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January 30, 2011

The House on Sorority Row

(1983, Dir. by Mark Rosman.)

Aside from the big franchises, I never spent a lot of my younger years as a horror fan meddling with the slasher subgenre.  So, some movies that folks who love that stuff love - like, for example, 1983's The House on Sorority Row - have evaded me for most of my life.  I've been doing my best to catch up (I've even seen the film's pseudo-remake, 2009's awful-yet-captivatingly-watchable Sorority Row), and now that I've seen this, I can see why it has a reputation in what I've often found to be horror's silliest group of films.

Though it might be the most overused slasher tactic this side of "holiday/large social event that coincides with a tragedy", The House on Sorority Row's plot takes off when a prank goes wrong.  The result appears to be the death of the sorority's overbearing house mother, though a opening flashback to something like fifteen years earlier (there's that regurgitated slasher mindset again!) lets us know that there's more to said house mother than meets the eye.  Blah blah blah, then people start dying.

The plot of The House on Sorority Row takes a few drastic turns - there's something about an experimental drug and a potentially dead child and some other stuff - and I had a bit of trouble keeping up while in my vegetative "Oh, it's a slasher film, I don't need to engage brain functions" state.  The film takes some weird psycholgical turns in the final act - there's a fantastically cool sequence that I almost thought would lead to a dance number as our potential survivor girl faces the final challenge.  Bright colors saturate the darkness of the final act, and the lighting overcomes some of the hurdles you'd expect from a near thirty year old cheapie slasher.

The characters are your standard group of victims.  One is smarter and braver than the others, one is witchier (with a b) than the others, several are meek, some are skanky, one even has a perm.  They do normal horror victim things, like putting themselves in spots where they can be killed.  In other words, they're stupid young people who are played by aspiring not-as-young actresses who range in talent from middling to atrocious.  A couple members of the cast went on to good careers in daytime soap operas, which isn't surprising considering their tone here.  The film has a definite aura of overdramaticness.

And yet, it's all kind of charming because it's a slasher film that doesn't look like a boring slasher film.  A scene in which perm girl goes into the basement alone is framed wonderfully, and the final 15 minutes are as good as most slashers from the time period that I can think of.  Plus, that psychotic tripping out scene is something I could watch on repeat.  Is the House on Sorority Row a good piece of cinema? Of course not.  But I had fun with it, and can see myself popping it in again as late night entertainment in the future.  You might enjoy the same.

January 27, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #56 - Phantom of the Paradise

Man, when I started the Midnight Movie of the Week train rolling back in the day, I had Phantom of the Paradise on my shortlist of flicks to cover.  Somehow, it fell through the cracks until now.  Long before that, this film was one of the first two movies I ordered online when I was first learning of this newfangled website that had things for sale.  The other film was The Devil Rides Out - which was the first Midnight Movie of the Week.  Thus, these two movies are kind of like brothers in my mind.  At the very least, they're like an awesome Tango & Cash style power duo.

Personal mental connections aside, Brian De Palma's rock musical amalgamation of Faust and The Phantom of the Opera is certainly a one of a kind film.  Like many of De Palma's thrillers, there's plenty of "borrowing" going on throughout the film, and connections to Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Edgar Allan Poe - to name a few - have been made by others.  Plus, one of my favorite moments in the film - the opening of The Paradise - features a wicked background that has to have been inspired by German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s. It always makes my jaw drop.
But like I said: there's no denying that Phantom of the Paradise is as unique as can be.  De Palma's vision of the classic tales he pilfers comes at the viewer from several different angles, and there's a fantastic balance of comedy, horror, and drama throughout the musical adventure.  A lot of his power comes from the unique characters, none of whom seem to fit into Hollywood conventions.  The cast, led by character actor William Finley and songwriter Paul Williams (with assists from future Suspiria star Jessica Harper and favorite side character Gerrit Graham), doesn't carry big names; allowing each actor a bit of comfort in their own skin as the dark fantasy plays out.
(It's interesting to note that Finley, who had just co-starred in De Palma's fantastic psychological thriller Sisters, almost didn't have a role in this film.  Peter Boyle was attached to the film and was going to play the rock icon Beef, while Graham (who eventually played Beef) was scheduled to play the diabolical Swan, and Williams (who eventually played Swan) was scheduled to play The Phantom.  Williams balked at the idea of playing the Phantom due to his 5'2" height and position in the record industry, and Boyle was busy - possibly with Young Frankenstein(?) -  so all the trades worked out.)

The comedic aspects of Phantom of the Paradise are something I often overlook, though it's hard to really look at the film and take what it offers seriously.  While the film is full of contracts signed in blood and hints toward the presence of Old Scratch, there's certainly an satirical tone throughout the film.  Some of the humor is blatant - like De Palma's version of the shower scene - but there are a lot of moments where the dark side of the film and the comedic side come together in an awkward manner.  The final minutes capture this well, as it's hard not to laugh while the final twists are playing out and the film picks up a slapstick pace, but the viewer will probably have the rug pulled out from under them by the dramatic final moments. 
And there is also the music, which covers a wide range of tones and topics and seems to fit perfectly into each scene.  My favorite number might be Somebody Super Like You, which captures the high point that is Swan's grand opening, and leads into the silly Life at Last which presents the overcompensating masculinity of the Beef character, who is a very feminine fellow off stage.  The Hell of It, which plays over the end credits, is also a highlight in how it wraps up the film, and should help you leave the viewing with a smile on your face.
Phantom of the Paradise won't be mistaken for De Palma's most artistic work or his most subversive work (I'd probably place the dynamite thriller Blow Out atop both lists), but it's a great example of his quirky ability to capture the viewer's attention and it certainly shines as one of his most upbeat works, despite its connections to famous tragedies.  Despite some shortcomings, it's lived long for me as one of the most infectious bits of cult cinema to come out of the 1970s, and I can't think of a movie I'd rather watch - yes, even that other '70s cult rock musical - at a One Mike Midnight Dance Party*.

Oh, and Rod Serling does the freakin' opening narration!  What more do you need from a film????

