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October 17, 2009

Paranormal Activity

2007, Dir. by Oren Peli.

When you tell people you're a fan of horror movies, normal people that is, it's not an easy thing to defend. It's a genre that's known for being as vulgar, shameless, and ridiculous as possible. That's often true, but anyone who could dismiss the entire genre as just that is clearly being obtuse. When I've been asked what it is that makes me enjoy these films, there are many things I've said, but the most common is that I love the concept of good and evil.

Paranormal Activity, the hippest new thing in horror since Cloverfield or The Blair Witch Project, doesn't say that's what it's intending to address, but there's no mistaking it. It's the story of a young, unmarried couple who decide to use a video camera to investigate some strange happenings that have seemed to follow the woman, Katie (Katie Featherston), since she was 8 years old. Her live-in boyfriend, Micah (Micah Sloat), is very entertained by the phenomenon, in a brutally skeptical manner. After bringing in a psychic to discuss the possibility of haunting and the differences between ghosts and demons, the camera is set, and the events unfold. The following three weeks are yours to witness, I'm not gonna say a thing more about the plot.

I will say, however, that this movie produced the most tension I've ever felt in a movie theater. I was sick to my stomach throughout most of the film, and found myself repeating a few slightly foul exclamations to myself every time the story advanced to a new evening. At the end, I was physically shaking from what was put on film. There were many endings I considered feasible for the film and the one that happened, despite a slight cheese factor, was more affecting than anything that crossed my mind.

Like I said before, I love the concept of good and evil. And that's because I truly believe in good and evil, it's just that it's hard to see it on a daily basis. Most of the time I live in the middle of the scale, with routines I follow to keep me in my comfort zone. I make mistakes, and I do good things, but most days I'd like to think I average out to be not too different from anyone else. I'm not consistently putting myself in situations that get me out this, especially on the evil side. And, that's where horror movies come in to play.

Why would I say that I enjoy a movie that affects me physically, makes me leery of shadows, and makes me want to not go to sleep tonight? Because, it reminds me that there's another side of the pendulum. It reminds me that there are forces that prevent issues like this from happening on a daily basis. It reminds me of the things I believe in - in Heaven and on Earth - that make me sure I don't have to worry about anything as terrifying as what I've seen on the screen. It reminds me that I can see things that shake my core in movies and come out the other side with the knowledge that I don't need to worry about these things, because the good IS out there.

See Paranormal Activity at your own risk. Like the similar indie horrors I mentioned at the beginning of this review, it's not for everyone. One of the first things I heard when the movie ended was someone saying "That's the worst (expletive) movie I've ever seen." But, I also heard a lot of people trying to find things that comforted them, and laughing about how much the movie affected them. I found myself smiling with my friends, singing loudly while driving home, calling my family to check in, and thrilled to be able to get home and write about the experience while watching my favorite TV show. I did all these things for no reason other than to remind me of what makes me believe in good. And I don't think I'd have done the same had I not let Paranormal Activity get under my skin and mess with my head. That's a fair trade in my book.

But I'm still not sure I'm going to sleep tonight.

October 13, 2009

Riding the Bullet

2004, Dir. by Mick Garris.

I mentioned in my last review that a lot of the good horror movies made this decade don't come from America. That's true, but there have been a few smaller releases that slipped by a lot of viewers. One such film is the Stephen King adaptation Riding the Bullet, based on King's first electronically published novella. Though it's a gimmicky film that could have been fine tuned, this is an adaptation that reeks of Stephen King in the best way.

Alan Parker (Jonathan Jackson) is a young man who's fascinated with death to the point of attempting suicide on his October 30th birthday. He's stopped by his girlfriend (Erika Christiansen), and gets out of the hospital just in time to find out that his mother (Barbara Hershey) has suffered a stroke. While his friends are heading to a John Lennon concert (the film's set in the early '70s), Alan decides to hitchhike his way home to see Mom as soon as possible. But he doesn't get far without encountering some strange situations that put everything he knows up for reconsideration as he deals with the sarcastic alter-ego that's running loose in his mind.

What I admire so much about Riding the Bullet is how well the script resembles something King wrote. I haven't read the novella, but have read several King books and the dialogue and character dilemmas in this movie have King's stamp all over them. The use of Jackson in dual roles as Alan and the naysayer over his shoulder is an especially great touch, and I could picture the italicized text interjections in print whenever the other Alan spoke. There are also plenty of references to King's fictional version of Maine, some pop-culture references (including a disappointing final line), and more.

A lot of people forget that King's just as skilled at drama as he is at horror, and that shows through in this story. There's a great balance of the Stand By Me style character growth that at times makes the film seem like a coming of age tale, but the odd characters and chance meetings that remind of something like Desperation or Insomnia. The film is most definitely a drama about Alan first and a horror film second, but it's got more than enough of the creepy and supernatural to keep King fans happy.

