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March 31, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #117 - Stuck

Stuart Gordon has always been one of those directors who boggles my mind.  When he's not making stuff I dig like From Beyond and Re-Animator, he's often making mutant Ken doll flicks (Castle Freak), awful Poe adaptations (The Pit and the Pendulum), or ridiculous robot battles (Robot Jox).  The guy's career has been all over the genre map, which makes latest feature that much more interesting to me. That film is Stuck, and it's a far more current and human film than much of the man's work.
Stephen Rea and Mena Suvari star in the bloody tale, which brings two characters crashing together - literally - on the streets.  Rea plays a down on his luck man who's been kicked out of his apartment while seeking a job, and finds himself wandering from place to place looking for somewhere to sleep.  On the other side of town, Suvari plays a young woman who is set for a promotion at work and who is having the time of her life partying with friends - including experimental drug use - right up until the point where she gets behind the wheel in the middle of the nigh, starts talking on her cell phone, and crashes her car into the newly homeless man.
For no practical reason - except maybe the fact that fate loves to toy with us all - the man a) doesn't die and b) becomes lodged in the woman's windshield.  And since she's worried about a) that promotion and b) the fact that she's driving around after blindly taking some pill she was offered in a bar, the woman panics and drives home, leaving the bleeding man hanging upside down and both of their futures hanging in the balance.
While there's plenty of blood being spilled throughout the film - including a few other disgusting bodily fluids in the woman's nursing home workplace - the primary focus of the film is choice.  As the man wanders through life in the film's first act, he continually comes across stubborn characters who try to control him while offering "choices" that don't fulfill his needs.  On the other side of the tale, the woman doesn't really stop to consider her actions at times, with her preoccupation on her future - criminally and professionally - taking the lead.  I know a lot of people would react by trying to protect themselves while dealing with the situation, but the action she takes sure makes Suvari's character an easy target for the viewer's contempt. 
The film becomes a battle for survival for both characters, and the road that the film takes to the final scene has plenty of twists and turns.  Some of them parallel the characters' lives and hammer home the message that everyone has fears that prevent them from making choices, while some of them seem unnecessary at times.  Along the way, the secret predicament that our characters are trapped in is nearly revealed to plenty of people.  Rest assured, Gordon and screenwriter John Strysik do an excellent job of keeping the film feeling fresh despite some slight repetition.
The story is pretty limited in scope, yet there's a lot to think about throughout the film.  If nothing else, the ending should linger a little bit and be a good talking point for viewers, which is a fine point for any genre flick to end on.  Horror purists will certainly prefer Gordon's '80s output - I'm pretty sure I do too - but Stuck is a nice change of pace and a dramatic chiller that's worth finding.  If nothing else, you get to see Mena Suvari overact like a champ and still not ruin the movie.  And that's impressive too.

March 29, 2012

The Mike's Top 50 Horror Movies Countdown: #44 - Creature from the Black Lagoon

Previously on the Countdown: Number 50 - Happy Birthday to Me  Number 49 - Prince of Darkness Number 48 - House on Haunted Hill  Number 47 - The Monster Squad  Number 46 - Hellraiser Number 45 - The Fog
Creature from the Black Lagoon
(1954, Dir. by Jack Arnold.)
Why It's Here:
Though Universal likes to lump it in with movies that are 15-25 years older, Creature from the Black Lagoon is not really the same kind of film as Dracula, Frankenstein, or The Invisible Man.  What it is, however, is a prime example of the monster horror that filled the 1950s.  Pretty much everything in the movie takes a backseat to the title creature, a good old fashioned man-in-suit that still manages to send chills up my spine.

The Moment That Changes Everything:
Late in the film, the creature advances toward the camera, eyes wide open.  Though it's easy to see now that this was just a gimmick for the film (which was shot in 3-D back when 3-D was cool), that one shot etched itself into my mind at a young age.

It Makes a Great Double Feature With:
Director Jack Arnold is one of the heroes of '50s genre cinema - The Incredible Shrinking Man is pretty much one of the best movies ever - and it only seems fair to pair Creature with another of his monster flicks.  I think the giant spider epic Tarantula sounds like a good pick here.

What It Means To Me:
One third of what I like to call my "Horror Birth Trilogy" (actually I just made that term up to explain the first three horror movies I was exposed to as a kid), Creature from the Black Lagoon and I went through a dry spell when I was in my teenage years.  But when I went back to the film as a young adult, I couldn't help finding myself right back in that state of wonder that kept me glued to the screen as a kid.  Sure, it's easy to point out the flaws in the film, but there's something truly iconic about this monster flick that keeps it near and dear to my heart at all times.

Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel

(2011, Dir. by Alex Stapleton.)

Is it weird if a movie that almost drives me to tears is a documentary about a filmmaker?  It's probably weird.  But when the movie's about the legendary "schlockmeister" Roger Corman, it's a fact of life to the genre film freak.

I've craved Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel ever since I first heard of the production, and the final product - released on DVD/Blu-Ray this week - does not disappoint one bit.  It appears to be just a collection of clips and interviews at first glance,  but anyone who knows anything about the infamous filmmaker will quickly find themselves falling in love with the film.

For those who don't know much about Roger Corman, the list of Hollywood stars/filmmakers that are interviewed for the film might send a mixed message.  Actors like Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro or directors like Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich generally have their names associated with critically acclaimed and award-winning cinema fare, but it's their connection to the world of the ultimate low-budget filmmaker that brings them here.

To put Corman in perspective, consider this. As I type this, a look at Roger Corman's filmography says that the man has produced 401 movies.  If you peruse the IMDB, you'll find that only FIVE of those films have been given an average ranking better than 7/10 by IMDB users.  Though IMDB ratings are pretty far from being valid data, you'd be right to assume that critical acclaim and Roger Corman are two things that do not generally go together.  And yet, all of those well-regarded people listed above are "students" of what is often referred to as Corman University.  At some point in their careers, they all worked under the watchful eye of Roger Corman.

