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December 30, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #104 - The Gate

People who grew up in the '80s really love the heck out of the horror movies of the '80s.  It makes a lot of sense, considering people always love what they grew up with, but sometimes I feel like they're a little misguided.  But then again, When I see that crazy fashion and those crazy hairstyles and all those neon colors...well, it's easy to fall for the '80s charms, isn't it?
And when I seriously start thinking about the horror of the '80s and my experience growing up in the genre, I tend to think about The Gate.  I'm not sure how the old Christian ladies that ran our small town library ended up getting ahold of The Monster Squad and The Gate and making them available to children like Mikeself, but those little old ladies deserve a hug for bringing this one into my life. 
The Gate might be the perfect horror movie for children.  In a way, it even kind of follows the Disney formula for kids in peril.  Parents go out of town, kids are left in charge with mischievous friends, trouble arrives quickly.  It's like The Lion King with a bunch of clay monsters.  And no Lions or singing.  OK, there's some singing.  But that's not the point.  The point is that it's a movie about kids facing their fears, which is what Disney does all the damn time.
The Gate isn't about lions or mermaids or any of that boring Disney stuff, thankfully.  It's about a hole in the backyard that has weird geodes (aka those rocks you crack open that look pretty inside) in it and also is a gateway to some kind of hell that's full of little angry monsters and unleashes a lot of other weird stuff too.  That "weird stuff" takes on all kinds of forms throughout the film, and it seems that most of them - aside from the mini goblins - are the kinds of weird stuff that many kids would have nightmares about.
After all, what kid isn't afraid of whatever is living under their bed?  I know I was, and I'm willing to bet you were too.  And that's just part of The Gate's weirdness.  Other scenes that seem to have been designed to destroy a child's ability to sleep at night involve a dead body coming out of a wall, a badly killed dog, and - in true kid manipulation form - parents turning evil.  That last one is still one of the few moments in horror that really gives me the willies; a scene that - thanks to some great sound effects - has stuck in my mind for at least 20 years.
It's a testament to director Tibor Takacs - whose I, Madman is another kinda surreal, kinda creepy, kinda awesome '80s horror movie (that's not for kids) that's been chosen for MMOTW - that The Gate manages to pack so many surprises into 85 minutes.  And it's more impressive that the chills still work on me as full grown adult.  Sure, the film is as dated as any '80s offering, but the effects still meet the story's needs very well. (I must also mention that the film is helped out today by a shockingly good DVD transfer by Lionsgate, which is seriously one of the best looking restorations I've seen on the format.  I had the old bargain full-frame DVD before this one, and the improvements that Lionsgate were able to make are nothing short of amazing. It's one of the best '80s horror DVDs out there.)
I'm sure there are viewers out there who haven't seen The Gate yet and who might struggle with its combination of clay monsters and young Stephen Dorff, who already had brooding and squinting down at a young age.  But I really don't think it's just nostalgia that has me loving The Gate today.  Takacs' film is still a bold and ambitious horror film, with effects scenes - including a fantastic sequence when one of the kids slips into the deadly hole and the final confrontation with a creature from the pit - that would make most horror films jealous.  There's a balance between the scares and the action that keeps the viewer involved in the film, and they should be interested in The Gate's tale of terror even if they're not always scared by it.
And, as I already said, I think The Gate's scares will work best on the kids.  An early PG-13 horror film (once again debunking the myth that all effective horror films HAVE to be rated R), The Gate might be a perfect starting point for the youngster who's interested in scary stories or monsters and ghosts.  It's got just the right mix of scares and action, meaning the kids will not only experience the fear that they desire, but will also witness kids empowering themselves to deal with those fears.  
A lot of horror films aren't right for children, often because most kids want to see the spooky stuff but don't have a plan for how they'll not cry themselves to sleep later.  The Gate, on the other hand, is a movie that supports the brave kids.  Like other empowered kids films - films like '80s classic The Goonies and recent hit Super 8 - The Gate doesn't sell young folks short.  If you're gonna give into your kid's demand for "scary movies", you might as well start with one that reminds them they have power over their fears - and The Gate does that. And if you're a kid at heart who's looking for a fun '80s horror film, then The Gate is for you too.

December 27, 2011

FMWL Indie Spotlight - Rage

(2010, Dir. By Christopher R. Witherspoon.)

A few months ago I had the film nerd pleasure of showing a room full of folks Steven Spielberg's debut film Duel.  I talked a bit about that experience when I covered that film back then, but the biggest thing I took away from the experience was just how much the crowd of viewers wanted to re-wire the mind of the film's lead character.  Horror films often get a bad reputation from fans who respond to movies by saying "I liked it, but that character was dumb when they ___________; I would have ________________ instead!", and Spielberg's Duel seems to really abuse that aspect of the film viewing experience.  The lead character is not a hero - in fact, I'd say the viewers don't even like him - yet the film captivates us because the conflict he's caught in is one we think we could understand if it happened to us.