(* - I don't know what a One Mike Midnight Dance Party would look like, but I'm sure it'd be AWESOME.  Right?)

January 25, 2011

Where to Find The Mike Lately.... (And Other Great Horror Web News!)

Remember that one time, a couple of weeks ago, when I was like "Oh yeah, I'm busy, but I'm doing something  that might be awesome?" Well, as fate would have it that cool thing became TWO cool things, and then another cool thing came up that The Mike proudly endorses.  So, he wanted to offer a quick few words to tell FMWL fans about a few really cool things going on right about....NOW.
Those of you who've been around a while know that The Mike has, on occasion, offered a guest post to Flickchart: The Blog, the talky companion to the most addictive cinema site known to man.  I'm pleased to announce that I'll be contributing a weekly piece to that site this year, and that this reign of Mikeness began this week with a post on why The Limey belongs among the "Movies You Should See Before You Die".  I won't specifically be talking about genre related films at their site, but I hope to share some pretty cool stuff.  Y'all are very welcome to come along for the ride (even if it means you have to see my creepy mug)!
Non Mike related (thus far), but also awesome is the new Planet of Terror podcast hosted by friend of FMWL Cortez the Killer over at Planet of Terror!  Check out CTK's first podcast, which is up now, and keep your eyes on Planet of Terror.  I'm sure he'll have some of the best voices in independent horror and horror blogification joining him in the future!
Last, but not least....the big thing.  Around the middle of last year, a horror website popped up and quickly made me proud to be someone who spreads the word on horror and genre cinema.  That website was and is The, and it quickly set out to bring together some of the best voices in the cyber horror world in one place.  It wasn't long after the site debuted that The Mike made posting at The Bloodsprayer one of his two biggest goals as one who shares the love of horror.
Thusly, I'm ecstatic to share that a guest post written by yours truly is gracing the front page of The Bloodsprayer on this very day!  Ms. Kristy Jett, the site's "First Lady of Filth", asked me for a piece on one of our mutual favorite directors, Hammer and Amicus Films legend Freddie Francis, and I put together the biographical article you can find HERE. I'm still not quite sure I nailed it, (I ran a little long and a little dull for my liking), but they liked it enough to post it.  Regardless, I'm humbled and honored to have had a chance to share my words through such a fantastic site.  So you should go check it out!

Last but not least, there's two days left to vote in Total Film's Blog Awards, and you can still find that link at the top right of the page.  The contest is pretty much ended, but I wanted to offer a deep bit of thanks to everyone who has either voted for FMWL or who has taken a look at FMWL after finding us through these awards.  It's people like y'all that make The Mike's day.  I salute you.

Now click one of those links and get reading or listening!

FMWL Indie Spotlight - A Foundling

(2010, Dir. by Carly Lyn.)

There's something fantastically poetic about A Foundling.  It doesn't seem like much as it's warming up, but with each minute the film seems more intriguing.  I'm not sure I was ever quite sure what to expect from the film, the first feature from director Carly Lyn, while it was moving through its plot, but looking back at the full product I'm more than impressed and a bit enamored.  This is a one of a kind sci-fi drama.

A Foundling opens as the tale of two Chinese American sisters who have been separated their whole lives.  Virginia (Cindy Chiu) is married and proper, refusing to allow blasphemy and cursing, and Mattie (Nora Jesse) is her orphaned sister who has a foul mouth and is open to prostitution.  The latter has been sprung from some kind of captivity by the former, and the duo seem to be on a voyage to discover their sisterly bond...until they come across a pile of wreckage and an injured young "creature".

The women will face their own tribulations on their journey - after all, it is "immoral" for women to travel alone, and they are Chinese in America during the 19th century.  Adding a bundle of possibly extraterrestrial joy to the mix seems like an odd choice for a film of any kind, and there are more than a few moments early in the film where you really wonder if this all is going to lead somewhere.  As chunks get taken out of horse's legs and food gets peed on, things start to get a bit weird...but Lyn (who also wrote the film) definitely has a strong vision of what the film plans to accomplish.

With so much of their on-screen time spent alone in a desert, the actresses also have to take charge.  Chiu's Virginia fascinates by being the more conservative member of the party, while Jesse's turn as Mattie seems innocent despite her upbringing.  The differences between the sisters are drawn out perfectly, and it's refreshing to see two female characters that aren't one dimensional.  A lesser filmmaker might have kept the religious sister as the proper sibling and the ex-trickster as an uncaring sort, but the actresses and their director can tell that things aren't always that easy.  The end result are two memorable characters that should blur the expectations of the average viewer.  The supporting cast, led by Shelby Bond as a respectful male traveler, are also very good at what they do.  This is one of the better ensembles that I've seen in an independent film of late.

Though the pace of the film is methodical, A Foundling is edited well into a brisk 90 minute duration.  A fine dramatic musical score accompanies some of the quieter moments, thanks to Italian composer Pierpaolo Tiano, and the sound effects - including a lot of rustling winds - give an authentic feel to the film.  The camera work is pretty restrained - most shots are a little too tight to give the film an "epic" western feel - but the close focus keeps us near the characters, which is where the drama of the film unfolds.

"Girl Power" rules the day in A Foundling, but Lyn's film is an honest and respectful attempt to present a feminine adventure that doesn't rely on sexuality or spectacle to draw the viewer's attention.  Male viewers might hear the phrase "Chinese Cowgirls and Aliens" and get their hearts racing, but they'll be disappointed if they come into the film looking for cheap thrills.  This is a genre-bending dramatic juggernaut, and I strongly recommend it to all.

For more information on A Foundling, head on over to the film's official site or find it on Facebook

January 23, 2011

Non Horror-Related Memo to All Friends of FMWL...


First time since this guy played for 'em....
If there's a little extra babbling or some terribly incoherent drivel in my posts over the next two weeks, I apologize in advance.  I'll be slightly preoccupied.
That is all.  Thank you for being awesome.