Serving as both a recap of the man's career and a tribute to his legacy, Corman's World gives plenty of airtime to people like Nicholson and filmmakers like Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show), Joe Dante (Gremlins, The 'Burbs), Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs).  The fact that these people are willing to take the time to pay tribute to the man behind what are generally regarded to be their worst films is a telling statement on just how beloved Corman is, despite his distance from what is generally respected in Hollywood. (Though one point that is repeated is probably respected in Hollywood by most - Almost all of Corman's 400 movies made their money back.)

While talking about their experiences with Corman - working on films like The Terror or Hollywood Boulevard or Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women -we get a lot of insight on just how Corman helped these future superstars get into the film business.  As is the case with mainstream viewers, some of the interviewees don't seem to "get" the appeal of Corman's films - Nicholson states at one point that Corman occasionally messed up and made a good movie, while others lovingly call him names like "The King of the Bs" despite Corman saying he hates those nicknames - yet everyone on board paints the filmmaker as a smart man, a shrewd mind, and a person who deserves the respect of those who follow him.

I think most genre geeks like myself have always understood that Corman matters, but what director Alex Stapleton has done here is spelled out why in big bright letters.  The information might not all be new - though it was definitely the first time I considered the effect the birth of the blockbuster in the '70s affected folks like Corman, and I was reminded how badly I really need to see The Intruder - but it's presented in a manner that's easy to relate to.  Corman, of course, is directly involved in front of the camera, but this is a lot more than one more dot on his resume.  It'll probably end up as one of my favorite movies released this year, simply because it does such a good job of honoring a man who deserves so much credit for what independent genre cinema is today.  I was honestly thrilled to see such a passionate picture of the man's work, and I can only hope that more people will get a chance to truly appreciate what Roger Corman means to cinema through this fine film.

March 25, 2012

The Mike's Top 50 Horror Movies Countdown: #45 - The Fog

Previously on the Countdown: Number 50 - Happy Birthday to Me  Number 49 - Prince of Darkness Number 48 - House on Haunted Hill  Number 47 - The Monster Squad  Number 46 - Hellraiser
The Fog
(1980, Dir. by John Carpenter.)
Why It's Here:
John Carpenter's follow-up to Halloween - a movie you just might see later on this list - is one of those horror films that is truly one-of-a-kind.  Aside from a haphazard remake, there are very few supernatural tales out there that capitalize on the same supernatural feeling that exists in most of the film's scenes.  The movie plays like a mixed bowl of horror standards with a few slasher movie tricks thrown in, and a cast of wonderful actors keeps the film afloat while Carpenter shows off his mastery of the genre.

The Moment That Changes Everything:
I think the opening moments - from the Edgar Allan Poe quote to a campfire story by John Houseman to opening credits full of paranormal hijinx - do as much for setting the tone for this film than any opening sequence ever has.  It's immediately established that anything can happen in the world of The Fog, and we're already uneasy before the characters and setting are set up during the following daylight hours.

It Makes a Great Double Feature With:
Dan O'Bannon and John Carpenter had one heckuva falling out around the end of the '70s, but that doesn't mean their styles stopped working together.  The O'Bannon scripted Dead & Buried - directed by the severely underrated Gary Sherman - shares the same ominous mood and sets its story in a similar seaside town.  The stories differ greatly, but the combo seems like a fun dose of supernatural fun to me.

What It Means To Me:
The Fog has never been my favorite Carpenter film - it probably would struggle to make my top five, even - but that doesn't mean I don't dig it greatly.  It's a prototype for what I want from a "midnight movie", and it seems like it's gotten better with each viewing.  I still have some issues with the story to work out, but I can take in the cast and the style of The Fog any day.

March 24, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #116 - The Most Dangerous Game

I'm willing to bet you had to read this story when you were in school.  And, if you were like me, you probably thought it was pretty awesome.  I mean, when you're 15, who doesn't think having a private island where you can hunt your enemies and have servants is an awesome idea?  I know I did.
Even better, the "Language Arts" textbook had pictures along with the story, which I later found came from a 1932 film adaptation of the story.  Produced by the mega-duo of Cooper & Schoedesack - the same dudes who were behind a little flick called King Kong a year later - this brief vision of Richard Connell's fantastic story is one of the most perfect examples of early Hollywood adventure done right.
Tall and heroic leading man Joel McCrea takes the lead as a famed big game hunter who is shipwrecked off of a secluded island.  Once he arrives on that island, he meets an eccentric fellow with wacky hair and a piercing stare, who goes by the name of General Zaroff.  During conversation with Zaroff and his other shipwrecked house guests - a brother and sister played by future Kong co-stars Robert Montgomery and Fay Wray - Zaroff hints about the "Most Dangerous Game" that has fulfilled his thrill-seeking ways.  Soon enough the reveal comes - Zaroff has set traps for ships so he can hunt men on his own private island.
Hunting people has become a common topic in fiction over the years - usually sensationalized with a social message by things like The Running Man or Battle Royale or that Hunger Games thing that's so hot right now - but it's worth noting that The Most Dangerous Game speaks more about human nature than it does about society.  General Zaroff is what we would call a madman, but there's no society to be found at his private resort, unless you count his impressively hairy staff of servants.  When Montgomery's alcohol-enhanced character asks the count to play the piano, he requests that the count doesn't "do one of those highbrow numbers" - and it's as if the character is speaking about the film/story itself.
While future tales about killing as a sport point a finger at cultures, The Most Dangerous Game is more than content to let us know that the man on our screen is quite simply mad.  As Zaroff, Leslie Banks is deliciously sinister, giving the kind of performance that seems like a template for cartoon villains that would come later. (I can't be the only one to think there's a common thread between Zaroff and Dick Dastardly, can I?)  There's a wonderful parallel drawn between Zaroff and McCrea's character - whose motivation for hunting must have simply been that he was a big manly man - because the General seems to hunt for intellectual reasons.
In the meantime, The Most Dangerous Game is also notable because it gives my favorite scream queen, the unforgettable Fay Wray, a chance to do her thing while running around elaborate sets island terrain with McCrea while trying to evade Zaroff, his servants, and their packs of hunting dogs.  There's not a lot of great material for Wray here - she's far more memorable in Kong or Doctor X - but it's pretty easy to see just why she was considered for her most famous role after the producers saw her in action here.  The connections it made a year before Kong was born might be the film's longest lasting legacy, though I don't think it's fair to dismiss this as just a set up for the producer's biggest success.
The film version of The Most Dangerous Game will turn 80 years old this September, but it's still an easy viewing that keeps me smiling and involved.  The action is brisk (for the era), particularly in the second half of the film, and the discussion of morals and battle of wits between Banks and McCrea still works.  It's not one of those highbrow things, but it's still worth my time from an entertainment standpoint.  It's also an interesting picture on many historical levels due to its connections with the story and King Kong, and all these factors work together to keep me coming back to The Most Dangerous Game often.