Which brings me to Christopher Witherspoon's thriller Rage, a film whose inspiration is evident even before two extras on a bench loudly start discussing Duel and the theme of faceless aggression that is shared by Witherspoon's film.  Like Duel, Rage follows a lone man on the road, but this version has a battle between a motorist who is dealing with his own personal issues and a black visor-ed fellow on a motorcycle.  The lead - played by Rick Crawford - is a married man who is using his day off to break up with his mistress, but instead ends up trying to outwit that fella, a non-descript guy who carries a big knife and seems to have a built in GPS for finding his human target.

Also like Duel, the movie primarily focuses on our not-a-hero and his inner struggle while trying to figure out who this man on wheels is and why he's made it his personal mission to terrify him.  Crawford has the same slightly pathetic charm (can I really even call it "charm"?) that Duel's Dennis Weaver offered, and I imagine viewers will have a similar response to this film thanks to him.  I admit that I even caught myself falling into that "Wait, why doesn't he just _______________?!?!?!" trap a few times during the film.  That's nothing to be ashamed of, it's the natural response for someone who witnesses a crisis situation.  Witherspoon has clearly studied the tricks used in Duel, and he executes them - and plenty of other tricks from horror favorites - well throughout the film.

Rage doesn't have the same tension Duel does, but it's easy to give Witherspoon a pass when you consider that not many filmmakers can be Spielberg.  My biggest concerns came when the action-packed film seemed to lose a bit of steam once the story became confined to the lead character's home. The events of the final act do present some human horror when the lead's wife (played by Audrey Walker, who gives a very good performance) becomes involved in the conflict, but the tone seems to shift too dramatically in these scenes.  The bloody and sadistic events of the final act should please gore lovers, and I won't deny their impact in pushing Rage toward its conclusion.  But I couldn't help wondering if a less bloody conclusion to the story might have helped maintain the interest I had in the film's first hour.  There are a lot of films that offer the same things the final act offers, and I was disappointed by the shift from the city-spanning, vehicle-based events that happened earlier in the film.

Those quibbles aside - it seems like I want to re-write the final act of every movie some days, doesn't it? - Rage keeps things simple and works because it focuses on the characters' plight and not the characters themselves.  There's something to be said for the power that's wielded by a vicious and faceless antagonist, because you've got no reason to root for them - even if the protagonist is a sniveling wuss.  Rage knows that and uses it to its advantage.  Heck, I argued about how silly viewers are for imposing their beliefs on this kind of movie two paragraphs ago....and then I tried to impose my beliefs on this movie in the last paragraph.

And that's the beauty you'll find in this kind of thriller; the beauty you'll find in Christopher Witherspoon's Rage.  The film grabs hold of the viewer and keeps them staring at the screen, subtly encouraging them to bark instructions at the characters and ruminate about just why this biker is so angry.  Even better, it's the kind of film that then resonates after the final shot, because that's when our mind slows back down to normal speed and we start to really understand what we just saw.

Basically, Rage is an effective popcorn thriller because it's got a great concept that it executes that concept with style.  The cast does well (BTW, that's Witherspoon under the biker helmet, which makes him the actor/writer/photographer/editor/producer/director of the film), the pacing is brisk up until the final act, and the musical score accentuates everything so well.  That's really all I need to recommend this intelligent and entertaining chiller.

For more information on Rage, be sure to head over to the official site, or check out the trailer below!

December 26, 2011

William Castle's The Old Dark House

(1963, Dir. by William Castle. Obviously.)

Do I need to give you all another commentary on remakes and horror movies? No, of course I don't.  These days remakes go together like reality TV stars and failed marriages. (I really don't watch any TV, but I hear that analogy works, no?)  And, let's face it, this isn't at all a new trend.  Once studios recognized how much money there was to be made in horror, sequels and re-tellings became all the rage in even the earliest days of cinema. 

But one of the more curious remakes I'd never encountered up til now is William Castle's version of The Old Dark House.  The original film was one of the most bizarre horror films of the early 1930s, as Frankenstein director James Whale filled a house that fits that description with odd characters ranging from a pyromaniac to a bedridden grandfather to - most importantly - an angry mute bearded giant played by the unmatchable Boris Karloff.  So when I learned that Castle - working with Hammer Films at the legendary Bray Studios(!) - had created an updated color version of that story in the 1960s....well, that's when my head exploded.

From frame one, it's pretty clear that Castle's version of The Old Dark House takes a drastically different approach than Whale's film.  The color film follows a comical lead character - I use "comical" very loosely here, because really this guy's just a big honkin' doofus - played by Tom Poston.  The character, Tom, is an American who is invited to a secluded mansion by the man he shares a flat with, and who is soon stranded with the kooky Femm family in the house, which is referred to by its residents as "old and dark" on at least two occasions.

(Speaking of kooky, one of the highlights of this version has to be the opening title sequence, which were drawn by the legendary Charles Addams - who knows a little bit about kooky families himself.)