Midnight Top Five - The "Helpful Horror Neighbors" Edition

In reality, being a neighbor doesn't mean much any more.  We all wish we had great neighbors, like the cast of Welcome, Back Kotter, but life is never really that easy.  For example, some of my friends used to live in an apartment building in which the man who lived below them was a loud, abrasive, foul-mouthed fellow who would stand on his deck and shout at people over the phone and talk about how stupid women are.  My friends and I, knowing this man was certainly on edge, would sit quietly in their apartment with their deck door open.  We would listen in on his conversations, we would laugh about the orange dude with the fake tan who was crazy, and we would say things like "Man, he's gonna kill somebody someday!"

That dude is a convicted killer now

While I don't think we were in a position to stop this dude from becoming a murderer - First of all, the dude hadn't killed anyone yet; second of all, the Final Four was on that weekend and we were thus busy - I suppose our run in with a neighborly killer could be paralleled with the neighbors we usually see in horror films.  As art continues to imitate life, neighbors in horror films continue to play less of a role.  Some movies take neighbors out of the equation (The Shining, Friday the 13th, etc.), while others either ignore their characters' neighbors completely (wouldn't the people next to the Hellraiser house notice something's wrong?  How about Charlie Brewster's other Fright Night neighbors?) or make the neighbors ignorant (that scene where Laurie Strode bangs on a neighbor's door only to be noticed and ignored ALWAYS bugs me).

But, in the interest of neighborly love, I say we take a look at the people horror heroes should want to live next to.  Let's see what these five folks (plus a mysterious honorable mention!) have to offer:

John F. Kennedy - Bubba Ho-Tep

Living next to an ex-president has to be a good thing, even if he's presumed dead by most and has been dyed.  But I imagine there are few ex-presidents who would be as helpful in the case of an Egyptian soul sucking mummy as Ossie Davis' JFK is.  Armed with fancy suits and The Everyday Man or Woman's Book of the Soul by David Webb, it's safe to say that Bruce Campbell's Elvis wouldn't have stood a chance against said soul sucker without an assist from the now sand-brained 35th President of the United States of America.  Plus, he's got chocolate dingdongs and Baby Ruths.  Hail to the Chief, indeed!

Eli/Abby - Let the Right One In/Let Me In

If you need a neighbor who's going to protect you, you might be surprised to find that my top picks are a pair of young 'uns.  But the gender challenged Eli of Let the Right One In or the remade Abby from Matt Reeves' Let Me In will certainly be protecting neighbors if you get in their good graces.  Wielding great power and horrible CGI acrobatics, these two are small yet vicious, even if they do keep odd hours.  Bullies, beware!

Scary German Guy - The Monster Squad

The name 'Scary German Guy' may be a put off, but the character played by Leonardo Cimino should be near the top of any list of ideal neighbors put together by those dealing with classic monsters.  Mr. Guy has had a rough past, according to the randomly revealed tattoo on his arm, and thus should be adept in survival situations while bringing a lifetime of knowledge and plenty of helpful books to the table.  Also, Pepsi and pie.  (Seriously guys, you gotta find the neighbors with the good refreshments.  It's CRUCIAL.)

Ernie - Return of the Living Dead

In case of zombies, you need to have someone around who knows the ins and outs of corpses.  Enter Ernie, and don't let his orange headphones fool you.  This guy knows what's going on.

Well, maybe he doesn't.  Truthfully, I think most everyone in ROTLD has lost their darn minds.  But Ernie's relatively sane, kind of calm under the circumstance, and can cremate stuff.  Believe me, you're going to need to cremate stuff.

Solomon - The Hand That Rocks the Cradle

OK, so my list of potential neighbors so far has three senior citizens and two little girls.  Might as well throw in a mental defective. 

Solomon, as played by Ernie Hudson, is a lug with a heart of gold, despite any issues others may perceive due to his status.  He's a good worker, he's strong, but he's reliable with children too.  Plus...Ernie Hudson was a freakin' Ghostbuster.  You can't tell me Solomon doesn't have some of those Ghostbuster skills too.  Also, I just adore Ernie Hudson.  So Solomon must be on my list of ideal horror neighbors.

Honorable Mention:  The Mckenzies - Halloween/Scream

So, I imagine it's not actually the Mckenzie brothers, but you really never can tell.  Truth of the matter is that both Laurie Strode of Halloween and Casey Becker's father tell their loved ones (Tommy Doyle and Lindsay Wallace and Casey Becker's mother, respectively) to go "to the Mckenzies and call the police".  I don't know who these Mckenzies are - perhaps they are in fact beer-swilling Canadians - but in case of a cell phone emergency (and have you seen how often that happens in horror flicks?) you might need some Mckenzies down the road.  Just in case.

January 22, 2011

Dolan's Cadillac

(2009, Dir. by Jeff Beesley.)

There are convoluted revenge plots, and then there's what happens in the final half hour of Dolan's Cadillac, a 2009 film adapted from a primarily horror-free story by Stephen King.  I guess that none of what occurs is impossible, but the highly improbable turn of events could certainly leave a skeptical viewer shaking their head in disbelief.  This certainly isn't one of those "get a gun, get revenge" stories we've grown accustomed to; King and his adaptors definitely know that human nature isn't that simple.

Christian Slater and Wes Bentley star as the men on opposite sides of a murder. The film quickly establishes Slater as James Dolan, a Las Vegas based crimelord who is the head of a human trafficking ring. Bentley's schoolteacher and his wife (Saw II's Emmanuelle Vaugier) are caught in Dolan's path after she witnesses the murder of some immigrants during a deal gone wrong.  The witness can't go unpunished by someone with Dolan's power, and Bentley soon finds himself to be a grieving husband who is out for revenge.

King's story (which was published in his Nightmares and Dreamscapes collection) gives the deceased wife a bit more power over the story, but the film only gives us a few shots of Vaugier's ghost urging her husband to avenge her.  The resulting film lies somewhere between King's famous horror work and his well-known dramas, and leaves Dolan's Cadillac feeling like something of an outlier among adaptations of his films.  King does borrow from - or, should I say, pay tribute to - a famous story by Edgar Allan Poe throughout the tale, and does so quite well.  I won't dare tell you which story (it'd be a strong spoiler), but anyone versed with the two titans of print horror should pick it up quickly.

