comedy. As a horror guy, I appreciated the scene’s echoes of The Exorcist, but it is played mostly as a gross-out gag, with the newborn popping out caked with feces. The best part of the entire movie was when the umbilical cord was revealed to be a string of anal beads.
Anal bead baby prop, decidedly cleaner than you see it in the film.
Here’s a litmus test for whether or not you’ll like The Gays: Do you find it funny to change the words of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to “Have Yourself a Slutty Faggot’s Limp Wrist”? That’s about the level of humor you’ll find here. Full Disclosure: that one made me chuckle a little bit. It sounded like something I’d make up and sing for my unamused wife.
Structurally, The Gays is a mess. There’s no rhyme nor reason to the ordering of the skits, so there is no dramatic (or comedic) build. As Alex is relaying the stories to Kevin, he goes right from a fairly mild anecdote to one about being taught to drug and rape his dates. The latter one should have been saved for later in the film, so that each vignette gets progressively more outrageous and the full extent of the family’s depravity is slowly revealed. Instead, we have Kevin getting pretty weirded out right away, but continuing the conversation that he clearly should have walked away from.
The movie ends abruptly with a feeling of, “Uh, we couldn’t think of any more skits. Bye.” And then, as a coda, we get the aforementioned Christmas song, followed by a second iteration of the movie’s opening theme song (which I must admit is one of the movie’s high points). Yeah, structurally it’s all over the place.
Perhaps it’s out of line for me to criticize an intentionally bad farce for lacking depth, but I did see a missed opportunity to make a point about our heteronormative culture. The Gays raise their sons with the explicit assumption that they will be gay. In an end note, they do riff on this by saying the parents started a foundation to help gay families convert their straight kids back to normalcy. But this is tossed off as a throwaway joke. It would have had a much greater impact if one of the sons, most likely the severely underdeveloped character of Tommy Gay, turned out to be straight and the family had to come to accept him (or exile him—the Gays don’t strike me as a particularly understanding bunch).
All in all, I can’t recommend The Gays to most people. If you’re a fan of raunchy, outrageous comedies or offbeat cults films, give it a try. If you’re a rabidly homophobic Baptist preacher from West Virginia, you’ll definitely want to pick up a copy.

If you want to check it out for yourself, here's the official website.

And the trailer: 

July 8, 2014

Deliver Us From Bruckheimer

Jerry Bruckheimer perches atop his mountain of money, ruminating. The formula was there: a classic character, a bankable star, a dependable director, and a budget big enough to end hunger in Africa. How could he have miscalculated so badly? Why didn't they come to see his summer blockbuster? The Lego tie-in sets had already shipped for Capitalism's sake! What did those fickle insects want anyway? Suddenly last weekend's numbers ding his inbox. It's that goddamned spook show again! What's it called again, The Conjugal? Well, it's raking in the bucks while his supposed franchise-maker is tanking. And it cost, what? One-tenth of his movie.

Then, the eureka moment. Next summer I will dominate the box office with a spook show of my own, and it'll be just like The Conjecture. Well, not exactly like it, but, you know, similar. Next year I won't cost Disney a hundred million dollar write-down. Next summer I will engineer the perfect money-devouring horror show and the insects shall know me as their God! Bwah-hah-hah-hah!

That's how I like to think Deliver Us From Evil came into being. It's a horror movie that seems more engineered by studio execs than lovingly shaped by artists. I still bear good will toward Scott Derrickson for the excellent Sinister, so I find it more palatable to lay blame on the Bruckmeister. But man, do I have to lay some blame somewhere. Not that this movie is complete, start-to-finish, stinky-awful crap. No, it was much more frustrating than that.

If I see one more piano-playing-itself scene, you'll be removing this crucifix from your colon.

On the surface, DUFE (he he, doofey) looks just like a horror film I would love. It's got some stomach-turningly realistic gore, creepy possessed people, an occult mystery, and a kick-ass exorcism with some shit we haven't seen before (self-cannibalism, forehead splitting open, and neck unnaturally elongating anyone?). The acting ranged from pretty damned good to nothing to complain about. And Scott Derrickson made exceptional use of darkness, creating some genuinely scary moments. But something was just... off, tonally.

Possessed woman showing off a little leg... bone.