Once Poston's Tom is in the house - via a trap door that keeps him contained a bit too often - he meets this family, which is not near as bizarre as the original family.  Instead, Castle's film sets out to provide a comedic take on the classic tale.  This isn't surprising considering Castle's output - his most famous film is probably House on Haunted Hill, which also ends up more tongue-in-cheek than most horror films - but this House is much further down the comic spectrum than most films that would be called horror comedies.  It seems like it's playing off a lot of the same tricks that the recent spoof Dark and Stormy Night would use almost fifty years later, but that 2009 film seems to have a better understanding of '30s "house" flicks than Castle's film does.

Part of me thinks Castle's Old Dark House is as bad as I sound like I'm saying it is, but part of me really wants to say I had fun with this film despite its silly comedic tone.  Poston's character definitely wears on the viewer as the non-stop slapstick antics increase throughout the film, but there are plenty of moments in the flick that do provide good chuckles.  The supporting cast is more interesting than the lead is by far, with the lovely Janette Scott playing it straight while a host of British character actors - Robert Morely, Mervyn Johns, and Peter Bull (in a dual role) add to the mysterious events of the film.  The most odd part of the film might be when we find out that one of the Femms is building an ark and believes the world is about to end, especially when his logic echoes that of the "prophet" who recently predicted the world to end in May 2011.

The film's madcap style of comedy misses as often as it hits - and there's absolutely no real substitute for Karloff - but there's a simple charm to this British comedy version of a Hollywood horror tale.  I'm certainly not going to replace my copy of Whale's version with this one, but it's a unique movie that I'm glad I saw.  It's far from being Castle's best, but at least it's a cute little adventure (with a lot of the cute little Ms. Scott) that's not completely annoying.  If you're a Castle completist you might have fun with this one. If you're one of those folks who loses sleep over remakes, you're best to just stay away.

(Speaking of Castle completists, I got a feeling (not a feeling that tonight's gonna be a good night, though that is a distinct possibility) that we might hear more about Castle in the upcoming weeks at FMWL. The William Castle Collection came to me via Santa this year, which means the schlock business is about to pick up for The Mike!  Oh yeah, here's the trailer....)

December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas to the Midnight Warriors!

Wishing the best to you and yours this holiday season!  Thanks for all your support of FMWL in 2011, your support keeps me rockin'!
 
Now enjoy these Christmas goodies!

December 24, 2011

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

(2011, Dir. by David Fincher.)

David Fincher's juggernaut of a remake/adaptation/end-of-year-awards-movie/trilogy-starter - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo - has probably been the most talked about movie of 2011 in many cinema lovin' circles.  Though I highly anticipated Fincher's movie thanks to the teaser trailer that pounded the viewer into submission, I did a pretty good job of staying away from info about the movie (including the book and the Swedish film based on it) before I sat down to experience the Americanized movie.  Go ahead, call me an ignorant American, I probably deserve it.  But we're talkin' Fincher here, I felt I needed to go in blind.

Thus, I really didn't know much about the film, except that the girl had a dragon tattoo and sex with Daniel Craig (you can never block all the plot details tossed around before a big release, can you?).  I also was pretty afraid of Craig's co-star, the 26 year-old actress Rooney Mara, who I proclaimed to be the most annoying mouth-breathing actress ever about 18 months ago when she starred in the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street.

For those who are - like I was - unfamiliar with the story of the title Girl, Mara plays a hacker/investigator/badass named Lisabeth Salander.  We meet Lisabeth because she's investigating a reporter (Craig) for a seemingly rich dude (Steven Berkoff, aka the bad guy from Beverly Hills Cop, whose presence in the film made me way too happy), and as we follow her we learn an awful lot about her life.  Lisabeth is a ward of the state, even though she's 23 years old, and her unstable behavior and the failing health of her guardian lead her down some very dark paths in the film's first half.  The abusive relationship between her and the man who takes custody of her is one of the more horrifying examples of sexual predation I've seen on film, and will surely be a talking point for many viewers who go into the film not expecting to see such graphic events on screen.

The thing is, Lisabeth Salander is pretty much the spirit of vengeance.  I'm not sure if that nickname's been trademarked yet; it sounds like something they'd say about a superhero.  But hey, Lisabeth Salander IS pretty much a superhero for abused women out there, and the story's willingness to show off the character's worst moments along with her great ones really makes the character one of the most triumphant strong young women to ever carry a film.  Thanks to the material she's given, Mara proves my earlier claims about how awful she is quite wrong - her performance is nothing short of fantastic throughout the film.  It's the kind of dynamic performance that can lift a film above its material, and Mara should be credited with a very large part of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's success.

The rest of the film is interesting too, focusing primarily on Craig's exiled journalist who investigates a 40 year old murder for a rich old man (Christopher Plummer) on a secluded, snowy island in Sweden.  The setting is one of the stars of the film, and Craig's interactions with the people on and around the island build a strong mystery throughout the film.  Craig doesn't do a lot of great things in the film - he's certainly here to be the "straight man" opposite Salander's loose cannon persona - but he's more than capable of carrying the film when she's not around.

I'm sure the people behind this story - from original author Stieg Larsson to Fincher to adapting screenwriter Steven Zaillian - won't be offended when I say that the film would lose most of its intrigue without the title character.  While the case in its backstory that surrounds Craig and Plummer and the island is worth consideration, Mara's Salander is what makes the movie notable.  I don't mean to slight the film's production values - it's full of beautiful imagery and the sound effects and music are pitch perfect - but the presentation of Salander's mental state and how it ties in to the loss and pain she's experienced throughout her young life is what really makes The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo fascinating.