Bentley and Slater will never be accused of being actors with depth, but each fit into the simple story pretty well.  Slater has fun in the heavy role, though the character occasionally is presented as little more than a guy who loves to string together expletives.  Rumors say that the role was originally attached to both Sylvester Stallone and Kevin Bacon (who I'd assume dropped out because he already portrayed the inventor of the "Jimmy Dolan Shake & Bake" in The Air Up There), and I imagine either would have been a more interesting choice than Slater.  Bentley also fits into the "just good enough" category in his role, as he lacks much range to present the grieving husband's "ark of descent".

Despite the actors' limitations, they each seem to take their performances up a notch in the film's final act. The showdown between the two characters is more captivating than it should be based on the hour that preceded it, and it's a testament to King (and Poe) that the events that unfold seem to tap into the viewer's macabre fascination with revenge and death.  Better actors and an increased focus on the husband's grief while seeing images of his dead wife could have added to the story, but the struggle for survival that was put together by the author definitely provides a hook that will at least keep one's attention.

The result is a final product that is certainly not a bad movie, though I struggle to recommend Dolan's Cadillac as little more than something to pass the time as a Saturday afternoon matinee.  King's work has been far better and far worse on the big screen, but Dolan's Cadillac is at least a passable example of the dramatic range his stories can have. 

January 21, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #55 - The Illustrated Man

Before we officially name The Illustrated Man as this week's Midnight Movie of the Week, I have to give one disclaimer.  There's a lot more naked Rod Steiger in this movie than most movies I would recommend to you all.  In fact, the amount of naked Rod Steiger in this movie can be quite uncomfortable at times.  Like, really, ridiculously uncomfortable. And then there's this weird looking guy, Robert Drivas, who co-stars and is naked when the film begins too...which is also uncomfortable.  But hey, naked dudes happen.  We all had gym class growing up, we know it.  We just have to move on.
So, now that that's out of the way, let's talk about the 1969 adaptation of Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man.  Featuring three stories from Bradbury's 1951 collection of the same title, plus a wraparound story about how a carnival worker (Steiger) becomes a human canvas for a mystical redheaded woman (Claire Bloom).  He shares his story with a drifter (Drivas, who looks like Tom Cruise's weird cousin), while resting on the side of a lake, which leads to the three stories and discussions of how he has to find the woman (who he repeatedly claims has probably gone "back into the future".  Marty McFly ripped him off).
The three stories all star the trio of Steiger, Bloom, and Drivas, and bounce between virtual reality worlds, rainy ghost planets, and a gloomy future where the world is soon to end.  In The Veldt, Steiger and Bloom play the parents of children who are increasingly addicted to the virtual reality room their parents have provided them.  There are strong similarities between this setting and the "picture walls" of Bradbury's Farenheit 451, but there's something much more deadly at work in this surprisingly vicious little tale.
The Long Rain is probably the dullest point of the film, and thus it's probably good that it was dropped in the middle of the film.  In it, Steiger and Drivas wander a rainy planet that is alleged to be home to "Sun Domes" which will hold all the pleasures they seek.  Most of the story focuses on the battle between the men as they search for the Sun Domes, which allows Drivas a little too much time to try out this thing called "acting" that he's not very good at, but the story looks sufficiently bleak and the characters' plight seems to parallel the scenes we often see in war movies.  It's an interesting idea, but the abrupt ending doesn't do this segment of the film any favors.
The third segment is entitled The Last Night of the World, and it also spends most of its time trying to get at us psychologically.  In this story Steiger and Bloom are again parents (the same child actors from The Veldt return, and the film's minimalist casting across dimensions is kind of cool to see), this time in a society that has decided the world will end on this evening.  Apparently, a bunch of elders had the same dream, and thus they know the world will end.  The society's children did not have the dream, and thus will be spared the horrors of the apocalypse - by being given cyanide capsules by their parents.  The dilemma, of course, regards whether or not these parents dare commit such an unpseakable act, and the short story features an effective twist ending (which is handled slightly hammily by Steiger).
In the meantime, segments between the tattooed - excuse me, they are "skin illustrations" - Steiger threatens to kill the woman who did this to him, and the drifter becomes more and more convinced that the illustrated fellow is dangerous.  And that's pretty much the whole movie.
The more I write about The Illustrated Man, the less I care for it on a cinematic level.  Steiger overacts often, Drivas is primarily terrible, and Bloom looks amazing but is used far too sparsely for the character(s) she plays to really impact us.  Director Jack Smight really seems to show no control over the film's stories (the pacing is atrocious), and Steiger just kind of takes over the whole movie.
There are several positives about the film, of course, or I wouldn't be listing it here.  Jerry Goldsmith offers another fantastic score, and the visuals and makeup are top notch.  The film tries hard to be a sort of warning to society - telling us that looking to the future can trip up the present - but there's not enough connection between all the segments to really sell that.
So, when it really boils down to it, I can't pinpoint why I'm choosing The Illustrated Man - a critical and financial failure that I can find plenty to complain about - as a Midnight Movie of the Week, but there's something mystical about it that sucks me in despite the flaws.  Though it doesn't succeed in many regards, there's something incredibly gripping to me in its awkward stumblings.  Maybe it belongs in the "so bad it's good" pile, or maybe it's got a deeper meaning that I haven't figured out yet.  But for some reason, that darn tatted Steiger grabs my brain and hooks my attention, never to let go until I'm left pondering what exactly happens next for The Illustrated Man.
Yeah, I know there's a book with fifteen more stories that I could read to find out.  But sometimes the middle-of-the-road movie is good enough for me.

January 18, 2011

Random Horror Throwdown - Videodrome vs. The Stepfather

OH HAI Random Horror Throwdown.  Long time no see!  Yeah, I know, we used to hang out like every week.  Yeah, I remember that time when I made you go away and then brought you back a couple of months later then stopped hangin' with you again.  Well...I guess I missed you.

So you're back, and you've brought two of the '80s more sadistic films with you?  Oh, OK.  Let's see what happens when James Woods and Videodrome go head to head with the recently remade The Stepfather.....