Maybe it's that the emotional stakes were low. Eric Bana plays a brutal cop who ignores his family in favor of the world's most depressing job. Or so his wife tells us. The movie really doesn't play up the neglect angle, so it comes off more as just Olivia Munn being bitchy. While I realize the marriages are often collateral damage in law-enforcement careers, but just once I'd like to see a movie where a cop's wife accepts and supports his job. Or where the superhero's girlfriend can grasp how saving a schoolbus full of blind children was a teensy bit more important than showing up for dinner on time. Point is: it's a played-out trope, and one that adds nothing to Deliver Us From Evil. It has nothing to do with the main plot; it doesn't raise the emotional stakes or elevate the drama in any meaningful way; and it doesn't even help flesh out the infuriatingly flimsy characters.

What do you mean I have the emotional range of a New York City cop?

Eric Bana's character, with very few exceptions, never shows a trace of vulnerability. He's your typical no-bullshit, tough guy New York cop who is always certain he's right until he isn't. Then the priest changes mind about some things, and then he's certain about everything again. There's a moment or two of worry for his family, but as our hypermasculine hero, he doesn't dwell on it and gets back to the business of casting out those demons. It's exceptionally difficult to get swept up in the delicious terror or a horror film when none of the characters show any real fear. Bana should have lost his shit. His character arc should have broken down his macho exterior, shaken the very core of his beliefs, reduced him to a shivering child, and then built him back up. But no, it's more like, "Okay so there's demons now, can I shoot 'em?"

I heard what you said about my movie, asshole.
I beat one Marvin to death already, and I'll do it again.

The final exorcism that is the movie's climax get pretty damned intense, and let me tell you, I'm a sucker for a good exorcism. Hell, I even liked The Devil Inside. Deliver Us From Evil's exorcism was just what the doctor ordered. It takes place in an interrogation room, and dudeman manages to rip off a straightjacket, then unseats the bolted-down chair he's cuffed to. The actor's face is creepy enough on its own, but the make-up job makes him absolutely terrifying. His performance is just right, he's frothing and spitting and generally acting an ass as demons are wont to do. He can't do much contorting while strapped to the chair, but for awhile it looks like the demon is literally going to rip his body apart rather than surrender its vessel.
Like I said, intense. And then...

...oh fuck...

...and then...

...the single most inappropriate musical cue since Dario Argento used Motorhead in Phenomena. Mid-exorcism, I shit you not, Break on Through by The Doors starts playing. Twice. That, ladies and gentlemen, is horror of the purist kind. My mind didn't accept it at first. I laughed. Then that sinking feeling. "That just happened, didn't it?" I didn't walk out of the theater or anything, but for me, the movie ended then and there.

You don't need no safety net when you're free-flyin' with The Doors.

Maybe there was some truth to this "true story." Maybe a little demonic possession rubbed off on me. Because walking out of the theater and the whole way home, I was involuntarily frothing and spitting, clawing into my own flesh and uttering unspeakable curses.


Now that the kids are in bed, we can talk plot. How does this sum it up:
Three soldiers find some ancient graffiti, get possessed, and start a painting company to spread both graffiti and possession. A cop and a priest investigate a bunch of weird cases, find the connections, arrest their suspect, and perform a successful exorcism. The end.
A little thin, no? While plot twists are a bit overdone, I do like a story that at least changes direction every now and again, or includes at least a couple of surprises. “But Marvin,” some homeschooler interjects, “the movie was based on actual events, they couldn’t just change the story for entertainment’s sake.” You can eff right off with that. I stopped giving credence to that “Based on a true story” BS back when “It happened,” became the tagline to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and that was before I was born. It’s the advertising equivalent to “This is totally true. It happened to a friend-of-a-friend’s babysitter.”
But for fun, let’s take this “true story” thing at face value. What are the implications? For starters, demons listen to The Doors. No surprise there. But now we also know that writing some symbols on a wall opens a gateway through which demons can enter our world and possess folks at will. Good God, let’s hope that never hits the internet. We’d be overrun in a week. Oh, but it has to be written in human blood. No prob, I carry around 9 pints on my person at all times. 

There's the invocation. DO NOT let this image get out to the public. Oh wait...