In a manner that's completely un-PC (and not just because she uses Apple products), Lisabeth Salander is a larger-than-life hero for young women who have dealt with abuse and are struggling to stay on track in their lives.  The film's final few scenes - which seem to run a little long once the main conflict is tied up neatly - do their part to cement the ongoing issues that will motivate the character going forward, and I don't doubt we'll be seeing more of Mara as Salander in upcoming years. 

If the American versions of her story can keep the same edge that Fincher brought to this film, Mara could be set up for a good run as one of the most well-developed characters in Hollywood's recent history.  On its own, Fincher's Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is an endlessly watchable film with a technical mastery that cements the filmmaker's reputation as one of the top filmmakers working today.  This adaptation isn't going to be for everyone - I can hear the backlash from the conservative filmgoer sect starting as I type this - but I think it'll sit alongside the likes of Seven and Zodiac as evidence of Fincher's skill for molding a dark crime thriller.  It's probably the most enthralling film I've seen this year.

December 23, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #103 - Die Hard 2

Sometimes, when it's Christmas time, I like to watch movies that are, y'know, Christmas movies.  Some of them are movies like It's a Wonderful Life (seriously, if you can't love that flick you might be EVIL), some of them are movies like Christmas Vacation (which I kinda think is really awful when compared to the original Vacation and pretty annoying), and some of them are movies like the first two Die Hard movies.
At this point, you probably think I should be talking about the original Die Hard.  After all, isn't Die Hard the best?  YES.  Yes, Die Hard is the best. And I'm not even adding a qualifier to that statement, because I don't even think I need to clarify what Die Hard is the best of.  It simply is the best.

Yet I'm here today to say that Die Hard 2 is pretty awesome too.  While its precursor is certainly one of the coolest movies of all time, the sequel - directed by Finnish awesomemaker Renny Harlin - takes the heroic John McClane in a deliciously pulpy direction.  Harlin's film follows the "rules" of the sequel - you've gotta think this is one of the main culprits that was spoofed by Last Action Hero three years later - by amping up almost everything people loved about Die Hard.  Of course, that all makes the film a bit cheesier than John McTiernan's 1988  flick....but isn't that something we love about most midnight movies anyway?
The fantastic hero John McClane, a modern day cowboy that would make even rock band Tesla proud, is now in Washington D.C. a year after his exploits in Los Angeles, and Harlin takes steps to remind us that it is Christmas early and often.  That type of excess quickly spills over into other parts of the film, but Harlin and his screenwriters - the returning Steven E. de Souza and newcomer Doug Richardson - are quite aware of this problem.  At one point McClane is allowed to quip about how unlikely it is that he's dealing with the same plot devices on the same night once again, which is one of those great not-so-sly winks at the camera that I just love.
Along with his ability to crack wise about his situation that is carried over from the first film, McClane's powers of persuasion are increased in this film as well.  This is most evident when you suddenly realize that all the women he comes across - most blatantly the really turn-of-the-'90s-cute Budget Rental Car lady who teaches him how to fax the Twinkie guy - suddenly get all turned on when John McClane's around.  Another example of this comes from the on-scene female reporter (who is not Patricia Clarkson despite how much I want her to be Patricia Clarkson) who offers to carry McClane's children in exchange for a story.  However, this is a John McClane movie, not a Shaft movie, and thus our hero quips his way away from their advances and stays loyal to his wife, even though she's stuck on a plane for the entire movie.
Oh, that whole stuck on a plane thing comes into play thanks to a new bunch of terrorists who cover all races and creeds, led by the always cool William Sadler.  Sadler's turncoat Colonel is not necessarily as interesting as Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber was in the first film, but he's an imposing and smart adversary for McClane and his large army of henchmen provide a varied set of opponents for McClane.  Sadler is just one of the great additions to the supporting cast, which includes Coming to America's John Amos, the often sleazy Dennis Franz, Fright Night's Art Evans, future U.S. senator Fred Dalton Thompson and - last but never least - Django himself, Franco Nero.  Nero plays the General who has something to do with the Colombian drug trade and is a prisoner who sets the rather convoluted plot in motion.  It's never easy to understand all the details of the film's plot and why these soldiers-turned-terrorists are doing what they're doing, but it's also never dull to watch thanks to the fine cast.
While the first film confined McClane to a couple of floors in an office building, Die Hard 2 gives John full range over a large airport, which allows the character to get into plenty of trouble.  Some of the adventures seem a little too silly - like when McClane ejects from a plane that's about to explode and walks away unscathed - but others are full of excitement.  An attack on the small church where Sadler and crew are holed up, complete with racing snowmobiles, is one of the action highlights of the film, and the scenes on the snowy runway that end the film are sufficiently grand in scale.
Harlin doesn't skimp on the gore either, and there are a few scenes in Die Hard 2 that would make most horror fans proud.  There are several moments of "shock" violence - like close range bullets to the forehead or icicles being used as weapons - throughout the film, and McClane's battles with the henchmen often seem like boss battles from a video game.  (On a side note, rewatching the film tonight reminded me of the excellent Die Hard Trilogy video game that I had for Playstation One back when I was in high school, which turned DH2 into a first person shooter and was a heckuva fun time.)  Another great moment in gore comes in a late film scene where a throat is slit, and the special effects allow blood to gush and tissue to be exposed as the character gasps his last breaths.  Once again, this is an area where Die Hard 2 plays a little cheesier than the first film, but it still works for the most part.
While Die Hard seemed like it could almost be a real story of a cop who holed up in a hostage filled tower, it's pretty obvious throughout that Harlin's sequel is more interested in sensationalizing John McClane's Christmas Eve path of mayhem.  This isn't a knock against the movie, it simply means that Harlin has created an action film that's designed for the popcorn crowd.  It might not be a great movie - and I think the first film is a great movie - but it is a ton of fun to watch, and I dig when a director manages that while bringing a character back for a sequel.  After all, we all need to follow Dennis Franz' lead and lighten up sometimes.  It's Christmas time!