March 21, 2012

The Mike's Top 50 Horror Movies Countdown: #46 - Hellraiser

Previously on the Countdown: Number 50 - Happy Birthday to Me  Number 49 - Prince of Darkness Number 48 - House on Haunted Hill  Number 47 - The Monster Squad
(1987, Dir. by Clive Barker.)
Why It's Here:
There's something pretty sick and twisted about Hellraiser that doesn't really compare to any other horror film. I'm not talking about the sheer grossness or evilness of the film, because there are plenty of horror films that set out to achieve those things, and probably do so better than Hellraiser.  But they generally do so in a superficial manner.  Hellraiser feels slimy and creepy and evil, but it feels like that slimy and creepy and evil actually matters to the film and enhances the horror experience that comes from watching Hellraiser unfold.

The Moment That Changes Everything:
Pretty much any moment when  Pinhead's booming voice can be heard qualifies.  "We have such sights to show you" and "We'll tear your soul apart" qualify as two of the most haunting phrases I've ever heard on film.  Combined with Christopher Young's booming musical score and that gong-ish sound that accompanies the heavy stuff, Pinhead's appearances become nightmarish and effective.

It Makes A Great Double Feature With:
Clive Barker's seriously underrated - and severely cut by the studios - Nightbreed.  The film misses the mark at times due to the meddling that occurred during production, but the world of monsters that is shown should go perfectly with the world of the cenobites in Hellraiser-land.

What It Means To Me:
Hellraiser works for me because, by my standards of horror, it's about the perfect balance of art and chaos.  It's gory and sadistic, but it's still endlessly fascinating to me.  It's perhaps the one movie that I just stare at and get all morally concerned and ask myself "Hey, should you really enjoy watching this?"  And I never really know the answer, but I keep watching it.  And I think that maybe that's what horror is supposed to make me feel.

March 19, 2012

Midnight Top Five - The "Have a Little Faith in the Teenagers" Edition

If you've ever watched a horror movie, you've probably been told that teenagers are pretty much worthless at life.  It's true to an extent - if teenagehood was Mass Effect, you could say I took the paragon path all the way and I was still a stupid idiot 97% of the time - but people who are jump to conclusions often miss the good parts of what's going on in these mostly undeveloped human people.
But horror movies are more wrong than most people when it comes to teenagers.  They show the worst parts of teen behavior, and often punish the kids for it harshly.  Look, I get it. It was a message to change their ways and it lost its meaning and now it just happens, sort of like how people used to say the pledge of allegiance in school because they meant it and now they just do it because they're told to and they're trained to and they don't even think about the words they're saying.

But I'm feeling hopeful tonight.  I feel like taking the world by the ears and shaking at and shouting "Hey! There have to be good teenagers out there or there wouldn't be people who grew up to be good people!"  I'm not sure if my shouting would be entirely true, but I'm trying to have faith here.  Heck, I'm so faithful that I might even set this post to some soulful Joe Cocker.
Yeah, I went there.  Now lets take a look at five reminders that teenagers aren't always the downfall of society, and can in fact be really friggin' awesome beacons of hope for the future and stuff.

Charlotte "Charlie" Newton
Played by Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt
(1943, Dir. by Alfred Hitchcock.)
Charlie wasn't always the picture of virtue - that whole romance with the like 40 year old cop was really weird! - but she's perhaps the earliest perfect example of a teenage character who is given power over her world in a dark world.  We're not talking Nancy Drew here, we're talking about a normal girl in a normal town with a normal family who worships her seemingly normal Uncle who just might be an abnormal killer of rich widows.

Teresa Wright did all kinds of great things with this character.  To start, there's an incredible streak of altruism that runs through the character, who really fits into the film's pre-World War II setting as an ambitious and driven young woman.  She seems to just believe so much in the world around her, including her suspicious uncle, and her hope for the world is pretty contagious.  But when things start to turn in the final scenes of the film and Charlie begins to take a stand - that's when the character really blossoms.  She shows an ability to grow and adapt, and sets the tone for hundreds of female teenage characters who would follow her in genre cinema.

Steven Andrews, Jane Martin, Mooch and the Boys
Played by Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut, James Bonnet, Robert Fields, Anthony Franke in The Blob
(1958, Dir. by Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.)
I've wasted so many words on The Blob - this one's my favorite collection of them - but I never get old of the ridiculously wonderful '50s teenagers of The Blob. And yes, I'll get it out of the way right now - they're not actually teenagers. The actors are older than that. I know.