Riding the Bullet has its fair share of problems. There are a lot of "false" scenes in which something is shown to happen, only to reveal that it was just Alan's imagination running wild. While this works occasionally to show his moral dilemma and the concerns he has, it gets tedious by the end of the film, and could have been toned down in some instances. The few special effects are pretty standard, too, and there are some unintentionally goofy moments with Arquette that kill a bit of the tension. Garris has never been a director I've been terribly impressed by, nut the visual presentation here is simple and effective -the film probably didn't need to try so hard to shock us with so many false reveals.

The finale is a great wrap up to the story's arc, and really closes out the importance of this Halloween night in Alan's life, and flashbacks also go far to make the drama stand out from your average thoughtless slasher. I guess, in the case of Riding the Bullet, it's better to reach for something more and fail at times than to aim for cheap scares and forget the plot. The movie does enough in reminding me what it is that makes King's work (and many of the films adapted from his work) so special to the horror crowd that I'm comfortable calling it a Solid Selection that holds a sentimental place in my heart.


2007, Dir. by Jaume Balaguero & Paco Plaza.

The thing I've noticed most about horror in the new millennium is that you really have to look for the good ones (Or, you have to know people whose opinions you trust that look for the good ones...that's what I do, it's far easier). There have been a lot of excellent, original, and occasionally terrifying films that have popped up all over the globe this decade, except for in Hollywood where people would rather let someone else make them and throw together a remake on the cheap.

Such is the case with [REC], which American audiences might recognize as Quarantine. Held back for a DVD release until long after Quarantine's (meager) buck had been made, the Spanish original is now unleashed for all to see, and it's well worth finding.

Filmed in a style similar to Cloverfield (which, I remind you, it predates),our story follows a TV reporter and her unseen cameraman as they spend an evening with a crew of fire fighters. The monotonous evening is disrupted by a call to assist an elderly woman who's trapped in her apartment, and the distress turns out to be more dangerous than ever expected. Before any questions can be answered, a quarantine (get it?) is establishedby the police; and the residents, firemen, and our intrepid reporter are trapped inside the building to figure out what exactly is wrong with this old woman...and anyone that's injured throughout the night.

The infected are not at all friendly, and the film quickly matures into a real-time race for the finish, with our characters attempts to find answers quickly dissolving into a battle for survival. At under 75 minutes, the film is a brisk one, but it fills the minutes with buckets of tension and frantic situations that keep the viewer on the edge of their seat. It's a little disappointing that there aren't many answers given by the ending, but this also leaves the viewer a lot to ponder after the credits roll, and is a great conversation starter.

For anyone looking for an intense horror film, I can't recommend [REC] enough. It manages to create a dangerous situation, fill it with dangerous situations and well-placed scares, and doesn't wear out its welcome. There's also a lot of blood for the gorehounds, and the infected might hit the zombie lover's sweet spot, too. If you want to make your nerves tingle, pass by that copy of Quarantine (despite the too-cute Jennifer Carpenter in the lead) at your local video store and pick this one up. I promise it's good for a few good nightmares and will remind you to keep your doors locked and your neighbors on the outside. It's a Prime Choice.

October 11, 2009

'80s Cheesy Horror Double Attack!

With the month well under way, and several more serious films stealing my attention at times thus far, I thought it only fitting to stop and take a travel back to a simpler time. A time when music was big and hair was bigger. A time when Spielberg owned the world, and when Stallone and Schwarzenegger were kickin' ass at their best. And, most sadly, a time when I was too young to watch awesome movies like these.

1986, Dir. by Richard Wenk.

When it comes to vampire movies of this decade, my thoughts immediately turn to Tom Holland's brilliant Fright Night, which is probably one of the 5-10 movies I've seen more than any others. In fact, I've seen it so many times that I don't plan to watch it this month. Umpteenth viewings of the more famous The Lost Boys and the more indie Near Dark didn't sound necessary either, and that led me to picking up my copy of the more stripper-esque Vamp.

Our story starts with AJ and Keith (Robert Rusler and Chris Makepeace), two college kids trying to earn lodging in a posh fraternity house. After a hazing ritual goes awry, smooth-talker AJ makes a deal to get the guys "anything" they want to earn them entry and, being college-age males, the request is of course for a stripper. This leads AJ and Keith, catching a ride with a nerd (Gedde Watanabe of Long Duck Dong fame!), to the exclusive After Dark Club.

The club, is of course, a vampire hotspot. And of course, the "main attraction" of the evening is our head vampiress, played by former Bond villainess Grace Jones. AJ approaches her to propose a business arrangement after her performance draws him in, and you can probably guess where it goes from there.

Vamp isn't a film that's heavy on story or intelligence, but it does '80s goofiness well. The proceedings are eerily filmed and the music fits perfectly - in fact, all the technical aspects scream "Hey, we know how you guys are gonna remember this decade, and we're gonna revel in it!" If you're into the brand of wacky this decade is famous for, the odds are you'll get some enjoyment out of it.