The Movies: 

Videodrome (1983, Dir. by David Cronenberg.)
Starring: James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits.
IMDB Synopsis: A sleazy cable-TV programmer begins to see his life and the future of media spin out of control in a very unusual fashion when he acquires a new kind of programming for his station.  (Note from The Mike: I'm glad SOMEONE understood this movie!)

The Stepfather (1987, Dir. by Joseph Ruben.)
Starring: Terry O'Quinn, Jill Schoelen, Shelley Hack.
IMDB Synopsis: A family-values man named Jerry Blake marries widows and divorcées with children in search of the perfect family. As soon as his new family members show signs of being human and not robots who will march unquestioningly to his tune, his dreams of domestic bliss begin to crumble, and he kills them. (Note from The Mike: Way to survive this movie = Walk slowly and repeatedly say (in monotone) "I'm a robot. I'm talkin' like a robot. I'm a robot."  It just might save your life.)

The Directors:
Let's talk about Joseph Ruben for a minute.  The guy seems to be a jack of all trades when it comes to middle of the road genre cinema.  He's got that weird Dreamscape flick with Dennis Quaid, he's got the entirely memorable The Good Son, he's got Woody and Wesley's Money Train, and he randomly popped up in 2004 with The Forgotten.  Man, I kind of dug The Forgotten.  Yeah, I know, it's got a ridiculous, ridiculous, ridiculous twist....but there are a couple of moments that are golden.  And I do so love Julianne Moore.

Then there's David Cronenberg.  I've had an off and on relationship with Cronie's films, but I totally love A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.  I'm still catching up with some of his early stuff (I've never really gotten over how awful that lead actor in Scanners was, and have thus delayed seeing some of his work), but I'm willing to give his filmography and its weird twists and turns the edge over Ruben's random yet unmemorable filmography.  On the bright, I'd say these are the two best films from each director (though I might argue for Violence on some days), so at least we've got their peaks to talk about.  Chalk one up for Videodrome. (1-0, Videodrome leads.)

The Plots: 
That synopsis of Videodrome really does do the film a bit of justice, although any attempts to sum up what it's saying are surely missing 8,593 possible variables that one could glean from Cronenberg's film.  Saying that I think Videodrome has a lot of hidden messages is like saying The Mike has a lot of favorite's the most true thing one could say on the topic.

The Stepfather, on the other hand, has a distinct plot that not only makes perfect sense to me, but is perfectly creepy.  What if some dude was not only entering your life as a new father, but doing so with the intention of killing you if you didn't meet their standards?  Isn't that freaky to think about?  It's like Hitler without a Reich.

So, while I know there's a lot more to Videodrome than I'm letting on, I'm gonna go ahead and throw a point in the direction of The Stepfather for providing a SIMPLE but effective scare with its premise.  (1-1.)

My Experience With the Films:
The Stepfather spent a long time on my "To Do" List.  I remember reading about it when I started studying up on cinema as a teen, but by that point the VHS was out of print and newfangled means of acquisition weren't here yet.  So I knew it was out there, and it got built up as this elephant in the middle of the horror room that I couldn't deal with.  It was wicked sad.  Then it finally hit DVD and I was vindicated.  It was wicked glorious, and the film didn't let me down.  In fact, it was a little more brutal than I'd imagined it would be.

On the other hand, I was too young - at least mentally, I was probably 17-18 in human years - when I saw Videodrome.  I thought something like "Whoa, that was weird, but at least I saw Debbie Harry's boobs" and wrote it off as a mindscrew that was trying to be more than it is.  I'm still not convinced that this opinion isn't right, but over the years the film randomly popped up in my brain to say hello.  I never invited it, but it just showed up.  It's like the Cosmo Kramer of the horror part of my brain, just barging in and asking weird questions that I don't understand.  And I would ignore it, but I would also kind of start to like having it around.  And then I'd revisit it.  And revisit it again.  And again, and each time more frequently.  And then I realized that Videodrome and I were homeboys.

This is a tough category to handicap, but the fact that I compared Videodrome to Kramer means something.  Give it a point. (2-1, Videodrome leads.)

What's the deal with The Stepfather's remake?
Well, the deal is that it's not good.  Not good at all.  It manages to offer the same message as the original, holding on to that "if you don't meet the criteria you meet your end" thing, but it goes mega vanilla with Dylan Walsh and whoever the dude that played the suspicious son was.  It's a great excuse to show Amber Heard in 27 different bikinis, true, but it's a pretty bad horror movie by even the standards of the late '90s, let alone the decade in which horror has gotten some of its balls back.

What does the remake have to do with scoring this battle?  Well, nothing really.  But it's worth considering.  Is it better to be a film that inspires others to copy your idea, or is it better to be a film that's so unique and incomprehensible that no one dares try?  I'd argue The (original) Stepfather does the former, and it offers its idea so well that some could say it's worth repeating.  On the other hand, I'd argue that Videodrome does the latter, and that's a good thing too.  So....I don't know.  I'm not answering this question.  You ponder it and let me know what you think.

The Casts:
Man, I do so love John Locke.  I mean, Terry O'Quinn.  I've only seen like 7 episodes of Lost, and even before I had seen any of them, I still only knew him as John Locke.  People be talkin', y'know.  Anyway, Locke/O'Quinn is as good as anyone can be in The Stepfather.  Plus, the flick's got horror heroine extraordinaire Jill Schoelen, and Shelley Hack.  Not too bad.

Videodrome's got James Woods, who's no slouch either.  But really, it mostly makes me want to talk about how much I love Deborah Harry and Blondie.  Has there ever been a better female rock star than Debbie Harry?  I say no way Jose.  I just adore her.  And though it's a bit weird to see her in this overerotic role now that I adore her music so much more than I did as a silly teen, I still love the fact that she's here in this weird movie chillin' with James Woods and being a party to the invention of the stomach VCR.  Sooo...I'm giving this point to Videodrome.  And I don't care that it's solely because I love Blondie. (3-1, Videodrome leads.)

This Choice is Like:
There's a sport (which is pictured above) called Jai Alai.  I have no idea what the hell it is.  But seriously...look at that image.  Don't you want to love that?  Isn't it epic?  Doesn't it inspire such thought in you?