As the teenagers mobilize in the name of what's right - and what might actually save humanity - I think my favorite thing about the group is the dopey Mooch.  With his creepy hair and his red sweater, James Bonnet's character is the personification of the wholesome values The Blob wants us to see in these characters.  Along for the ride and always willing to jump into the fight with a CO2 fire extinguisher, these kids represent their era perfectly and always make me smile.

Dennis Guilder
Played by John Stockwell in Christine
(1983, Dir. by John Carpenter.)
The most fascinating thing about John Carpenter's adaptation of Stephen King's killer car novel, to me, has always been the central relationship between the two lead teenage male characters.  On one hand, you have Arnie Cunningham, played by Keith Gordon, a bullied nerd who seems to have little going for him on the popularity side of things.  On the other hand, we have Dennis, a football star who seemingly could be really popular - yet he hangs out with Arnie and turns down the advances of a young Kelly Preston.

Let me repeat that - he turns down the advances of a YOUNG KELLY PRESTON.
Though I still question his willingness to not have a fling with a young Kelly Preston, I adore how Dennis' character moves through the story.  As Arnie's mind becomes corrupted by that red demon on wheels, Dennis becomes the voice of reason.  He's a shockingly grounded young man for a high school star athlete, but the realization that characters like that exist shouldn't really be a surprise to anyone.  Dennis represents the good side of the teenage jock scene, and he does so quite well.

Nancy Thompson
Played by Heather Langenkamp in A Nightmare on Elm Street
(1984, Dir. by Wes Craven.)
This one really doesn't need many words.  I'm notoriously hard on A Nightmare on Elm Street because I hate the ending so much, but I will never deny the possibility that Nancy Thompson is the prototype for teenage heroines in horror.  If there's one thing Wes Craven can do well on a consistent basis (and it literally might be the only thing he can do consistently!) - the man can make a heroine who is smart and who is strong and who won't back down when it's time to stand up for herself.  And it all pretty much began with Nancy Thompson. 

Kirby Reed
Played by Hayden Panettiere in Scream 4
(2011, Dir. by Wes Craven.)
Speaking of Craven, we come to the Scream series - where female characters have varied from one end of the spectrum to another like a squirrel who takes antidepressants every other week. (Don't think about that last analogy for too long, it will break your brain.)

But when we get to Scream 4, we meet the female character who pretty much made every horror fan in the world fistpump with pride.  She's Kirby Reed, and she's played with surprising panache by Heroes alumni Hayden Panettiere.  I'm pretty sure no one expected this from the young girl, but she makes female horror nerd look fun, playing off her straight laced friends and the nerdy male cinephiles equally well.  She's the smart, normal, socially adjusted image that a lot of horror fans wish people saw more often - which is a big part of why so many horror fans loved her.

There are probably a lot more wonderful teenagers in horror I've left out here, but this isn't a Midnight Top A Lot list.  It's a Top Five.  So please, Midnight Warriors, hit up the comments! Tell me who I missed, tell me who you love, tell me you love me - whatever you want to tell me.  (Maybe not the love me thing. It might get weird.)

In the meantime, have faith.  Because someday, the good teenagers are gonna be the old people who think there aren't any good teenagers, while we all watch from our retirement castles on Mars and laugh.  It'll be awesome.  (Or, we'll all turn into Crazy Ralph.  Which isn't bad either.)

March 17, 2012

The Mike's Top 50 Horror Movies Countdown: #47 - The Monster Squad

Previously on the Countdown: Number 50 - Happy Birthday to Me  Number 49 - Prince of Darkness Number 48 - House on Haunted Hill
The Monster Squad
(1987, Dir. by Fred Dekker.)
Why It's Here:
For a child of the '80s or beyond, there's no better introduction to what horror is than The Monster Squad.  It's often been compared to The Goonies due to its battle between a squad of kids and evil forces, but it's really not fair to either film to make such comparisons. (Besides, they're both awesome.)  Dekker's film comes with a surprisingly adult edge for such a child-centric flick (which may have been enhanced by Lethal Weapon/The Last Boy Scout/Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang scribe Shane Black helping with the script), including references to Nazi death camps, the slasher craze of the '80s, and even - you guessed it - NARDS.  The result is a film that's endlessly watchable, even to the older version of those kids who learned horror from it.

The Moment That Changes Everything:
As I alluded to above, there's some odd stuff going on in The Monster Squad that's above many kids' heads.  Perhaps the most haunting moment in the otherwise tongue-in-cheek film is the first encounter between the Squad and "Creepy German Dude" which ends with the reveal of his wartime past.  Amidst all the goofy moments - like the standoff with the Wolfman and a lot of hammy Dracula action - it's this kind of reveal that really adds depth to the film for me.

It Makes a Great Double Feature With:
Dekker's other '80s classic, Night of the Creeps.  While the aliens/zombies/frat parties/Tom Atkins epic is a bit more adult than this Squad, both films offer a great balance of humor and action for fans of all genres.  And you could watch both films in under three hours, which means you could even triple up with something else from the goofy '80s like Night of the Comet

What It Means To Me:
As you might have guessed, I'm one of those kids who learned a lot about horror from The Monster Squad.  It's pretty hard for me to take an unbiased look at the film, but that doesn't change the fact that I can still watch it today and feel like I'm enjoying something that's more than just a blast from the past.  This is an important piece of horror to me, and I hope it will live on as a nice supplement to the classic monsters that I believe are the foundation of horror cinema.