The other positive standout in the film is Sandy Baron as the club's headmaster, Vic. Baron is a veteran character actor, who went on to earn his most fame as the astronaut-pen-owning side character on a few episodes of Seinfeld, but has appeared in many other films too. He fits this role perfectly, sporting a pale look that appears to have come out of a David Lynch film and a seedy charm that is enough to makes me dig his attempts at "working out" the situation while dealing with both the kids and the ladies of the night. Plus, he eats cockroaches. That's talent.

You probably don't need to seek out Vamp if you haven't had much experience with the vampire films I mentioned in the opening paragraph, but if you've seen all of them and are looking for something different, this is the place to be. It's a fun little diversion with some memorable images and characters that's worthy of being called a Solid Selection.

Dead Heat
1988, Dir. by Mark Goldblatt.

The only thing I really need to say about this movie is on the DVD box. It is, in fact, 'The Buddy Cop Zombie Comedy". Yes, that's right.

Cheesemaster Treat Williams and SNL-alumnus/meathead Joe Piscopo star as Police Detectives Roger Mortis (Talk about a stiff name!) and Doug Bigelow, two cops trying to figure out why exactly nothing short of dismemberment could stop a couple of violent criminals they caught robbing a jewlrey store. This leads them to a scientific lab where tests seem to be adminstered to more than just animals. In a brawl with a giant pig-man that looks like B-Bop from the Ninja Turtles, Roger is accidentally locked in a decompression room and asphyxiated.

But, the next thing you need to know is on the poster to the left - You can't keep a good cop dead. With the help of some unguarded Frankensteinish equipment and a too-knowledgable ex-girlfriend/coroner, Roger's back on the case in no time...but he only has 12 hours before his body decomposes. The game is set, and a supporting cast of no less than Darren McGavin of Madison Hotels, Gremlins' Keye Luke, and the late/immortal Vincent Price are all suspects.

As you can guess from my inability to keep this description serious, this movie has cheese all over the place. Piscopo and Williams banter back and forth with one-liners all movie, and in fact I don't think the latter has a line that's not a joke in the film. There are big gooey creatures, lots of blood splatter and shootouts, zombie slaughtered pigs, and more. There are tacked on '80s babe love interests, there are villainous actors revelling in villainous roles (Though Price is clearly limited here by his age and health, sadly), and more. This movie doesn't take itself seriously for a second, and the unashamed nature of it all makes it a most fun experience.

Being a second viewing of the film, I wasn't as enamored by the cheesy goodness on my own, so I think my biggest concern about Dead Heat lies in rewatchability. I noticed a lot more moments that just seemed tacked on to get a chuckle this time around, especially with Piscopo who slides from funny to annoying often in the role. I'm sure the writers wanted to capitalize on his "fame" at the time, but it goes too far at times. The plot is pencil thin, as well, and there's not much mystery to the proceedings, which makes for a few down spots when you're waiting for a reveal you've already figured out. There are, however, a couple of surprises that are pretty memorable, so I won't discredit the writers entirely. A bit of the comedy being cut for character developement or drama wouldn't have been a bad thing, but it's understandable considering the tools the movie had at its disposal.

Dead Heat's frantic energy and willingness to go all out in the name of cheese wins me over in the end. It may not be an all-out success, but I haven't seen a lot of films like it, and it knows what it is from the start. It also does a great job of putting '80s traditions together to make fans of the decade like me feel at home, which leaves me happy to call it a Solid Selection.

October 8, 2009

Horror Quick Hits

Phantom of the Paradise
1974, Dir. by Brian De Palma.

Is that a Paul Williams PEZ Dispenser on the poster? It's a little old-fashioned if it is. *rimshot*

Anyway, Phantom of the Paradise has long been one of my favorite cult pleasures. You've got a master of uncomfortable cinema known as Brian De Palma directing a film that's 70's rock musical amalgamation of Faust and Phantom of the Opera. How the heck does that not rule?

What struck me again on this revisit of a film I've seen at least a half-dozen times is how...well, how good-looking Jessica Harper is. Wait, what? That wasn't it entirely. No, I meant to talk about this film's merits. Like how....good-looking Jessica Harper is.


Anyway, there are a lot of reasons I love this movie, from the music to the kills to the crazy performances of Paul Williams, William Finley, and (my personal favorite) Gerritt Graham as the unforgettable "BEEF". And of course, there's De Palma's wicked sense of style. But this time, I got nothin'. Because Jessica Harper is really good-looking.

(She sings well too. And the movie goes in The Mike's Legends Series.)

House on Haunted Hill
1958, Dir. by William Castle.

Here's another horror I've seen a few more times than I can remember, and one that's always brought a good time. There are few actors I admire as much as Vincent Price, and the odds are I'll check out anything that's got his name on the box. But the first thing that anyone interested in him needs to check out is this one.