What’s the radius on this gateway/possession thing. Do you have to be in the same room as the invocation to be possessed, or can the demon open doors? Well, clearly it can close them, as it traps the cop’s daughter in a bathroom. But as far as I know, there wasn't even an invocation in the house.

Wait, so now he's both the gateway and the destination? I'm confused.
And can only one demon get through? I mean, that’s why they’re painting invocations all over the place, right? Otherwise you could just open one gateway and all the demons who wanted could cross the border easier than a truckload of illegal immigrants. Again, we’d be overrun in a week. But if only one demon can come through a gateway, how does it possess the 3 soldiers in the beginning? Hell, let’s just chalk it up to weird laws of metaphysics and move on.
Bana’s character, based on former cop and current con-man paranormal investigator Ralph Sarchie, admits to beating an unarmed man to death. While the priest absolves him, there’s no statute of limitations for murder. I’m thinking maybe that wasn’t in the book and the filmmakers just made it up. Exactly.
So, why did Ralph Sarchie leave the NYPD shortly after the events depicted in the film? Surely if combatting the forces of evil on earth was his true life’s calling, the will of God and his finely tuned radar would lead him wherever he was needed. And with the police department’s resources at his disposal, he could more effectively investigate cases with a demonic element. My radar suggests he maybe had a book tour to attend and a movie deal to ink. 

July 1, 2014

Crazy-Ass British Horror: Xtro

(1983, Directed by Harry Bromley Davenport)

Review by Ben Thompson

There is a strange and secret land to be found within the depths of horror. Beyond the big names and cult classics, past the surreal foreign flicks and gory shockers; right out the back of the shop, behind the dumpsters where even the bargain bucket B-movies dare not venture. Here, in this dark hovel where no light or production values may enter, we find the sludge at the bottom of the bin bag; the low-budget, malformed creatures brought agonisingly to life through the determination of people who likely funded the entire project with the spare change from their own pocket and anything found down the back of the sofa. These are labours of love, likely having had more effort poured into them than entire franchises. They reside in a kind of uncanny valley of terribleness, where the amount of imagination and sheer cheesiness just about cancels out the unashamed shittiness of the whole thing, leaving behind a finished product not unlike that slice of leftover pizza that's still got plenty topping left on it but carries a faint, bitter-sweet hint of bin juice.

This guy has such a marbles-in-your-mouth English accent,
stroke victims have better diction.
Xtro, as you might have guessed, fits into this most exclusive of communities quite comfortably: an awful piece of horror trash, but by god is it a beloved piece of horror trash. Something made all too evident in the opening credits by the fact that the soundtrack was composed and performed by the film's director. Yes, it sounds exactly as bad as you would expect.

Often when I review a film I spend a little too much time lingering on the quality of the acting, but luckily Xtro has made that aspect pretty easy for me by having all of the actors, well, not act at all. Every single character is played with the enthusiasm of an Autistic weatherman reading out the winners of a local pie eating contest, distinguishable only by the ridiculously overly-emphasised accent that each actor has adopted. This leads to some truly hilarrible (hilarious meets terrible, you're welcome) scenes where four actors try to stumble through a supposedly serious conversation with overzealous American, English, Super-English and French accents flying everywhere. It's glorious, and helped along further by a script that was probably written on the back of a napkin.

I think you lost that game a loooong time ago, mate.
Let's talk about the script for a moment actually. Firstly, it is absolutely nonsensical; why would you offer a clearly clean-shaven man a razor? I recommend playing the "Spot the Awful Dialogue" drinking game while watching this. Secondly, an odd thing happens in Xtro that's never really explained (ok, so the evil clown and telepathically-controlled murder toys aren't either, but nyeh): almost half of the cast speaks exclusively in questions. In every scene in the film a character will rather bluntly ask, in their adorably silly accent, about something often horrifically mundane, completely inappropriate or just repeating the lines of the other actor with a questiony inflection at the end. The mum is the worst, case in point:

Skin falling off mid-shag is never good for the mood.
"What are you doing here?"
"I'm back."
"You're back? Back from where?"
"I'm not sure."
"You're not sure?"