If you answered yes to those questions, you're with me.  And that reaction also sums up my feelings about Videodrome.  I can watch it and watch it and watch it, and even if I never find out what it really is....I still can't stop trying to love it.

I feel like this matchup should have been closer - The Stepfather is one heck of a real world horror film - but once you've seen Videodrome...much like the show that is the subject of can't really shake the mental infection it provides.  I will forever think of it as the Cosmo Kramer of cult cinema.  (3-1, Videodrome wins!)

January 17, 2011

The Collector

(1965, Dir. by William Wyler.)

I don't show it enough here, but I'm a HUGE fan of classic cinema...even of the non-horror variety.  Once upon a time, when I was considering writing about movies a second time, it was a toss-up between starting a horror themed site or a pre-1970s Hollywood themed site.  Thankfully for you all, I struggle to take things seriously, and thus decided genre flicks were more worth my talents (or lack thereof).

But whenever I find an old-school horror-ish flick that I haven't experienced, I get a little excited.  Such was the case when I learned of William Wyler's The Collector, the tale of a timid butterfly collector who tries to make a young woman love kidnapping her and keeping her locked in the ridiculously cool basement of his secluded estate in the British countryside.

Even though Wyler is a director who was nominated for his 12th Best Director Oscar (He had won three times already) for this film, I will admit that I was most excited about the film because it stars a young Terence Stamp.  Stamp is also the star of one of my favorite films, 1999's The Limey, but I hadn't really seen him in anything earlier in his career than his iconic turn as Zod in Superman II.  The Collector introduces him to us only three years after his debut (playing the title role in Peter Ustinov's adaptation of Billy Budd), and it's a revelation to see him so young and restrained.
In the tradition of Norman Bates before him, Stamp's performance as Freddie Clegg stays as far away from getting in our face as is possible.  The comparison with Bates is a little off - Freddie's mother is only slightly involved in the film - but the reclusive awkwardness of Anthony Perkins' groundbreaking role is echoed slightly in Stamp's mannerisms.  Unlike Bates, Freddie Clegg is an extremely calm and calculated antagonist, and scenes like the one in which his victim runs around looking for escape while he quietly clears the tea setting do a great job of showing us how devoted Freddie is to his psychotic cause.

Stamp's turn only works if the other half of the film succeeds, and Samantha Eggar's performance as his victim is nothing less than fantastic.  Eggar was nominated for the second of the film's three Oscars (the third was for the film's script), and does a fantastic job of showing fear in different ways as the film moves through the stages of being kidnapped.  This film takes place years before the condition known as Stockholm syndrome, which deals with victims showing positive feelings about their captors, would hit the news, but Wyler and Eggar seem to have seen into the future as they toy with the idea that poor old Freddie isn't as bad as society tells us he is.  Oh boy, and let's not get into Freddie's thoughts on society.  Let's just say he wouldn't be as far a critic of art and literature as folks like myself are about film.
Eggar's performance is certainly a bit scattered - she turns from fear to respect to hatred repeatedly - but I think the range of emotions she shows is crucial in selling the film's message.  Freddie Clegg is someone who has severe issues in how he deals with women, but his designs are relatively pure.  He feels that he truly loves Eggar's Miranda.  He doesn't want to sex her up, he doesn't want to cut her up and feed her to a vicious horde of monkeys, he just wants her to love him back.  And let's be honest, guys: we've all figured we can convince some lass they love us at some point.  The results of this approach vary, but in general they fall on the negative side of the spectrum.  (Ladies, on the other hand, have it easy in this department.  They have boobs.)  Freddie's got a lot to learn about the ladies, and Eggar just wants to survive his learning curve.

The Collector definitely runs a little longer than any studio would allow it to today, and there are a few lulls where the film seems to repeat itself, but the near love story between Miranda and Freddie is worth telling and kept me thinking throughout the film.  The final act is surprisingly harsh for a film of its era, but it allows the film to end an intriguing note that made me grin as I thought of the possible ramifications of Wyler's finale.
Long anticipated before its proper DVD release last December, The Collector most certainly didn't disappoint me as a fan of genre cinema or as a fan of classic cinema.  It's one part poetic and one part harrowing, with two fantastic performances and plenty of memorable twists.  Wyler was nearing the end of his run in Hollywood (he directed only three more films before retiring in 1970), but he did a good job of seeing where genre cinema might go with The Collector.  While it doesn't hit the highs of Psycho or Peeping Tom in the "repressed male in search of female companionship" subgenre, it's a treat that I'm excited to revisit in the future.

January 16, 2011

FMWL's "Right Title, Wrong Horror Movie" Double Feature

An ancient Chinese proverb says that when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.  I like to think that's kinda crazy, because I don't think the Chinese like lemonade, but that's beside the point.  What is actually the point, however, is that sometimes you get crap when you don't want crap...and you just gotta make the best out of it.

Such has recently been the case for The Mike.  In the past few months, a favorite DVD retailer of mine (who shall remain unnamed because I'm still in love with them despite their flaws) has not once but TWICE sent me the wrong movie with the same title as the horror movie I loved and ordered.  Said retailer is kind enough to refund my money and let me keep the incorrect film in these situations, which means that I've had two horror movies I wasn't really interested in dropped in my lap.  Since I had nothing better to do today, I figured it'd be an interesting double feature.  Let's make some lemonade.

Movie One

What I Ordered:  The Believers (1987, Dir. by John Schlesinger.)

One of my favorite underrated horror films of the fabulous '80s, John Schlesinger's The Believers puts Martin Sheen and his young son in the path of a New York City voodoo cult run by veteran character actor Harris Yulin.  Though the film misses some opportunities and gets a little silly at times (the dramatic event that starts the film is unintentionally laughable), there's some really creepy and atmospheric moments in the film, and a dynamite cameo by a young Jimmy Smits sells the mystery well.  Oh, and Robert Loggia's in it.  Which means it's a win.

What I Received: Believers (2007, Dir. by Daniel Myrick.)

Oh, what a difference a The makes.