From horror gimmick maestro William Castle, the original House on Haunted Hill is perhaps the definitive 1950s B horror film. It's a pretty simple strategy - a bunch of people get invited to big old house where a reclusive millionaire (that would be Price) has planned a party for his not-quite-loved wife. There are rumors of ghosts, locked doors, vats of acid...everything you're gonna need for a night of terror for five unsuspecting fools.

House on Haunted Hill is definitely among the corniest of horror films, but it does this as well as possible. The finale shows this a lot, and makes more sense when you know the gimmick Castle wanted to put with it in theaters, but it also wraps up the film's biggest asset - the story.

Most b-horror films have similar stories, as I mentioned above, but this one's put together greatly around Price's lead performance. There are a lot of questions asked and the characters' perceptions of reality play heavily into their fates. When it all comes together with a final explaination, the rest of the film gains added clarity.

Of course, I was was wrong when I called the story the film's biggest asset, for that is and always will be Price's honor. If you want to see the master of horror stars at work, this is the place to start. It's a Prime Choice.

The Beast Must Die
1974, Dir. by Paul Annett

Now this is a movie I'd love to write more about, but I don't dare want to spoil a minute of it for those of you out there. To put it simply The Beast Must Die is an Agatha Christie-esque mystery...but the killer's a werewolf.

Yeah, why didn't I think of that? It's bloody genius. (And it happened well before I was born.)

Calvin Lockhart stars as a survival obsessed rich man who invites six guests to his home where he intends to find out which one of them really is the moon beast that's been creating havoc across the land. The most famously cast guests include the great Peter Cushing, Bond baddie Charles Gray, and future Dumbledore Michael Gambon. The six join Lockhart's Tom and his wife Caroline for a weekend of terror.

Produced by the renowned Amicus studios that showed up to battle Hammer Films at the end of it's run, The Beast Must Die takes itself quite seriously, resulting in a pretty tense viewing experience. Lockhart is formidable in the lead, and I'm a little shocked I haven't seen him in more. Cushing stands out as usual, though he's less prominent than his picture on the DVD cover would lead you to believe. I also like the idea of the
"Werewolf Break" (an idea once used by William Castle, too), which gives the audience a chance to speculate as to who exactly our lupine killer is.

The Beast Must Die isn't necessarily a great movie, but it gains points all over the place for its ingenuity. Add in the great cast and the sharpness of the script, and you've definitely got a film that's a Prime Choice.

That's all for tonight, and I'm not sure I'll get to writing tomorrow. But a pair of hidden '80s cheeseballs are soon to hit the site, and I promise to have something good to say about them. Happy Haunting!

October 7, 2009

Trick 'r Treat

2008, Dir. by Michael Dougherty.

As you've probably noticed (and it should at least be evident by my posts over the past week), most of us horror nerds identify the entire month of October as a month of terror. But the real night of demons is Halloween, the night when the boundary between the living and the dead is said to be the weakest - the night when evil just might be able to make a stand against the living. This is the night horror films are made of. And Michael Dougherty's deliciously macabre Trick 'r Treat knows that all too well.

Most are qualifying this film as an anthology, as it weaves multiple stories together, but it's more along the lines of a twisty Tarantino film than something like Creepshow. The film introduces us to characters that range from a school principal with dark secrets (Dylan Baker of Spider-Man 2), a reclusive old man (Brian Cox of X2), a girl who's sick of the dark holiday (Leslie Bibb of Iron Man), and a young woman who's scared about her first time out partying with her sister and their mutlicultural and demographic pleasing friends (Anna Paquin of the X-Men series). Was anyone in this movie NOT in a Marvel comics adaptation? (If it makes y'all feel better, Dougherty co-wrote X2 AND Superman Returns, and little Quinn Lord who appears in each if the film's stories appeared on Smallville; so DC got some alumni in. Needless to say, there are comic book elements to this film.) The characters all inhabit a small Ohio town on Halloween night and their Halloween experiences, which each have their own horrific effect on others, aren't likely to let them through the night without facing some kind of terror.

What I absolutely loved about Trick 'r Treat was how it managed to bring together so many horror favorites in one place. There's talk of vampires and werewolves for the monster fans, and there's talk of next door serial killers and creepy town murder legends for the realists. There're things that could be seen as zombies or demons, too, but it's all up to the viewer to put the pieces together as they go. It's not likely you'll have a full picture of the film during your first viewing, but by the end things will tie together beautifully. I watched the film again after I'd finished my first viewing, and loved seeing things that I didn't understand the first time become more relevant. Believe me, this is a horror film you'll want to see more than once.