Continue ad infinitum. I kind of hope in my heart of hearts that it's meant to subtly suggest that half of the world's population have been secretly lobotomised and can now only question everyone else's actions in a slightly judgemental tone, but the truth is likely plain old lazy writing; if you can't come up with a line, just repeat the last one. Problem being that by doing that for a whole film, Xtro is essentially a series of encounters where everyone stands facing each other taking it in turns to say "What?". So yes, all in all everyone in this movie is hilariously awful and infuriating in equal measures; particularly the mother's American boyfriend, Joe. Why are you such a dick, Joe? Why?

The sound editing makes for a lot of fun, too. Much of the dialogue was quite obviously re-recorded in post-
production, which isn't at all unheard of, but what strikes me as odd is some of the dialogue that the film makers thought it really necessary to add back in. Thank the gods that they made sure we could hear a shoe model shouting "Cheese! Bloody cheese! Harry, give me back my sandwich!" in the background of a scene, though; it's a highlight.

A surprisingly adequate aspect of the movie is actually the visual effects. They're nothing we've not seen elsewhere before but the monster design is nicely yucky and there's plenty of ooze and gunk to satiate any monster-movie aficionado; it's no The Fly but a bold effort nonetheless. The lighting and cinematography can almost approach what you might call good in some of the scenes nearer the end of the film, too, giving them a little bit of muchly-appreciated eeriness. Plus you get points for having a scene where a woman dies by giving birth to a fully grown man after being impregnated through the mouth (I've no idea how, ask a doctor) by an alien skeleton monster.

They tried so hard, they really did, and as I said before you can really see the effort that the director put in to making his film a reality; but sometimes, no matter how much you love them, your child still has learning difficulties and looks like a potato. All in all, if you want to watch a splendidly awful movie that features exploding sticks, stupid characters, buckets of ooze, a clown midget putting alien eggs in a fridge, and panthers for some reason then you have weirdly specific movie tastes and would you please just...not come near me ever? Also, Xtro will be your catnip.

May 13, 2014

In Defense of the Jump-Scare: A Review of The Quiet Ones

It’s all those damned cats I tell you. Not only is some unknown madman brutally murdering your drinking buddies, but when you finally find a quiet spot to regroup, there they are.  Cats. Lurking around every dark corner ready to jump out, completely unprovoked, and unleash a blood-curdling yowl that necessitates a change in undergarments. But in the end it’s just a cheap fake-out, the cinematic equivalent of stalling for time until the real killer gets back from his coffee run. It’s been done to death, and real horror fans scoff at this tired device. So why do filmmakers keep doing it?
I bring this up, of course, because I recently saw The Quiet Ones. For the first full half of the runtime, it could have been called “Jump-Scare: The Movie.” Worse yet, there wasn’t a cat in sight, or anything actually jumping out. There would be a piercingly loud sting from the soundtrack accompanied by a sudden camera movement that obscured whatever scary thing was supposed to be happening. It was basically a form of psychological torture, because the scares were so blaring and so out-of-nowhere that the audience spends the whole film braced for the next aural assault. And you know what? It worked.
You’d think it would get more annoying with repetition (and to many, I’m sure it does), but for me the cumulative effect was a constant sense of unease and discomfort that made the movie much scarier than it had any right to be. You may argue that soundtrack cues at high volume is a cheap way to cause unease, and that good storytelling should create all the tension you need. I agree to a point, but I still think jump-scares are unfairly maligned. When used judiciously, they can save a slow-burn movie from being deadly dull and set the stage for the real scares to come.
Jump-scares aside, The Quiet Ones is a pretty effective little film. Honestly, it’s a bit short on real scares, but otherwise has a lot going for it.It’s got a solid cast led by the always amazing Jared Harris (Joseph), who lends the film both gravitas and emotional complexity. 
There’s also Sam Claflin (Brian) in a 180 turn from his swaggering portrayal of Finnick Odair in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. 
Then there’s Olivia Cooke as the afflicted girl, Jane, who conveys a lifetime of torment with just a look. I’ve never seen someone look so genuinely haunted. The other two main cast members do a serviceable job with their under-written characters, but are less remarkable.
The meat of this movie, if you will, lies in the power dynamics of the group. Jared Harris is the seasoned professor who commands the utmost respect from his student assistants, but who is fiercely disliked by some outside of his inner circle. His lifelong quest to prove that possession and hauntings are physical manifestations of the mind leads him into some ethically questionable experiments, but the force of his personality keeps those close to him loyal. As the experiments and the strange occurrences intensify, the group begins to fall apart and the power dynamics shift. Half the fun is psychoanalyzing the characters as the stress of the situation reveals their underlying motivations and hidden facets of their personalities. Throw in a couple of ill-advised romances, and you’ve got quite the interesting character study.
Storywise, there’s enough twisting and turning of the plot to keep things interesting, even though none of it feels especially original. On the downside, John Pogue needs to swear off CGI entirely, because this film is marred by two particularly laughable computer effects that tear you right out of the film. Still, the CGI wasn’t a deal-breaker for me, and I left the theater pretty pumped. I’d say you should get to your local multiplex and check it out, but in all likelihood you’ve missed your chance. This certified box office flop was yanked pretty quickly. But do check it out when it resurfaces on video or streaming, if for no other reason than to support Hammer Studios who really could have used a hit.