Now, I actually had some hope for Believers, a completely unrelated cult film from Myrick, co-director of The Blair Witch Project.  Reviews were middling, but the promise of a Heaven's Gate style cult on film sounded relatively interesting to me.

Believers opens with a pair of paramedics heading off to a disturbance call on a country road.  Upon arrival they find an unconscious woman with a strange formula tattooed on her chest, and are promptly confronted and kidnapped by a bunch of old men in white with shotguns.  Anyone who remembers real life cults like this know what's going on immediately, but just in case the film mixes in a talking head character who spells things out for us and a little girl who seems to know more about what's going on than anyone else.  This cult, known as the Quanta Group, seems to think that they can stop the end of the world by killing a lot of people.  Oh, and the formula written on this lady's boobs means something.

The idea behind the film could certainly be an interesting one, but the film misses the mark.  Instead of focusing on why these people, led from behind the scenes by a man known only as The Teacher, are doing what they're doing, or what the complex equation written on the young woman's convex bosom has to do with mass suicide, the film spends far too much time letting the "reasonable" paramedics - one a christian, one an atheist - moan about how crazy the Quantas are.

Johnny Messner, who was briefly a rising commodity while costarring in films like Spartan, Hostage, and Running Scared in the middle of the decade, gets most of the screentime as the paramedic who believes in no God.  He's a decent actor for more musclebound roles (like his lead role in the B-Sequel Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid), but his limited dramatic capabilities don't help the film become any deeper than its hallow script.  Daniel Benzali, known previously as "The Bald Guy From Murder One", is effective as The Teacher, and their are some moments near the end that definitely keep the viewer on edge, but they're just too few and far between.  And then there's a totally ridiculous final twist that isn't near as deep as the film thinks it is.

Considering it was a free movie, I'm not too broken up by the fact that Believers underwhelmed me, but there's a good movie inside this one that I still want to see someday.  And since this movie will only remind me it isn't that movie, I don't see The Mike revisiting it in the future.

Movie Two

What I Ordered: The Silent Scream (1980, Dir. by Denny Harris.)

The Silent Scream (There's that The again!) will never be mistaken for a horror classic (but it may be mistaken for a documentary about abortion of the same name), but it's one of the more unique horror films of its era.  Featuring a supporting performance by a mute and haggard Barbara Steele, the not-quite-slasher flick has a tone that reminds of William Castle's original House on Haunted Hill and other old dark house films of eras gone by.  It's another film that doesn't quite hit all the right notes - it's terribly dated and the lack of onscreen violence might turn off slasher fans - but it's quirky and fun and I kind of love it.

What I Received: Silent Scream (2005, Dir. by Matt Cantu & Lance Kawas.)

Oh boy.  Again, THE matters.  Why do you think I'm The Mike?  Because Mike sucks, that's why.

2005's Silent Scream, overpopulated with actors and directors (it took two people to put this movie together?) who would fight to ever work in film again, is a perfect example of how modern independent horror can go terribly, terribly wrong.  It's one of those movies that you know sucks as soon as the film starts, thanks to poor camera work, bad acting, awful sound effects (there's a "tell-tale" heartbeat whenever our hooded killer shows up) and an overuse of gore to cover up other deficiencies.  I mentioned that 1980's Silent Scream lacks gore, but I'll take that film's practical restraint over something like this any day.

The plot is a cheapie slasher standard, as a bunch of college classmates are given the chance to go to a cabin in the snowy woods of Northern Michigan for the weekend.  After immediately starting to party and sex each other up - including a random threesome between a dude and two topless lasses in the first 10 minutes - they begin to die at the hands of a man in a big jacket with a furry hood.  Almost all of them die in the film's first twenty minutes, and I was hopeful that maybe the film would just end quick, but then more characters show up and the killing and sexing and partying begins again.  For another hour.  And then there's a totally ridiculous final twist that isn't near as deep as the film thinks it is.  (Whoa, deja vu.)

Silent Scream is about as standard as a no-budget slasher can be, but there's nothing enjoyable about what it offers.  There are a couple of surprisingly good moments of gore, I guess, but by the time they come around the viewer has been insulted enough by the film's inability to do anything original or impressive.  The acting is bad, the film is full of continuity errors, and I spent most of the time just wishing it would end.  The laughable twist at least made me take notice of the movie again during the final act, but only because I was noticing how it actually COULD get worse.

Look, I don't like to be mean to a movie...I love my horror movies like a mama lion loves her cubs.  But this is one of those horror films that give the genre a bad name.  Free or not, I still feel like I lost by seeing this Silent Scream.  (And by the way, how bad is that DVD cover??? Yuck.)

So, what did we learn from this double feature?  Well, we are reminded that THE is a very important word.  Perhaps we're also reminded that irony does exist, because two packages that disappointed me when I opened them also ended with disappointing surprise endings.  Perhaps...well, perhaps we just learned that bad lemons make bad lemonade.