December 22, 2011

The Deadly Tower

(1975, Dir. by Jerry Jameson.)

It's 1966, and there's a sniper atop the university tower in Austin, Texas.  It sounds like a pitch for a high-concept thriller - and, since 1966, it has been a few times - but it's actually the true story of Charles Whitman, a former Marine turned sniper who killed thirteen people on August 1st that year.  His tale would be the partial inspiration for one of my favorite movies - Targets - in 1968, but it's tackled headfirst in the 1975 TV movie The Deadly Tower.

I've had a passing interest in the Whitman case since I first saw Targets, and when I saw that this "true crime" adaptation of the massacre and its bloody end starred the coolest actor to ever live (aka, Kurt Russell), I pretty much had to become good friends with The Deadly Tower.  And now I have, and now you're gonna read about it.

There isn't a lot known about Whitman prior to his actions - which became violent and criminal when he murdered his mother and wife in the early hours of the day of the shooting - so The Deadly Tower takes a rather simple approach to the character.  Russell makes Whitman an intense character who speaks very rarely...in fact, he pretty much spends the last hour of the movie squinting, pulling a trigger, ducking, and repeating.  He gets in a good primal scream at one point, too.  Presence is what the movie needs from Russell, and he delivers that.  The end result is a performance that isn't as jaw-dropping as I hoped it would be, but is memorable and efficient within the film.

Since a mostly-silent sniper isn't much of a story, The Deadly Tower also focuses on one of the police officers that would play a major role in the story, Ramon Martinez (played by Richard Yniguez).  The first half of the film attempts to create a parallel between the cop and the killer, both who have frustrations with their lives, but the film loses steam when it tries to play Martinez's issues against Whitman's.  Part of this might be due to some falsities in the film's production, as the real life Martinez sued the producers for misrepresenting his wife in the film (and won a settlement out of court).

Though the police investigation - primarily a couple of scenes with a Lieutenant and a Priest - does provide some background into the Whitman character, the police side of the story left me cold.  The Deadly Tower is most interesting when it merely lets us experience the gunner's horrific actions, which are handled well by director Jerry Jameson at most times.  The moment when Whitman takes his first shot at a random gentleman in a grassy courtyard is handled perfectly, and the film really seems to nail that "WHAT THE HECK DID THAT REALLY JUST HAPPEN" style of shock that you'd expect to come over you if you were trapped in the same situation. (Or at least the style of shock you'd expect if you expected to see the same situation in a movie.)  But then the film just kind of stays at that point of "Yep, he's shooting peeps and stuff" for a while, and the shock turns into boredom at times.

I am really glad I finally saw The Deadly Tower, because it has that raw TV movie of the '70s vibe that we seem to have lost as time moved past, and because I got to see Russell be an emotionless sniper in a clocktower for 90 minutes.  But I don't know if The Deadly Tower really did as much for me as I wanted it too, primarily because I wasn't interested in the cop side of the story and because the film grew repetitive with time.  I'm sure The Deadly Tower shocked audiences in 1975 - especially when you consider Russell's earlier fame via Disney - but it's pretty ho-hum by today's standards thanks to these problems.  I could see a Tarantino-esque non-linear version of the story working for today's audiences, but for now I'll probably just watch Targets again the next time I start thinking about the Charles Whitman case.

Or, I'll just watch news coverage from '66 on YouTube.

December 19, 2011

December 16, 2011

Wake Wood

(2011, Dir. by David Keating.)

There's something that's just not right about Wake Wood

I mean, we can certainly see that this is a production of the legendary Hammer Films studio - which has long been one of my favorite things in the world - and there are moments throughout the film that meet our expectations about Hammer horror completely.  And yet, as I watched Wake Wood unfold in front of me, I couldn't help getting this feeling in my gut that what I was seeing just....wasn't right

That feeling becomes a bit of a contradiction when you consider that the film's plot - in which a couple makes a devilish deal to restore their deceased daughter to life - focuses heavily on its characters having that same gut feeling.  As we watch the couple - played by The Wire's Aidan GIllen and The Children's Eva Birthistle - struggle with their emotions as they spend time with their formerly dead daughter (Ella Connolly), we probably shouldn't be struggling with our own emotions about the film's tone. 