April 17, 2014

FMWL Indie Spotlight - The Lashman

(2014, Dir. by Cameron McCasland.)

Review by The Mike.

One of my most common complaints with "retro" genre films - films like Grindhouse and Machete and dozens of low budget imitators - is that the pace is updated for modern audiences. Of course, there's an audience for fast-paced splatterfests out there, but I'm always appreciative of the filmmakers who pay homage to the past without forgetting that most genre films from the '70s and '80s didn't move at breakneck speeds.

One example of this is The Lashman, Cameron McCasland's debut slasher throwback in which some friends head off for a weekend at a cabin only to find that the angry spirit of a lash-wielding fella from the 1800s is at work in the woods. It's a simple kind of horror film - five friends, no civilization, a deadly legend come to life - but it's also an authentic reminder of the things we love about this kind of film.

(Now that I think about it, should I be dropping the s and just calling this a "lasher film"? I do love being accurate, and it would probably be a great poster quote if I said it's "The first great Lasher film!", but that's just too confusing for me. Excuse me if I continue to say "slasher" despite the film's lashing nature.)

The first thing you'll notice about McCasland's film is probably that it looks like something you'd find on a VHS tape in the 1980s. For the most part, the clothes, cars and settings look like something out of Just Before Dawn or The Burning. The film's sound design is also intentionally low-tech, and younger viewers might not understand that this is how some movies used to sound when they were made on the cheap. It's obviously a zero budget film, but the attention to detail in making the film feel dated is one of the things that made me interested in The Lashman from the opening scenes.

The characters are not original for a slasher movie - sensitive guy (David Vaughn), nice girl (Stacey Dixon), lustful couple who make immoral decisions (Jeremy Jones & Kaylee Williams), nice girl's brother who doesn't fit in (Shawn C. Phillips)- but the actors all seem to know what their place is in the script and fit it well. Jones is especially effective as the aggressive member of the group who drinks too much and thinks with the wrong head, while Vaughn, Phillips, and Dixon have no problems fitting into the film. Williams' character is probably the most interesting of the bunch because she's written as something of a wild-card who brings sexual tension to the group. The character is a nice addition to the otherwise paint-by-numbers set up, but none of the actors or characters is bound to be the most memorable thing about the film.

I worry that many people may find The Lashman's pace to be concerning - after the opening sequence establishes the villain it's a long stretch of time before blood flies again - but the slow build to madness is what won me over about this film. Patience pays off for McCasland, because the focus on these characters, the story of the Lashman, and the building tension in both their relationships and the setting is what makes The Lashman feel more like those early '80s slasher films that many of us love despite their flaws. Have you seen these tricks before? Probably. Do they still make for a great party horror flick? Absolutely.

Some of the film's charm is lost in the final act, as the showdown between the killer and his victims is brief and builds to an abrupt finale. There might have been some benefit to spreading out the kills a little more in the short film - which runs only 81 minutes with end credits - but the action is still entertaining and the film ends at a natural stopping point - which, of course, leaves the possibility of a sequel.

The Lashman probably isn't for everyone, but horror lovers who remember the VHS era fondly will surely admire it for what it is. Sure, none of the actors are going to win major awards and the script is simple and it's not the bloodiest thing you'll find and it's just simply not perfect. But I haven't seen a tribute to slasher cinema that feels as genuine as The Lashman does, and that alone should make it worth a viewing.