I wouldn't necessarily say it's a scary film, but there are elements that are definitely surprising and the character that ties everything together (which the credits calls "Sam", probably for the Samhain origin of Halloween, of course) is a fantastic creation that I'm guessing will be an iconic image in horror before long. It's also got some gore and a bit of nudity, but these aren't the focal points of the film. In fact, I'd say this is as close to an old-school/pre-slasher craze horror film we've gotten in a long time, and the moments that fit these recent horror cliches don't detract from the film's purpose at all.

That purpose, in my eyes, is presenting the power of Halloween as a cultural phenomenon and reminding us that, just maybe, there are some unexplained things out there that we better not taunt. And it succeeds in every regard. Trick 'r Treat is one of the most gratifying new horror films I've seen in a long time, and I don't doubt it'll build a strong following leading up to this year's Halloween...and hopefully into future Octobers, too. This is a can't miss film that definitely earns a spot in The Mike's Legends Series.

October 6, 2009

The Monster Squad

1987, Dir. by Fred Dekker.

When most think about horror comedies of the 1980s, most think of Gremlins and Ghostbusters. That's fair. But in my mind, The Monster Squad deserves a place next to those two films in any discussion of the decade's best supernatural laughers.

Featuring no less than re-creations of Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, the Wolf Man, the "Gill Man", and The Mummy, this movie put all these monsters I loved watching and reading about as a kid in one place...and I was loving it. I must have checked this out from the local library dozens of times, and the thrill of getting to say "Wolf man's got gnards!" never got old. Well, until I got older and the VHS copy from the library went away.

The Monster Squad then became one of those films that gets lost in a person's life. That is, until 2007 when it was FINALLY released on DVD (if you think that's bad, we're still wating for Fred Dekker's other classic Night of the Creeps to be released - which it will be on 10/27!). What's shocked me upon multiple revisits over the past two years is that, like Ghostbusters and Gremlins before it, The Monster Squad's got some pretty adult themes going on at times.

One of my favorite moments that shows off this edge is a scene involving the "creepy german guy", where he gets into a discussion with one of the youngsters about how much he knows about monsters, and as the scene ends the camera pans to reveal the tattoo on the old man's wrist. Anyone with a bit of an education in 20th Century world history will recognize the signifiacnce of the shot, and it really adds to what could be seen by some as a film only for children. There are several other moments I can think of which add to the film in this regard, making it truly one of the few children's films I can think of that can make the transition to adult viewing so easily. This isn't another Mad Monster Party that's only for the young.

The Monster Squad's definitely aged, but if you still love the '80s you'll get some love out of this brisk little romp. And if you're a fan of the "classic" monsters, it's an absolute must see. In fact, this is just one of those movies that I have a hard time belieiving ANYONE could dislike. And that's more than enough to earn it a few more viewings and a spot in The Mike's Legends Series.

A Whisper in the Dark

1976, Dir. by Marcello Aliprandi.

Italian horror films of the late 1960s-1980s are generally known for being bloody slashers full of splatter and extremely red blood. You'll see me talking about a few of them by month's end. A Whisper in the not one of those movies. In fact, there could be debate as to whether or not it's actually a horror film.

A Whisper in the Dark tells the tale of a presumably wealthy Italian family whose 12 year old son Martino has a close relationship with an imaginary friend named Luca. What's eerie about this is that when Martino tells someone Luca will punish them...something bad usually happens. First it's his little sisters that notice it, then his parents start to get in on the action, and before you know it Luca's got everyone in the house holding their breath in fear. Or does he?

Like many haunted house films from the past, as well as more recent examples like The Others, A Whisper in the dark focuses on atmosphere and building the characters' fear through their interactions with each other. Martino's parents, played by John Phillip Law (Diabolik himself!) and Nathalie Delon (who's really freakin' hot) are key to the story, as a deep family secret soon comes out. Plus the family soon brings in a famous "doctor" to work with Martino, and he's played by the late, great Joseph Cotten. The talent of these actors really gives the film depth, but it's the young Allesandro Poggi as Martino who really hold the film together. Unlike the young girls playing his twin sisters, he does a fantastic job for a child actor.

The final act goes a little off the rails, leading to an inconclusive ending that I'm still unsure about. I like the implication the film makes that plays the potentially supernatural events against their family's own demons, but the way the primary conflict involving Delon's character plays out is pretty goofy. The open-ended final scene is probably a big reason this film has gone so unseen, as well.

I liked A Whisper in the Dark's attempts to build tension, and the film looked and sounded great. I'm not sure the plot turned out entirely how I'd want it to, but that doesn't detract from its value much. I'm not sure I'll give this one another viewing for a long time, but I respected its efforts, so I'll call it a Prime Choice.

October 4, 2009

Horror Quick Hits

Hey all, I'm gonna be posting more full reviews, but the fact of the matter is I'm attempting to watch too many movies this month to post full reviews of all of them. So, when that's not possible, I'm gonna throw in some brief comments about the other flicks I've watched. Starting now.

Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan
1989, Dir. by Rob Hedden.