Perhaps the film's tagline - which proclaims that 'The Dead Should Never Be Woken" - should have been something the filmmakers thought about the studio backing their film.  Wake Wood certainly feels like the most Hammer of Hammer's new breed of films, since it's rooted more in horror traditions than the remake Let Me In or the modern thriller The Resident.  But calling the film a Hammer production and making the film seem kind of like a Hammer production is a recipe for trouble to dedicated horror fans, as the similarities seem to enhance the differences.  It's kind of like meeting another horror fan and being really excited to hear they like zombie movies too, until you find out that their favorite is House of the Dead and they just can't stand George Romero's first three zombie flicks.  And then you're like "Oh, yeah, we do both love zombie flicks...but we don't really love the same things about zombie flicks at all."

And though Wake Wood walks and talks like a classic horror tale from the Hammer studios, the manner in which the film is presented created a distance between it and myself.  I liked ideas the film had - like Connolly's uneasy performance as the reborn daughter and the images of the residents of Wake Wood gathering to keep their community (and its supernatural forces) strong - but the presentation of the events didn't meet what I'd expect to see from a Hammer film.  I was probably too judgmental of the film to be truly fair, as I was judging everything from the camera angle to the lighting to the actors (who, aside from the great Timothy Spall, were just to shiny and new to be Hammer stars), but when I hear Hammer and gothic horror in the same sentence my mind fills with images of times gone by and old fashioned sound effects and wonderful music.  And the people that made Wake Wood had an entirely different vision of what their film was going to be than what I expected.

So, when the film pulls up to a dramatic climax, I was left annoyed by an intrusive wind turbine and the fact that I didn't think there were enough rustling leaves and was just nor sure that the heroine's hair was thick enough to blow perfectly in the wind that fills this wooded setting.  (Which is ridiculous, I know.)  And then when the film negated that climax with two more twists that were both handled with absolute silliness, I was ready to rant and roll like I am now.

I'm guessing I'm gonna have to watch Wake Wood again someday when I know that it's not REALLY a throwback to what Hammer used to be.  There were a lot of things I liked about the movie, like Spall and Connolly and some surprising scenes in which the undead youngster is involved in bloodshed, but I couldn't get past that feeling in my gut that the story of Wake Wood was wasted in a modern setting that didn't allow the Hammer magic that I love to really shine through.  I know that I hold Hammer to a higher standard than most, but I still feel like the film could have been a little bit more than what it was.

I might be way off base.  There was a scene shortly after the couple had their daughter returned to them that took my breath away, as some slick editing showed how the parents' exaltation evolved into romantic fervor once they put their daughter to bed for the first time in nearly 12 months.  I can't deny that the story within Wake Wood doesn't have its perks, but I think the film got stuck in a cinematic dead zone between modern horror and gothic horror.  Wake Wood would have been better off sliding one direction or the other, because it's the dual nature of the film that distracted me from really finding my way to the heart of Wake Wood.

December 15, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #102 - Soylent Green

Go ahead.  Just say it.  I know you want to.  

Feel better?  Good.