The Lashman will premiere this Saturday night at 7:00 pm at the Full Moon Horror Film Festival in Nashville, and if you're interested in keeping up with it you can check out the film's Facebook and Twitter pages to see when it'll be playing in your neck of the woods. Until then, enjoy the trailer below.

April 2, 2014

An Open Letter to Elijah Wood, Franck Khalfoun, and Alexandre Aja Regarding Totally Blowing It with Maniac

Mssrs. Wood, Khalfoun, and Aja,

So as not to get off on the wrong foot, let me first clarify that the “Totally Blowing It” portion of the title refers not to the quality of the film in question, but the staggering size of the missed opportunity it represents. Make no mistake, I loved the film. In fact, I liked it so much that I bestowed upon it a coveted MMM Best Picture nomination. But, regardless of the fact that your team made the most brutal, disturbing horror film of the year, I can’t help but feel cheated.

Please tell me that's orc's blood Mr. Frodo.

Maniac should have been not one, but two films, the second of which would have been Maniac, exactly as it is. The first film, however, would have been a romantic comedy, shot simultaneously with Maniac, using the same characters, locations, and cast. Imagine the devastation to the unsuspecting audiences who would have been charmed by the wonderful, quirky characters and the romantic ups and downs of their relationships, when they discover it was all just Frank’s fantasy world version of a reality in which he murders and scalps pretty much every woman he speaks to.

They're just so freakin' cute together.

The reason this would work is that Maniac is structured exactly like a romantic comedy. The lonely lead character goes on a series of disasterous “dates” before meeting his dream girl, but it gets complicated because she has a boyfriend. Due to a very specific and relatively rare mutual interest, the two have plentiful reasons to continue seeing each other, and they quickly grow close. The girl breaks up with her boyfriend, leaving an opening for the leading man to sweep her off her feet. But just as it seems he’s about to get the girl, she discovers something he’s done, an act of dishonesty or betrayal, that makes her reject him, despite his pleas that he did it for her and she’d see that if only she’d listen to him. The leading man then “chases” her in an attempt to get her back. Where the structure diverges is the ending,, which in the rom-com pretty much has to end with them reconciling and getting together. The horror version, of course, must end with blood, blood, blood. In a good rom-com, you’re invested in the characters, so you worry that the lead will end up with the wrong person and miss their shot at true love. In a good horror film, you worry that the character’s intestines will be strung up on the wrong person’s curtain rods.

Envision this:
In June 2013, a film entitled “Mannequin Man,” opens. It stars the boyishly good-looking Elijah Wood in his first film as the romantic lead. Playing on the quiet charm he exhibited as Frodo, the film follows the love life of lonely introvert and passionate mannequin-restorer Frank Zito. The movie opens with Frank witnessing an attractive young woman being harassed on a street corner. He shows his nice-guy demeanor by following the woman, just to make certain she gets home safely. He’s pretty much hopeless with the ladies, so he doesn’t realize how creepy it is when he approaches the woman at her front door. She freaks out and makes an embarassing scene, and Frank slinks off knowing he's blown it and she thinks he's a perv.

In the next scene, Frank is in the backroom at his store, interacting with his mannequins as if they’re alive. It’s kind of weird and slightly pathetic, but he’s pretty funny and charismatic, so we write it off as him just being a shy and lonely guy.

Unable to introduce himself to women in person, Frank turns to online dating. His handle is I M Timid, which doesn’t attract too many women, but eventually a pretty girl called RedLucie86 shows some interest. They agreed to meet for drinks and things don’t go as planned.

I'm sooooo in love with this woman.

A huge part of what makes Maniac work is the rom-com’s stock-in-trade: it makes it audience fall in love with the characters. When the audience meets RedLucie86, they will either be put off or attracted by her tattoos and piercings (put me strongly on the attracted side of the divide), but as we get to know her, we see she is a kind, fun person, more than willing to give a shy dude a chance. When we get to her apartment, we spy three keyboards in the corner, indicating that she’s a pretty serious musician and not merely a vacuous bar girl. Then she puts on a record, revealing herself as a vinyl enthusiast and winning me completely over (okay, I was probably in love the first moment I saw her gorgeous curls, but this cemented it). That’s when the seduction begins. RedLucie playfully flirts with Frank, but he’s clearly not comfortable with it, so she becomes more aggressive. She’s not so aggressive as to make the viewer think she’s a psycho, but aggressive enough that we clearly see that she’s not Frank’s Ms. Right. In the rom-com version, this would be the point at which Frank would freak out and embarrass himself before quickly making for the door.