Truth be told, I'm not the biggest fan of this series or the slasher genre as a whole, outside of Halloween, which set the bar too high for the likes of the '80s slasher. But I'm not above popping one in and having a good time as things go to pieces, and I will admit that Jason's one bad mamma-jamma. I picked this installment of the series to represent him this month, mostly because I hadn't seen it in years and it was the last one I needed for my collection. Unfortunately, it was as bad as I remembered.

The title is such a tease. About 60% of the movie takes place on a boat with goofy teens on a cruise to NY from Crystal Lake, and there's little of interest in them. Our heroine is the classic "oustider trying to deal with past demons" chick, which sets up some terrible "visions" of the young Jason who drowned in the lake (which somehow connects to NY). When the film finally does hit the Big Apple there are a few memorable scenes, particularly Jason's showdown with an amateur boxing champ and face-off with a gang of street thugs, but those are moments that are more "bad good" than good. And then there's the finale which is just ridiculously bad, as both a social commentary and a way of defeating a killer.

There are a lot of bad movies in the F13 series, but most of them are at least fun to watch. This one does not fit that role. In fact, I'd put it alongside the New Line produced Jason Goes To Hell as the worst in the series. (And if you bring up Jason X, I get angry. Jason X rules, and does not suck.)

The Mike's Rating: Run Away!

Midnight Movie
2008, Dir. by Jack Messitt.

Now, this is the kind of slasher film I can get behind...well, almost.

Made on a skimpy budget in what looks to be Chicago (Y'all's cities all look alike to us simple rural folks!), Midnight Movie tells of horror encountered by the staff and customers of a small movie theater that decide to play a midnight showing of the once lost horror film 'The Dark Beneath". This isn't your average horror film, as the director/star/writer went on a killing spree after being made to watch his film in a mental institute (Someday, this might be Uwe Boll's biopic!), and the cops suspect he might show up at this little theater with its little staff.

I'll give this movie some credit, it's flippin' out there. The filmmakers were not hesitant to shake the traditional slasher elements to the core, adding in some supernatural elements involving the film within a film and even gave us a Nightmare On Elm Street-ish theme of the power of fear. The film on screen also gives us some cool black-and-white scenes that are kind of a throwback to older indie horror, which is pretty cool most of the time. This film could have settled for standard slasher gimmicks, but they at least put some effort into shaking the viewer's preconceived notions as they went forward with their plot.

Midnight Movie isn't always successful, mostly due to the amateur nature of the actors and some goofy lapses in logic. I admit that my biggest issue, for most of the film, was trying to figure out why none of the movie theater employees seemed to have any idea that the things that were happening to the film they were playing weren't humanly possible (also, it seems like the filmmakers chose to ignore how a projector works too, didn't fit the story I guess), but that's just me being a theater employee still. Oh, and the soundtrack was a bit much too. Still, I'm not gonna damn this one, its good intentions weigh more than its superficial flaws.

The Mike's Rating: Solid Selection

Mad Monster Party?
1967, Dir. by Jules Bass

Slight change of pace from those two blood filled flicks. Mad Monster Party is a claymation theatrical flick from the makers of Rudolph the Reindeer and such, Rankin-Bass. Considering it boasts a cast of no less than Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, The Mummy, The Werewolf, The Creature (which bears no resemblence to the Creature from the Black Lagoon whatsoever?), Jekyll & Hyde and "It" (I won't spoil the surprise, but you'll recognize It) could this movie look more fun? Oh yeah, it could add the vocal talents of BORIS FREAKIN' KARLOFF!

Mad Monster Party is definitely a fun look at these monsters for kids. As an adult, I find some of the musical numbers to be a little awful, and it's not much for depth in writing, but I can't imagine not being enthralled by this were I still the horror obsessed kid I once was. However, there are some very adult themed jokes for us older folks, and the animation is just gorgeous to look at from a "classic" standpoint...I'll take this over Pixar any day.

Oh, and Francesca is totally HOT. Rowwwr.

Sorry, I got distracted. What I mean to say is that Mad Monster Party is a diversion that any classic horror fan must experience, and hopefully share with horror ready children in their life.

The Mike's Rating: Prime Choice

That's all for tonight, but soon a review of the 1976 Italian chiller A Whisper in the Dark, and by Wednesday I should finally be able to bring you my thoughts on the long awaited Trick 'r Treat! Until next time, may your October be full of happy hauntings!

October 3, 2009

The Evil Dead

1981, Dir. by Sam Raimi.

There's no intro needed for the first Evil Dead,
and creating a review had me scratching my head.
How do I present a film that has been so revered;
that millions and millions have seen and have feared?
But then a light shined, in my cranial dome -
"Alas!" I did cry, "An Evil Dead poem!"