If you don't know the infamous spoiler from the end of Soylent Green, you might have looked at the above command with a puzzled eye.  But I'm willing to bet that most everyone out there who would stumble upon this little rambling about the film knows how it ends.  In fact, I'm willing to bet it's the most spoiled film that the least amount of people have seen in the history of Hollywood.  That's not to say Soylent Green hasn't been seen - over 19,000 IMDB voters give it an average score of 7/10 - but it's always been known more for its final reveal than the film that leads up to it.  Which is pretty sad, really.
I've wanted to feature Soylent Green here since the early days of this site.  Now that I'm taking the time to look at it, I find myself increasingly focused on just how heavy the film is on the viewer.  I'm sure the tone of Richard Fleischer's film is partially responsible (along with the film's dated visuals) for Soylent Green remaining a cult phenomenon that's not widely regarded as a mainstream sci-fi classic, and perhaps those who ignore the film for these reasons have a good point. 
Unlike many science fiction films of its era, Soylent Green tells the story of a darker, dirtier, and more depressing future.  The streets of our cities - particularly New York - have been overcrowded by a steadily rising population, which has also forced more and more people in to poverty.  The film's hero - Richard Thorn (played by Charlton Heston) - is a police detective.  Those of us in the real world of 2011 would assume he makes a large amount of money and can live comfortably based on that job.  But in the Soylent Green world of 2022 - just 11 years from now - he lives in a small apartment with few furnishings and a live-in old man named Sol (the great Edward G. Robinson in his final film) who pedals an exercise bike to keep the power going.
There are only two things in Soylent Green that don't like dirty and drab, the first of which is the proverbial "other side of the tracks" where Thorn must investigate the mysterious murder of an executive from the Soylent Corporation (a cameo by the also-great Joseph Cotten).  His investigation mostly consists of stealing precious items - in his world, that means apples, soap, and pillowcases - from the rich & deceased fellow's apartment, and getting to know the "furniture" that comes with the apartment - a gorgeous, but detached, woman named Shirl played by Leigh Taylor-Young.  This setting is presented as a different world than the one Thorn and Sol live in, and there's some real joy to be had in seeing Thorn take his confiscated items back to the overcrowded apartment building so Sol can tell him how much these simple items used to matter.
Meanwhile, everyone in the side of town that doesn't get a prostitute with their roof seems dirty and scared and sad and kind of just devoid of feelings.  The film hammers this home very simply when Thorn finds a dead woman on the steps of a shelter, her still crying toddler tied to her corpse.  There are entire movies that could be made or books that could be written about this kind of scene, but Thorn handles the whole thing matter-of-factly by untying the child, tucking it under his arm, and handing it off to a worker in the already bursting shelter.  And that's it.  There's no time for connection with the orphaned child or the dozens of men, women, and children who sleep on the steps outside his apartment.  There are 40 million people in Thorn's town, but none of them seem to actually look at each other very often.
The one time you will see emotion from these filthy masses?  Tuesday, which is Soylent Green day.  When faced with the prospect of not getting the mass produced foodstuff, these beaten souls quickly become the aggressors, taking on Heston and a whole squad of police officers in riot gear (in the SG world, riot gear - football helmets with little bills screwed onto them) until they are quickly wiped out by the riot control units "Scoops" - which are dump trucks with buckets to throw the masses into their bins.  If it wasn't so silly looking to see people being scooped up and dumped in the back of a truck this might have been one of the most horrifying scenes in sci-fi history, because it shows just how little human life is worth in this jaded future.
While Thorn deals with rioters and cavorts with Shirl, Sol investigates the documents that were found in the murdered man's apartment, and comes into contact with the sad truth that leads to the final reveal.  To me, the film becomes Sol's journey in its middle act, as the old man's memories of the past combine with the horrible things he's learning about the present to wear on his mental state.  In one scene he travels to the one place that doesn't seem to be overcrowded - the library - to get answers, and the expressions on Robinson's face as he learns more and more about the Soylent Corporation set the tone for what happens next.
Once Sol knows the truth we see the second thing in Soylent Green that's not dirty or drab - the suicide clinic.  In a dark way, I kind of think Soylent Green's suicide clinic is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen on film.  We don't know what Sol knows when he enters this sterile structure, but it's hard to really blame him for his choice based on what we've seen him go through.  This is a man who knew society when it was working - or at least when it wasn't crumbling - and seeing him burdened by the realities of the Soylent Green world is a tough sight.  When he is ushered into the buidling by a smiling young woman and offered music and his favorite color (don't forget how few colors there seem to be in this ugly world), it's easy to empathize with his character's desire to escape this sepia-toned world.
In fact, Sol's biggest concern as he enters his final resting place is simply wanting to be sure that he gets "the full 20 minutes", implying that his life matters less than the chance to experience a third of an hour of beauty.  The scene which follows is nothing short of remarkable, with classical music and nature photography washing over the walls as the old man cries for the last time and shares his knowledge with Thorn one last time.  Robinson, who died of cancer weeks after finishing the film, told Heston that he was afflicted with the disease just before filming this scene, and the results are obvious through both actors on screen.  And when the beauty of the scene does fade, and the viewer is left with simply a vision of an old man who died with his eyes wide and his mouth agape, it's hard to not be affected as a viewer too.
At this point - whence I have covered most of the film's plot EXCEPT the final quote that has permeated pop culture - you might wonder just why anyone would want to watch such a depressing movie.  To be honest, I'm kind of struggling with that too as I put it all in words.  But it's that dark vision of the future, one that is relatively unmatched in the sci-fi pantheon, that always keeps me fascinated and going back to the film.  There's a lot more to Soylent Green than what Heston shouts at the end of the film, and I think it's a unique sci-fi tale that speaks volumes about humanity.
I think I believe in people enough to say that I don't expect Soylent Green to happen to us.  But, given the political climate and the economic unease that seems to be driving so many people in the United States crazy, I'm not certain that we're strong enough to avoid a future in which we ignore the people who are stuck on our streets fighting for a cracker they think is made from plankton.  That's where I find the greatest intrigue in Soylent Green, which seems intent on warning us just how badly things can go if we lose humanity as we fight through the crowds of our daily lives.

But hey, if you're worried about the future, I've got good news for you.  You can start stocking up on Soylent Green immediately, because The Soylent Corporation is selling it RIGHT NOW.

December 13, 2011

Midnight Movies For Your Midnight Movie Lover's Christmas Stocking

(These also can be used for any other holidays or celebrations of equal or lesser value.)