Now imagine knowing only the quirky, cute version of the scene and then being subjected to RedLucie’s graphic strangulation and scalping.

Just when we think Frank's love life is doomed, an unlikely twist of fate brings along a beautiful, intelligent artistic young woman who just so happens to have a passion for photographing mannequins. Her name is Anna, and clearly, she is Frank's perfect match. He sees her photographing his display windows and invites her in to look around. They hit it off right away, and even discuss a possible artistic collaboration. But then, on her way out, she points out that Frank has lipstick on his face. Awkward! Wait, you say, that's exactly what happened in the horror version. And you're right. In fact, it was this scene that gave me the idea for the Maniac rom-com.

So the lipstick is the first bump in the road for their relationship, the second is that she has a boyfriend, so they've got to keep things strictly professional. He makes her some faceless mannequins for her gallery show, and they go out to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, as friends of course. As she works on her show, Frank backs off a little, not wanting to come on too strong, he even attempts to get a date with a lovely aerial silk performer, but inadvertently finds himself stuck in the closet of her dressing room after the show. This sequence is a classic comedy of errors. Frank has the best of intentions, but every bumbling attempt to connect with the girl makes him look like a weirdo stalker. Frank barely manages to escape detection, and the girl leaves in a hurry, forgetting her purse. Ever the gentleman, Frank attempts to return it to her, following her all the way to the subway. When he finally gets close enough to speak to her and tries to return the purse, she bolts. Not realizing why exactly she's creeped out (maybe something to do with the purse being left in the dressing room rather than somewhere public where a passerby could find it), he chases after her, trying desperately to do the right thing. In a parking lot, she falls and twists her ankle. Frank catches up, but she's screaming so loudly that he just leaves the purse on the ground next to her and flees the scene.

On the night of Anna's big gallery opening, Frank must overcome his social awkwardness and make an appearance. He's doing very well until a series of encounters with Anna's rude art-world friends puts him on edge. Anna's drunken agent insults Frank's life's work to his face. He stews about it for awhile, but then can't take it anymore. When the agent leaves, he follows so he can give her a piece of his mind without making a scene at the opening. She manages to stay well ahead of him, so Frank ends up following her all the way back to her apartment. When she sees him at her door, she doesn't give him the chance to speak, but immediately freaks out and starts throwing shit at him and screaming. In her frenzy, she too falls and hits her head on a countertop. Frank rushes to help her and ends up calling an ambulance. When the police arrive, they take him in for questioning, but eventually let him go.

The next day, he visits Anna, who is upset both because she has broken up with her boyfriend, and because of the news that her agent was attacked in her apartment and had to have stitches. Frank, of course, doesn't know how to own up to his role in the accident, so he plays dumb. Then, in the middle of the visit, Anna gets a call from her agent, who tells her it was Frank who "attacked" her. Anna gets pissed and kicks Frank out of her apartment. The rest of the film is basically Frank following Anna, who has decided she's getting back together with her jerk ex-boyfriend. A series of near-slapstick mishaps keeps Frank from catching up too quickly, but when she finally notices she's being followed, she hastily accepts a ride from a stranger. Urging him to step on it, they get in a collision.

When Anna awakes in the hospital. There's a huge bouquet from Frank, and not so much as a card from Mr. Wrong.  There's also a video apology from Frank, who explains his intentions and wins her over. The film ends with Anna showing up at his shop and a big, sloppy make-out session.

Alternately, instead of going with the whole agent fiasco (which might set too dark a tone for the film), Anna could walk in on Frank while he's having a weird dance party with his mannequins in the back room. Of course this might crank up the pervy knob just a bit too high.