The show starts off simple, five kids in a car;
They're traveling somewhere, and it doesn't seem far.
If you're expecting there'll be someone else near,
Let me whisper this dreadful thought in your ear.
These woods aren't forgiving, and aren't populated -
At least not by things that haven't been mutilated.

They arrive at a cabin with plans to "party down!"
But this party isn't for children, a cake, or a clown.
Instead they find a cellar, and ancient artifacts,
and a recording that warns they don't dare relax.
One girl heads outside, with thoughts of escape;
but the trees are more rhymes with grape.

she wants to leave - GASP! - the bridge is out!
That fact won't get Cheryl to stop with her pout.
Then something else happens that changes her tune,
she starts ranting and raving like some kind of loon.
But she's not just crazy, and nobody's dreamin';
'Cause Cheryl's possessed by a Kandarian demon!

What happens next, I'll leave you to learn,
I trust your anticipation's starting to burn.
I'm not just here to retell the film's story,
I'd rather talk a bit about all of it's glory.
Because The Evil Dead's not just your average scare,
There's reasons so many have stopped here to stare.

Before he made sequels, Sam Raimi focused on gore.
There's little comedy, and no boomstick in store.
This film's about terror, no more and no less.
OK, add a strong dose of severed body part mess.
We do meet Bruce Campbell, before his cult fame,
Back when he didn't have his sarcastic, cocky game.

One thing you will see on the Evil Dead screen,
is bodily fluids that range from red to green.
There are no reservations regarding this matter,
These demons are only slowed by making a splatter.
The film takes its mess to a brand new height,
Making sure we realize it's a long, bumpy night.

There's a lot that could be said about this one,
It's messy, it's scary, it's a cabin full of fun.
I'm not telling you anything you don't already know -
I'm dig this movie like Charlie Sheen digs a ho.
So don't start in with the rating scale queries -
Because The Evil Dead fits The Mike's Legends Series!


2009, Dir. by Ruben Fleischer.

To be frank, I'm shocked in the popularity that zombie films have gained in mainstream avenues over the past decade. Long a favorite of more "underground" horror fanatics, the zombie film has exploded since the release of films like 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, and the Dawn of the Dead remake. In fact, a lot of filmmakers over the last several years have worked to use the zombie as a tool to get a theme across. These themes can be as simple as romance or comedy, but can also delve into social commentary on war, 1950's society, teenage sexuality, and more. George Romero, father of the modern zombie with his original Dead trilogy (who has also completed three more Dead films since this resurgence began) started this ball rolling with sly jabs at race and social norms in his films, but the new breed of zombies can be manipulated in far more direct manners, it seems.

None of this matters when it comes down to Zombieland. This is not a zombie movie with a message about society. It's a comedic romp that's sure to gain acclaim from mainstream audiences across the globe, and it's a good sign that this zombie horror revolution isn't as close to an end as we may have recently thought.

With relative newcomer Ruben Fleischer at the helm, Zombieland sets off to tell the tale of four survivors in a zombie ravaged America, starting with Jesse Eisenberg's 'Columbus'. Columbus is a relatively normal nerd who's survived almost entirely by outrunning zombies and keeping his life on track with a strict set of rules that he follows to a neurotic T. This becomes a bit of a challenge when he catches a ride from another survivor, Woody Harrelson's 'Tallahassee', a much more aggressive and much less restricted man who loves that he's so good at killing zombies. Tallahassee's also in search of a golden prize throughout the film, resulting in a sideplot that gives the film a lot of great comedic moments. I won't spoil that one for you here. I will say that Harrelson fills the role well, and shows off his chops as an actor that can handle action, comedy, or drama with ease.

These polar opposites later run into two female survivors, the feisty 'Wichita' (Superbad's Emma Stone) and her twelve-year-old sister 'Little Rock' (Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin), a duo who always seem to have a trick up their sleeves and plan to get to a California amusement park that's "completely zombie free". (Good luck with that.) The rest of the cast is rounded out by zombies, along with a couple of cameos (most won't call the appearance of mega-babe Amber Heard a cameo yet, but wait a little while and you'll see). The other cameo will be a highlight of the film to most, and rightfully so. It's terribly funny.

In fact, most of Fleischer's film is funny. But there are also a lot of great character building moments in the script, and each character is well-balanced in regard to comedy and dramatic growth. The writers (Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick) do an excellent job of giving the audience a palpable film that succeeds at keeping the zombies off screen for long periods of time while still building human relationships and establishing the terrors of this unpredictable land. It's a very strongly written popcorn horror film, which is rare for a studio release these days.

When the zombies do come in to play, they're represented like they may be represented in a video game. Characters expend lots of ammo from lots of different guns, not to mention any blunt object that our heroes and heroines can wield easily. The zombie effects themselves are good - there's nothing incredibly groundbreaking, but there weren't any glaring issues with the creature effects either. The film also shys away from building any of the zombies as characters or showing humanity in them, making it clear that this is a case of simple predation with no alterior motive.