If you're like me, you realize that the holidays are a time of joy, of happiness, and of rapture.  But they're also a time of boosting your movie collection.  And that's what I'm here to talk about today.  Here's a bunch of goodies - which were chosen from either my own collection or my own Christmas wish list - of stuff I might recommend as movie gifts for the nice (not naughty, because those fools done got themselves in trouble with the big man) horror and genre lovin' folks on your shopping list.
The 10th Victim - Blu-ray by Blue Underground
I dig this goofy Italian sci-fi/action/romance flick quite a bit, from its wacky reality TV prophecies to the exotic '60s fashions that Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress wear. I hadn't planned to upgrade to the blu when it was announced, but reviews I read - including some with jaw dropping screencaps from the blu - pushed it to the top of my Christmas want list.
The Baby - DVD by Severin Films
I had the unique pleasure of finally meeting this movie in 2011, and anyone who loves bizarre cult classics should jump all over Severin's DVD release of the film.  As far as sleazy flicks about man-babies go, you can't get much better.
Battle Beyond the Stars - DVD/Blu-Ray by Shout! Factory
I haven't actually seen this one yet, but it's on my Christmas list for many good reasons. First of all, it's from Shout!'s Roger Corman Cult Classics collection, which has turned out nothing but gold on blu thus far.  Second, it seems to have that Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon early-'80s sci-fi feel that I love. Plus, Sybil Danning. CAN'T MISS.
Kingdom of the Spiders - DVD by Shout! Factory
This one's got it all, folks.  William Shatner as a hero. Tiffany Bolling as a babe/scientist.  A BUNCH OF EVIL SPIDERS.  Long available only on bargain bin DVDs with less than thrilling picture and sound quality, Shout! appears to have restored the shine of this Kingdom with their release. (Apparently this came out back in early 2010...oops. It still looks awesome.)
The Phantom Carriage - DVD/Blu-Ray by The Criterion Collection
For the more high-falutin' crowd, we've got a bit of silent ghost action in The Phantom Carriage, which takes us to Sweden where legends can be deadly.  Criterion's always loved by film lovers, and this is their second biggest horror release of the year (behind their also-recommended restoration of The Island of Lost Souls).
The Devil Within Her - DVD by Scorpion Releasing
Nevermind the fact that this Rosemary's Baby inspired film starts with the "Devil" getting born, and thus NOT being "within her".  Do mind the fact that this cheesy bit of goodness features a hysterical Joan Collins, Donald Pleasence, and my beloved Caroline Munro.  Scorpion Releasing has put out some interesting titles this year with hostess Katarina Leigh Waters (who does resemble Munro slightly), but this might be the most fun of their lot. (Then again, The Carpenter might be too.)
Don't Open Till Christmas - DVD by Mondo Macabro
I just found out this one had been updated by the folks over at Mondo, and it got me drooling.  A sleazy slasher to a fault, but it's certainly a unique flick about a killer who kills folks that dress up as Santa.  And it's got a bit of Caroline Munro too. <3
Horror Express - DVD/Blu-Ray Combo by Severin Films
I've tried to watch cruddy copies of this public domain horror a few times - it is, after all, touted as one of the best collaborations between Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing - but they've always been unwatchable transfers.  From what I hear, Severin has brought Horror Express back from the dead with their version - and I can't wait to see it.
The William Castle Collection - 8 Film DVD Set by Sony Pictures
This one's been around for a while, but the price seems to be in a horror fan's range this holiday season.  While much of the set is old favorites, I'm really excited that it has Castle's remake of The Old Dark House, and that it also comes with a documentary about the man himself as a bonus 9th feature!
Friday the 13th Uncut (& Friday the 13th Part 2) - Blu-Ray by Paramount Pictures
Know a horror fan who's new to blu? Considering the price and the shockingly great picture quality, the first few F13 films that are available on blu-ray are a perfect stocking stuffer.  The first three are available (though I can only vouch for the first two's picture quality) and run under $10 each at Best Buy stores.
Dawning - DVD/Blu-Ray by Breaking Glass Pictures
I've talked about this movie a bit - I'm even on one of the DVD commentaries for it - but I must reiterate that the intelligent horror fan needs a copy of Dawning this holiday season.  And not just because I'm on the DVD, but that is an added bonus for all the Midnight Warriors out there.
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That's probably about enough for today, I'm drooling on the keyboard over here.  I meant to mention a couple of releases from the folks at Media Blasters - which earlier this year promised my beloved Godzilla vs. Megalon and the Tiffany Bolling flick The Candy Snatchers - but Amazon shows both titles as on hold.  So boo to them for trying to ruin Christmas, but I've got a feeling that y'all can find something else for the genre nut who's on your Christmas list too.

So, Midnight Warriors...what flicks are on your holiday want list?

December 11, 2011

8 Things I Love About... Pieces

You could say these are pieces of Pieces, couldn't you?
Because what's a slasher film without Mommy issues?
Anatomy professor with the oh-so-convenient 'Stache of Impending Doom.
The Blob of blood that comes from a co-ed decap.
It doubles as an exercise video!
The groundskeeper/potential killer status of Paul Smith's character, keeping the film in Scooby-Doo territory.
The chainsaw-to-skin effects are one of the few things in this movie that is actually impressive.
Every campus needs its own ninja.
If I have to explain this one, you need to see Pieces. NOW.