The movie comes out with decent numbers and mixed, but mostly positive reviews. It is a fun trifle of a movie quickly forgotten by most. Forgotten, that is, until August 2013, when Maniac premieres. While Mannequin Man wasn't a huge hit, Maniac causes the internet to explode with alternating praise and outrage, so much so that theaters are forced to reopen Mannequin Man to accomodate those who missed it the first time around. Horror nerds, of course, would have already picked up on the fact that Mannequin Man's hero was named after Joe Spinell's 1980 character, and their minds would have been half blown seeing all the parallels between Mannequin Man and William Lustig's Maniac. But when the secret remake is dropped on them, their heads simultaneously explode, eliminating the entire audience for Maniac. The film goes down in history as being responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of horror fans worldwide. It is banned in 75 countries and becomes the most illegally downloaded film of all time.

And that, dear sirs, is why I consider Maniac both a great horror film, and a failure of epic proportions.

Marvin the Macabre

March 25, 2014

Book Review - Joyland

Review by The Mike.

I hope that someday, when I get old, I'll be able to look back at my life with the wisdom shown by a Stephen King narrator. King has often been able to tell a story from the viewpoint of a grown man looking back on his tumultuous youth - for us movie fans the easy example is when Richard Dreyfus told the story of Stand By Me, though my favorite might be the lead character from his more recent tale Riding the Bullet - and he does it again in Joyland, a 2013 novel that offers just enough of the supernatural and the homicidal to suck a horror fan like me into this fantastic coming-of-age story.

At the center of the book, telling his tale from an older and wiser future, is a man named Devin Jones who went by Dev or Jonesy when he was a 21 year old amusement park employee in the summer of 1973. Jonesy, as I'd like to call him, is an altruistic English student, a virgin who spends his summer pining for the girl he lost while listening to The Doors and reading The Lord of the Rings when he's not working, and someone who just seems to bring out the best in the people around him. Maybe that's because he's the one telling us the story - our narrator does point out that everyone makes their past sound a little more exciting than it really was - but when we like the guy so much we're willing to go along with their version of events.

Jonesy's dramatic tale features plenty of interesting characters - carnies and college kids and a librarian and a sick kid and more - and all of them seem to orbit around his place of employment, the fictional North Carolina amusement park which shares its name with the novel. Joyland isn't a big deal of a place and Jonesy never paints the most glamorous picture of it, but he and King certainly paint it as an environment that would inspire someone to mutter that the place "has character."  King is more than willing to pull back some curtains in the entertainment business, providing Jonesy and his co-workers with their own lingo that he dubs "the Talk,"  but most of the seedy prejudices you might have about carnival workers are absent from this book. King doesn't want us to think of Joyland as a bad place, despite some of the terrible things he creates there.

Those who know Stephen King's work (at this point in his career, is there anyone who doesn't?) might be surprised at how much of the book (which runs a meager 280ish pages in total) is about the carnival life and our lead's self-discovery during his time away from school. King does everything in his power to make Jonesy seem like a good kid - thanks to his narration from thirty years later things like suicidal tendencies and masturbation are brushed off as dumb kid stuff - but it never seems too forced. It's essential to Joyland that the reader truly likes Jonesy, and after finishing the book I don't see how anyone couldn't. He's a sweet character who is slightly one note, but he's never too simple or cliche.

This is a Stephen King book, and you're right to expect something sinister, but it's one of his most restrained supernatural tales. There are hints that some characters possess what his other books might call "a shine" and there's a ghost and there's talk about a few brutal (but not so brutal that you wouldn't see them on a prime time network drama) murders inside the story. Joyland left me wanting a little more in these areas - there are lots of explanations of experiences had by others but not enough direct reader-meets-evil moments to keep a more cynical horror fan's attention - but it's also a bit poetic how King manages to tell a story of a killing and a haunting without losing the book's more life-affirming message.

Joyland worked for me because it's written like so many other great King stories of redemption and growth and hope - themes that often get forgotten when people want to talk about Pennywise the Clown or Randall Flagg or Jack Torrance and his axe - and because it manages to keep a positive twist on death and the macabre. The book is full of death and sadness, but its structure - especially all the asides from the older Jonesy that key us in to some twists down the road - provides plenty of levity that keeps us from sinking too far into the darker details of the story. It feels like this was all so simple to King - this is one the slightest books I've ever read from him - but I couldn't help being impressed when I realized how invested I was in this character and the events that made his time at Joyland so unforgettable. Joyland isn't an epic of terror like some of his more renowned classics, but it's a reminder that the author can still grab our focus and hold it for as long as he likes.