March 16, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #115 - Leprechaun 2

When you aren't Irish and don't drink alcohol (I also never, you don't usually have much use for St. Patrick's Day.  For me, St. Patrick's Day is generally one of those days where I forget its a holiday until some cruel soul pinches me.  Word of advice - never pinch a fat guy.  It's not nice.
If there's one thing I do like well enough about St. Patrick's Day, it's Warwick Davis as an evil Leprechaun.  Between 1993 and 2003, Davis starred in six films as the diminutive killer folk creature.  From his first appearance in the desert to his forays into "tha hood", Davis carried a totally ridiculous premise to great heights and shocking lows - except I'm not sure there were really "great heights" in there.  I will say there were a lot of fun moments, which generally is enough to get most horror fans to use terms like "cult classic" about a bad movie.
While I won't speak to the quality of the Leprechaun films, I don't deny falling for their charms from time to time. I'm most susceptible to the second film in the series, in which the Lep makes his way to Los Angeles, trying to win the affections of a young woman who is a descendant of the woman he wanted to marry 1000 years earlier.  She's played by a bubbly blonde lady named Shevonne Durkin who was one of Young The Mike's favorite cute things about the early '90s (one time I proposed to her while writing about Ghost In The Machine), and she's still a major contributing factor to my love for this flick.
Even though she screams like this.
Meanwhile, the Lep has to put up with Ms. Durkin's bumbling on-screen boyfriend through a series of escapades that have to do with that old Leprechaun affliction - wanting his pot 'o gold.  The formula is the same as any killer leprechaun film you've seen - funny stalking, wisecrack, abnormally gory murder - but this entry feels a little bit more fresh than the other five films in the series to me.
The majority of the film's comedic charms come from Davis, who really made being a deformed killer Leprechaun an art.  The kill scenes in each Leprechaun film often come with a heavy dose of dark humor, which might be best shown during Leprechaun 2.  Young The Mike was always a little terrified of the scene where Leppy tricks a doofus into sticking his face in a lawnmower by making the blades look like Shevonne Durkin's boobs (though Adult The Mike suspects a body double was involved), but reading that part where I said "tricks a doofus into sticking his face in a lawnmower" and "boobs" is probably all you need to know about the tone of this film.
These movies always jump out at me a little more if I find a hidden bit 'o gold in the cast, and Leprechaun 2 is blessed by a marvelous turn by veteran actor Sandy Baron as Morty, the bumbling boyfriend's father figure/employer.  Baron might be recognizable to horror fans from another fun turn in the '80s camp flick Vamp, though I like to think of him as a guy who could pass for Brad Dourif's crazy uncle or something.  He plays Morty as a smooth-yet-lovable con man, and his battles of wits with the Leprechaun - which peak with a drink off that includes an homage to Tod Browning's Freaks! - are some of the most enjoyable moments in the film.
Maybe you get something out of St. Patrick's Day. (If you do, please let me know!)  But me - I just want killer leprechaun flicks with a wise-cracking star, a charming innocent blonde, and a lovable uncle type con man.  And I get that from Leprechaun 2.  So have yourself a Happy St. Patty's Day and enjoy some killer Leprechaun fun (rumor has it that the SyFy network will have Lep films on all day, leading up to the premier of a SyFy original (non-Davis) killer Leprechaun movie!) while wearing green and being awesome.  That's what I'd do.
P.S. - Hi Shevonne Durkin!  If you're out there, you can still marry me if you want.  Call me! (And sorry about the screaming picture!)

March 15, 2012

FMWL Indie Spotlight - Wound

(2010, Dir. by Ken Blyth.)

There are a lot of conversations from a lot of movies that have stuck with me in life.  One from my favorite film involves a man and woman arguing, and the woman disgustedly telling the man "You don't have to be intentionally repulsive!"  The man perplexedly exclaims "Intentionally repulsive?  I'm just trying to make it sound good!" - and then goes on with his argument.

There are a lot of times when I feel horror filmmakers follow the lead of that man.  They don't need to go as far as they do, but they think sensationalizing everything makes their intentions more clear.  It's hard for me to look at David Blyth's Wound - a movie whose opening sequence ends with a prosthetic penis getting slowly removed with scissors - and not think those kind of thoughts.

Now, a little brutality is not something I'm generally opposed to - you can scroll through this site and find dozens of movies I've commended for being violent/gory/etc. -  but when it doesn't seem to serve a purpose I start to worry.  And Wound is the kind of movie that just makes me scratch my head in that regard.  I think it makes sense to an extent, and I get the message it's trying to send to an extent and I think there's a kind of artistic side to it to an extent.  But those extents add up.

I really can't even begin to explain the plot of Wound without going too far into speculation and spoilers.  The best thing I can say is to expect something in the vein of David Lynch or Ken Russell (the late British filmmaker is even quoted as a supporter on the poster!) but with far less flair or vision.  Blyth frames some moments really well - fog effects go a long way for some scenes - but they're just moments in the film that spends most if its brief runtime hammering you over the head with sadism, torture, and ridiculously bloody imagery.

I know it sounds like I'm being Mr. Uptight here, but I just struggle with a film like this that expects us to feel a physical effect from awful images while spending so little time stimulating our interest in the film's characters or the events that we're seeing.  I truly didn't care about what was going on on screen, which left me just waiting for the next piece of "shocking" footage that was waiting to linger on the screen for an uncomfortable amount of time.  Everything from a dominating and abusive husband to a man in a pig suit raping someone on a bathroom floor to a truly disgusting birth scene is in play here.  All of these scenes are repulsive, but all of these scenes also felt pretty pointless to me.

I know Wound is an ambitious attempt for an indie filmmaker, and maybe people who are into surrealism or who get turned on by torture or who took too many psychotropic drugs will find something of note in Wound.  But as I watched Wound, all it did for me is make me increasingly interested in seeing it end so I could move on with my life and do anything else.  It didn't convince me of anything by being intentionally repulsive.  It just made me want to walk away from it and never look back.

Wound is out on DVD now, so if you're interested in seeing for yourself, you've got that choice. 