January 15, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #54 - The 'burbs

I've spent a lot of time talking about movies that defined my journey as a growing film fan over the years.  Instead of talking about myself in the About Me section on the side of this page, I listed the films that first inspired me to fall for the oddities of the supernatural and disfigured.  But I don't spend as much time talking about how I was introduced to the other side of horror; the side that deals with every day horrors from the madmen who may live in our own neighborhood.
Many horror fans remember their first experience with Leatherface or some kind of slasher or something like Hannibal Lecter, but my first memories of real world terror....well, my first memories of real world terrors go back to the fateful night when 8-year-old Mini The Mike went to the theater with his father to watch Tom Hanks star in The 'burbs.  I didn't know what I was going to see, but I remember being entirely excited that Dad was taking me to a movie that was rated PG.  I'm not sure why, because as I look back I realize that I'd seen plenty of PG rated movies before then (it would be less than two years before the 'rents took me to my first R rated movie in that same theater), but that doesn't change the fact that pudgy little hyperactive The Mike was bouncing up and down the aisle like he'd just won the lottery.  And the film?  It didn't disappoint.
As much as I can recall the excitement of going to the movie, that sensation pales in comparison to the feelings I had after the movie ended.  I'd just seen demonic cults, mass murderers, and piles of bones in a trunk.  It wasn't a full dose of those things...but it was a taste.  Like the future alcoholic who'd just savored his first sip, I was hooked.  I didn't know why, and I couldn't explain what it was I loved about the movie to others without feeling a strange new sensation.  These things I wasn't supposed to have seen had come over me...and I liked it.
Not even Mini The Mike could mistake The 'burbs for a full-blown horror film, which helped the film go down smooth.  All I had to tell The Masha was that the film was "funny", and that was more than enough to get by.  But the film wasn't in my head because it was funny, or just plain fun.  It was in my head because it made incredibly dark and potentially disturbing things funny and just plain fun.  My mind was stained forever, but it was a socially acceptable stain.
Does that mean The 'burbs is single-handedly responsible for the mountains of macabre that have been built inside The Mike's head?  Probably not, but that doesn't make the film any less charming.  I've been a big fan of Hanks' early comedic work ever since, and would watch this or Dragnet or The Man With One Red Shoe over his latter acclaimed work any day.  There's a natural neurosis to Hanks' performances in these films, and The 'burbs lets him show off his physical comedy skills while still delivering great dialogue from Dana Olson's script.  He's supported well by Bruce Dern and Rick Ducommun, who play his more paranoid neighbors, and Carrie Fisher gets to play his concerned wife before slipping out of the spotlight for the '90s.
Now, as a much larger The Mike, the tone of Joe Dante's black comedy impresses me even more.  Assisted by Olson's script and a pitch-perfect musical score by Jerry Goldsmith, the plight of Hanks' Ray Peterson feels like it's designed specifically for voyeuristic viewers who are interested in escaping their everyday life.  The images balance between everyday suburban settings and horror movie scenes, while the music enhances the horror portion of the film while also borrowing from Sergio Leone and even pilfers tones from military cinema to follow Bruce Dern's Mr. Rumsfield around.  This is escapist Hollywood cinema in its most simple form, allowing the viewer to witness as a bunch of people who are bored with their surroundings begin to get carried away by the more interesting ideas that fill their minds.
As Corey Feldman's sage-like Ricky Butler - perhaps the most sane male character in the film - likes to point out, this is real life.  It isn't a movie like The Sentinel, which he references, nor is it one of those Leone westerns we all love, but it's still more interesting for the characters to treat their neighborhood as if it is.  Crazy little The Mike didn't know it, but this film would introduce him to the voyeuristic and diabolical side of cinema.  And, as fate would have it, Dante's dark comedy still represents exactly what he loves about escaping into horror and genre cinema today.

January 13, 2011

A Quick Midnight Bite....

Good evening, Midnight Warriors!  I wanted to take a quick moment and apologize that I haven't posted the last couple of days.  It's not because I'm sick of you all (it's not, you're alright in my book!), it's because I'm hard at work on something that (I hope) will make you all proud to love genre cinema and FMWL.

I can't tell you exactly what that thing is, but completing it will fulfill one of the two major personal goals I set for myself during the last year of writing.  I am truly excited about it, and thus I've been giving it a little more attention than FMWL this week.  Please forgive my absence.

Since this post serves as both an apology and a teaser, I thought I'd leave you with a small hint about this potentially glorious thing.  Below is one of my favorite horror related images - the teaser poster for Hammer's Dracula Has Risen From The Grave.
(Fun Fact: Dracula Has Risen From the Grave was the first film the MPAA ever rated.  As you can see was approved for "General Audiences" with the G rating!)

January 10, 2011

FMWL Indie Spotlight - Remote

(2008, Dir. by Marc Roussel.)

Most teenagers spend a majority of their time pondering the mysteries of the world.  They're young, they don't know what's coming. (HINT: Prepare for PAIN!)  These mysteries often take the shape of the opposite sex, or of vehicles, or of jobs, or of other practical things.  The Mike, however, had a certain particular mystery that kept his mind on edge for years.  That mystery was, of course, the ending of Terminator 2.

You all know what I mean.  John Connor assists the T-800 in destroying itself, so the future won't happen.  Problem is, John Connor sent his own father from the future to the past of The Terminator to impregnate his mother, which means that stopping the future would stop his birth in the past and that by stopping his birth in the past he would stop himself from being able to send his father to the past to stop the future.  That all blew my mind.  Some say time isn't linear, and that that fact explains this, but my brain is linear-ish.  And thus, these things kept me up nights.

Remote, a twenty-minute terror flick from writer/director Marc Roussel, taps into that interconnected area of my brain perfectly.  On a night in early 2008, a man (Ron Basch) who's stuck in a snow storm with the cable out comes across a strange TV channel which appears to be his apartment.  But this version of his apartment has a '70s flair and a young blonde (Sarah Silverthorne) in her pajamas in it.  Now, us guys have all had that fantasy, but this is not his imagination.  It's the same night, 30 years earlier.  Oh, and she sees him too.  And, since the volume's turned up, they can chat too.

Pleasantries are exchanged and, at first, this rift in the continuum of space and time seems pretty cool.  But the trouble is that the man learns, via our beloved internet, that the woman was the victim of an unsolved homicide...on this very night 30 years earlier.  The game is set.

What follows after the brief set-up is a series of twists and turns that kept me sucked in perfectly.  Though the past/future dynamic of each twist certainly had my head spinning the same way Terminator 2's finale did, I was very grateful for that.  From a horror standpoint, Remote features an excellent amount of tension and gore for its brief runtime.  The performers do a good job of selling the mystery of the film, and a couple of reveals are very effective surprises. 

Roussel's script certainly raises some questions, but the tone is relatively light and cancels out any attempts my brain made to be too logical. All the pieces might not come together as the story wraps up, but that just made Remote more appealing to me.  I spent a lot of time thinking about this one once it was over, and spent all of that time smiling.

Unfortunately, most of the things I thought about can't be shared without letting the cat out of the bag, so I'll simply warn you all to look out.  Marc Roussel's Remote is out there and it's an infections little piece of horror. 

For more information, head over to Red Sneakers Media for more information on Remote and Roussel's other films.