March 12, 2012

The Mike's Top 50 Horror Films Countdown: #48 - House on Haunted Hill

Previously on the Countdown: Number 50 - Happy Birthday to Me  Number 49 - Prince of Darkness

House on Haunted Hill
(1959, Dir. by William Castle.)

Why It's Here:
Horror has rarely been as fun as it is when William Castle's pulling the viewer's strings.  And when you combine his behind-the-scenes showmanship with the star power of the great Vincent Price, you get what I like to call a magical conjunction.  With a great setting and plenty of effective gags, House on Haunted Hill becomes a must see for anyone interested in classic B-Movie horror.

The Moment That Changes Everything:
When Price lays out the stakes for the evening in the haunted house on the haunted hill (Although, didn't you ever wonder if the house was actually innocent and just got a bad reputation because the hill was haunted? I did.), he sells the rest of the film easily.  When Vincent Price tells you horror is coming, you believe it unequivocally. 

It Makes a Great Double Feature With:
Something else by Castle makes sense - perhaps his original 13 Ghosts is the best fit - as does another Price classic like House of Wax.  But I've always liked the pairing of Castle's film with one of my favorite Price films, Last Man on Earth.  The two films have drastically different tones, but both show off Price at his scene-stealing best.

What It Means To Me:
It's really not the best movie in any way, but House on Haunted Hill is one of those movies that I just want to throw in a time capsule and preserve forever.  I wasn't fortunate enough to be around for the days of Castle films, but I can still feel the fantastic sense of ridiculous fun that pours from the work of crowd pleasers like him and Price.  Some would argue that the 50+ year old film is dated, but I really think this is an ageless treat for anyone who enjoys a dose of the macabre.

March 11, 2012

The Mike's Top 50 Horror Films Countdown: #49 - Prince of Darkness

Previously on the Countdown: Number 50

Prince of Darkness
(1987, Dir. by John Carpenter.)
Why It's Here: 
John Carpenter's bizarre mixture of physics, philosophy, and religion is one of the most curious horror films to come out of the 1980s.  In the middle of its convoluted plot - that centers on what I've always called a "vat of liquid Satan" - are some genuine chills and a lot of Carpenter's trademark dark humor.  It all leads to a thought-provoking open-ended finale (Then again, what Carpenter film doesn't?) that keeps me loving the film every time.

The Moment That Changes Everything:
A fantastic series of "dream" images provides some of my favorite goosebumps of all-time.  Carpenter uses these brief flashes to keep us wondering about the sciencey side of the plot, leading to a payoff that gets me every time.

It Makes a Great Double Feature With:
Prince of Darkness is a movie that's hard to compare to anything else - its tone sets it apart from other religio-horrors while its plot sets it apart from most of its '80s brethren.  An easy pick to double it up with would be In the Mouth of Madness - which follows it in Carpenter's unofficial "Apocalypse Trilogy" - while a cheesier choice would be another kooky '80s flick, The Vineyard.

What It Means To Me:
I hate to use this cliche, but I've always thought Prince of Darkness is one of the most underrated films in horror.  It's got legitimate chills, it's more thoughtful than most horror films, and it provides something that is truly unique.  It's a hard pill for a lot of people to swallow - the film bombed at the box office in its day - but I've gone to it often since I was a youngster.  There's really nothing else quite like this film.

Plus Alice Cooper is in it as a homeless dude who serves the liquid Satan!  How can people not love that?

March 10, 2012

Silent House

(2012, Dir. by Chris Kentis & Laura Lau.)

Nothing makes me hate human society more than when everyone freaks the heck out about the ending of an otherwise fine horror movie.  I guess there are a lot of people out there who think the ending is the most important part, or one of the most important parts, of a movie.  I do not subscribe to their reasoning.  An ending is just there, man.  It's not the whole movie.

Don't get me wrong.  There are times when a bad ending can ruin a movie completely.  If Casablanca ended with Captain America flying into Morocco, shield-boomeranging all the Nazis and throwing Rick and Ilsa into a seedy motel where they do some S&M, it probably wouldn't have won Oscars and lived on for 70 some years as an all-time classic.  But people are so quick to dismiss a movie - particularly a horror movie - when the ending comes out of left field like a bus taking down to lovey-dovey pedestrians.  And them people drive me crazy.

As you might have guessed by now, Silent House is a movie with a "twist" ending.  And the fact that I've wasted the last two plus paragraphs warning everyone who's a lame-o "I hope the ponies save the day in the end!" filmgoer to go somewhere else and leave us horror fans alone pains me.  Because, when you stop talking about the ending - which really isn't as crazy surprising as you might think, though it's certainly poorly handled - Silent House is a pretty fantastic chiller.

The advertisements for the film won't admit it - instead using a bogus "INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS" pitch that's a bold-faced lie - but this is a remake of a 2010 film from Uruguay, which did the same premise and plot very similarly.  A father and daughter go to a quiet - some would say silent - house in the middle of nowhere to clean the place up, and the daughter ends up (emotionally and physically) powerless to an assailant in a locked house with no (electrical) power.  The trick that brought interest to the first film, which is also parroted here, is that the film is presented in "real time" with one continuous shot following the characters through the house as bad things begin to happen.

Normally an almost shot-for-shot remake of a less than two year old film would be something I'd avoid, but Silent House drew me in with the casting of young Elizabeth Olsen in the lead.  Olsen, who's probably tired of being referred to as Mary-Kate and Ashley's younger sister,  set the indie cinema world on fire last year with her performance as a young woman recovering from her past in a vicious cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene, which - to be 100% perfectly honest - was a performance that should have earned Olsen no less than an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. 

The young Ms. Olsen carried that film with an incredibly natural ease (Perhaps she learned a lot about drama from watching her less-than-stable sisters?), and the shift from that role to becoming a terrorized victim in Silent House plays to her strengths wonderfully.  She's one of those actresses who really buys into the emotion of her roles physically, using tears, hyperventilation, and tremors as some of her tools to keep the audience riveted.  A lot of actors and actresses care about how they look on screen - For example, I doubt you could get an extreme close-up shot of Miley Cyrus keeled over and screaming like Olsen is on the Silent Hill posters - and it's clear from the early moments of both of her recent films that Olsen will do whatever it takes to make her character look afraid and/or vulnerable.

With the one-shot thing going on and her character being one of like four people in the whole darn movie, we spend almost every second of the film with Olsen.  And while this might not be the Oscar caliber performance I saw in her last film, Olsen is easily the top reason to see this version of the Silent House.  Though the film is technically on par with almost every shiny Americanized horror remake and the ending is - y'know what, I'm just not gonna talk about the ending again - I really do think her work makes this a must see film for horror fans who crave something fresh.  The emotions are all over the map - just like a young woman's emotions might be if they were trapped in a dark house with an ominous stalker - and they're handled with such flair by the diminutive 23 year-old. 

With one of the best performances to hit American horror in a long time carrying the burden, Silent House doesn't need to do a lot more to be a worthwhile viewing experience. Directors Chris Kentis & Laura Lau - who helmed the similarly gritty and tense Open Water in 2003 - handle things well through most of the film, providing a couple of good jumps and a fine sense of dread that doesn't seem to telegraph scares.  It all leads up a series of moments that change the landscape of the film entirely (the ending does not follow the original's path entirely, so fans of the first film might want to check themselves early) which is what a lot of people are going to focus in on.  But I'm happy to give props to a wonderful performance and ignore the mess of an ending here, and in the end I think I can recommend Silent House due to the lead's fine work.  There are a lot of young actresses trying to make a name for themselves right now, plenty of whom are spending time in horror cinema, and it's been a long while since I've seen one who is as promising as Elizabeth Olsen is.

March 8, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #114 - Cherry 2000

There are only about a bakers dozen things - at most - that are as good looking as Melanie Griffith was in the mid 1980s.  Enter Cherry 2000, a sci-fi road picture that's kind of post-apocalyptic and kind of an old-school western.  Griffith stars as a "tracker" who's enlisted to help a dude who failed to learn one of the golden rules of life: Don't have sex with a robot while rolling around in bubbly and soapy water.
Surprisingly, that dude - a recycling plant worker named Sam who is played by David Andrews - survives the soapy death screw, but it's his robotic companion, the Cherry 2000 of the title - that is left with a few short circuits.  Sam seems to be a boring guy who's resigned to a boring life - he doesn't even look excited when he's driving his three-wheeled car! - but he really loves that blonde robot that looks kind of like one of the other great beauties of the planet, Barbara Crampton.  (Cherry is actually played by Pamela Gidley, but if Sam can pretend a robot's a woman than I can pretend that that woman might be Barbara Crampton.  It's only fair.)
Sam's devastated by his loss, and the things his friends tell him to do to take his mind off Cherry - like going to a weird bar called the Glu Glu Club where everyone looks like Lady Gaga and Laurence Fishburne shows up as a lawyer who brokers hooker contracts - so he turns to illegal methods to retrieve her.  The result is his arrangement with Griffith's E. Johnson and a journey across an arid frontier that's full of colorful characters.  The goal is to find a "replacement model", because the year is 2017 and Cherry is from 2000 - which makes his quest akin to that of someone in today's culture who wants to replace their Joan Osborne cassette from 1995.  And the good screenwriters of 1987 weren't up to speed on this internet thing yet (Amazon probably has Cherrys for sale right now!), which means cross country journey is the logical path for Sam.
You'll never find the answer at a place where everyone looks like Gaga....
.....or Morpheus when he was going through his Fresh Prince of Bel-Air phase.
As the trip goes on, the movie's primary question becomes obvious.  That question, in too many words, is: "Why the heck is this boring guy looking for a RoboCrampton when there's a real-life, spunky, redheaded, Melanie Griffith who knows how to work a rocket launcher and also wants in his boring pants?"  I suppose it's the kind of question that could effectively kill the film - 99.9937% of what's interesting in the scenes between E. Johnson and Sam comes from Griffith's presence as E. Johnson - and I must admit that this silly little film loses a lot of points in areas that don't include the female star.
Although a cameo by these two studs in the background is always welcome!
Griffith isn't the only fun part of director Steve de Jarnatt's film, however.  The cast also includes a fun turn by Tim Thomerson as the psychotic tracker killer Lester, which adds to the charm of the second half of the film.  The film also looks pretty good, and the settings created are similar to some of the bizarre things you'd expect from filmmakers like Terry Gilliam.  There's a bizarre style at work here that fits right into the cult movie world - somewhere between the crazy Tank Girl film and that Hannibal from The A-Team with a RV/Tank flick Damnation Alley - and ensures that Cherry 2000 will live on for the neon perspective on the future that it brought to the table.
But make no mistake, the reason I'm remembering and honoring this movie tonight is Griffith's performance, which set a standard for sci-fi heroines in my head.  I was digging into Mass Effect 3 this week - just like a good nerd should - and it suddenly hit me that the propensity for creating short haired redheaded bad sistas in video games that had transferred to my female Shepard - just might trace back to Griffith's character in this film. (If you understand what I'm saying here - HIGH FIVE!)  She eats up the scenery - which is pretty good looking in its own right - and makes up for her co-star throughout the length of the cheesy (but not quite cheesy enough to be great in a Flash Gordon/Buck Rodgers kind of way) futuristic journey.
I think I've used this screenshot before...but it never gets old. <3
Cherry 2000 is a movie that leaves a lot to be desired, but it's enough fun to keep me smiling.  Any movie with this much '80s goodness packed into an apocal-western formula is worth my time, especially when the plot is basically an existential debate about whether a dude should choose this:
or THIS:
Maybe, like me, you'll spend most of the movie wondering why that's even a choice.  Besides, would a hot human tracker be so opposed to a three-way if the third party is a robot?  It's this kind of (potentially inappropriate) question that only adds to the silly appeal of Cherry 2000.  And I'm all for silly appeal.

March 7, 2012

The Mike's Top 50 Horror Films Countdown: #50 - Happy Birthday to Me

(Note from The Mike: If you're a loyal reader of FMWL - and if you are, then God bless ya - you might have noticed that the tempo of this site has gone down a little bit over the last few months.  A combination of forces have slowed me down a bit, and the near future isn't looking much brighter.  So, to keep content coming and to (hopefully) be just a little interesting, I'm gonna start a list.  And I'm gonna keep it simple.  Here begins the countdown of my 50 favorite horror films (at the moment), with a brief post on each film to quench your appetite before I move on to the next.  These'll be short and sweet, but I hope they serve a purpose and provide a little entertainment.  In the meantime - Let's do this!)

Happy Birthday to Me
(1981, Dir. by J. Lee Thompson.)

Why It's Here: 
There are a lot of "Oh, it's not really that good but I just can't get enough of it!" horror movies that came out of the '80s, and Happy Birthday to Me is no exception.  With a plot that's one part Friday the 13th and one part Scooby Doo, the film offers self-proclaimed "bizarre" murders and a whodunit? plot that features a couple of odd twists and a dose of mental health concerns.  Little House on the Prairie's Melissa Sue Anderson stars as a unique high school girl, with (one of the great actors of all-time) Glenn Ford and (one of the most underrated actors of all-time) Lawrence Dane helping her along her journey.  The game of cat-and-mouse between killer and teens is always entertaining - if not pretty silly - and puts a smile on my face every time.

The Moment That Changes Everything:
A pair of garden shears and a blatant reveal stick out to me, even over the brutal shish kebab murder shown on the poster and other advertisements.  It's one of the few truly surprising moments I can remember seeing in a slasher movie (I saw the movie at a younger age, which helped), and it sets the stage for a pretty wild final act.

It Makes a Great Double Feature With: 
Most any '80s horror flick with plenty of kills and teen characters fits here, but I especially like the combo of Happy Birthday to Me and the 1986 slasher/comedy April Fool's Day.  Put both of these mysterious slashers together and you'll have a killer evening.

What It Means to Me:
Happy Birthday to Me has always been a special film to me.  I learned of its existence because it was on one of those "The Day You Were Born" things my family had on the wall when I was growing up (the oddness of a movie called Happy Birthday to Me being popular when I was born has never been lost on me), and it was one of my first experiences with slasher films that didn't feature Michael or Jason or Freddy.  It's certainly not a great film by any measure, but it's always made me remember why I love even the silliest of horror films.

March 4, 2012

The Sleeper

(2012, Dir. by Justin Russell.)

The Sleeper is one more piece of retro horror for the fire, a full-fledged attempt to recreate the feel of an early '80s slasher film.  It's a pretty successful experiment by writer/director Justin Russell, but that also means the film is hampered by many of the same issues that plagued films like The House on Sorority Row or Madman.  It's difficult for me to decide whether or not the presence of those flaws is a good thing or a bad thing about The Sleeper.  So let's just talk about the movie for now.

The Sleeper starts with a murder in 1979 - filmed in a classic manner that reminds of Brian De Palma's slasher spoof at the beginning of Blow Out - and quickly moves ahead to 1981, where a proper college girl named Amy (Brittany Belland) is deciding to pledge herself to a sorority and is dragging along her less-sorority-typical roommate Ava (Ali Ferda).  The sorority girls - just like any group of sorority girls in a slasher movie - are limited to five girls of varying shades of blonde and brunette, who portray exactly what you'd expect them to.  They've got a big house complete with a loving house mother, but they've also got a prank caller who becomes a maniacal killer with a hammer.

The Sleeper is an odd little tribute, because it acts just like an early '80s slasher but doesn't always look like an '80s slasher.  The characters' outfits are a glaring example of today's culture shining through the cracks in the film, as is a random disco dance number that comes off like an episode of Glee. (I've never actually seen Glee, but I think this is what it would look like.)  I really don't think that's a major problem with the film - there's no rule that says it has to emulate every part of an '80s slasher - because the plot and execution fit so well with films like the ones I mentioned above. 

The acting is another part of the film that has been criticized by detractors, but I don't buy their logic. None of the cast members are worthy of any awards for their work here, but they do what they should for this cheap slasher.  For the most part, their performances evoke memories of slashers gone by, and I think they deserve more credit than we might initially think.  It seems like we have a bunch of less-experienced actors playing roles originated by less-experienced actors, and their work only solidifies The Sleeper's status as an effective tribute.

The final argument will certainly be if any of this really matters, and that's an argument I'm still having with myself.  I watched The Sleeper because I knew it was trying to emulate certain films, and for the most part I felt it emulated those films well. If you think the films it's emulating are crap, then you're definitely going to think The Sleeper is crap.  If you love things like Happy Birthday to Me or even Black Christmas, you may still find yourself disappointed that The Sleeper doesn't hit all the notes perfectly. 

As someone who enjoys slasher films of that era because they make good background noise and allow me to turn my brain off, I'm fine with The Sleeper.  It served its purpose for me tonight.  Maybe I'll think it's crap later when I'm in one of my "turn your nose up at the inferior slasher film" moods, but for now I think this is the kind of movie I wouldn't mind adding to my late night mindless slasher rotation.

(Oh yeah, and Joe Bob Briggs makes a cameo! That alone is worth the price of admission!)