There's not a lot to dislike about this one. Some might call it a fluff piece that doesn't hit on important issues and follows a standard path to its ending, and they'd be right. But Zombieland succeeds at what it wants to do on almost every level, and I see little that makes me believe this won't be one of the most played Hollywood horror films over the next decade. Solid direction and writing, likable characters played by capable actors, a strong soundtrack and plenty of gore that's not too gross to turn off the masses....Zombieland has everything a film of its sort could need. I'd say it's at least a Prime Choice on my grading scale, but wouldn't be surprised to see it maintain over time and make a leap into legends status. This is a great film to experience that should sit alongside the best zombie films and horror comedies that recent memory has to offer.

October 2, 2009

The Return of Doctor X

1939, Dir. by Vincent Sherman.

As I rolled forward in my list of films for October tonight, I stopped at a sequel I've wanted to check out for some time. The Return of Doctor X is a follow-up to the 1932 thriller Doctor X, a film that is most famous for starring supporting horror icon Lionel Atwill and the unforgettable Fay Wray, and most notable for being among the first movies filmed in Technicolor and being a pre-Code film that dealt with topics such as cannibalism and rape.

The sequel is really only notable for one reason (besides being a rare sequel to color film that's filmed in black and white), and that's the presence of a young Humphrey Bogart as one of the primary villains - that's him in the poster with the white skunk stripe in his hair. I doubt many who watched this film figured he'd be starring in a best picture winner that would stand the test of decades just three years later, but that's Hollywood.

The story of The Return of Doctor X is relatively simple. An ambitious newspaper man who's got an overly annoying "aw, shucks" demeanor tries to get an interview with a famous actress (played by an actress with the oddly fun name Lya Lys), who he finds murdered and then missing when he tries to reveal the crime. This leads to him getting involved with doctors, the actress herself who magically reappears, the weird scientist Doctor Quesne (pronounced Cane, of course) played by Bogart, and your normal early Hollywood crew of angry editors and trusting and virtuous young women. Grave robbing and experiments are just part of the ensuing hijinx.

As I noted above, there's not much to see here outside of Bogie. The lead, Wayne Morris, is definitely a man of his time period, with an approach to acting that made me think of him as a better looking butless talented Lon Chaney, Jr. (A better comparison might be Arsenic and Old Lace's Jack Carson - same bumbling mannerisms, less ability to deliver lines or show any sense of timing.) Basically, what I'm trying to say is the guy sucked the life out of the film. The side characters are pretty thinly developed too, which isn't surprising when you consider that it's a 62 minute film.

1939 is famous for being one of the most progressive and groundbreaking years in the history of Hollywood, and a film this by-the-numbers seems all the more disappointing considering what else was going on in the world of cinema. If you want to see Bogie as an undead creep with skunk hair, you can do it here. Just don't expect to get much out of it. In fact, I'd just say Skip It altogether.

October 1, 2009


1979, Dir. by John Badham.

When I last posted, I talked about my love for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (the book, that is) and how difficult it has been for anyone to film the story as it reads on the page. Dracula, the other most famous literary monster to hit the cinema, is a different story. I've yet to find any American version of the Dracula tale that works completely, despite each of them having many positive parts.

Such is the case with John Badham's 1979 version of the classic tale, which bases the story off the iconic film that helped put Universal on the map in the 1930s and the stage play it was based off of.

Frank Langella dons the cape as Count Dracula (he had been playing the role on Broadway at the time, making casting easy) and the story picks up with the fatal sea voyage that results in Dracula's arrival in England. This version takes the story in a more rural direction than most of its American predecessors, with the famed Carfax Abbey property Dracula inhabits becoming a hilltop castle in the middle of an incredibly Hammer-esque wooded countryside. Langella has always been a physically imposing actor due to his height and gravel-toned vocal mannerisms, which lends a lot of power to his portrayal of the Count. He does a great job of looking the part, which is generally the most important thing about playing this role. He's no Christopher Lee, but who the heck is?

The bigger treat in the cast is Laurence Olivier as Abraham Van Helsing. No offense to Hugh Jackman, but this is my kind of portrayal. He's incredibly sympathetic as the aged doctor whose heart doesn't want to believe what his mind knows is true, and most of his scenes are incredibly well done. Donald Pleasence, one of my favorite actors to see, also stars as Dr. Seward, father of the doomed Lucy and head of the local Mental Institution, and the scenes he shares with Olivier are often fantastic, particularly the famous first vampire kill scene. The other star is Kate Nelligan as Lucy, who does a good job of getting caught up in Dracula's enticements.

The cast is unfortunately one of the film's strongest points. While it's a beautiful sight to behold and features a strong John Williams score, the film's stage roots show through during the film's first hour. There's a lot of time spent on establishing the story and setting which hints at, but never really gets to the nature of the story. When Van Helsing arrives the film rises to a higher level, and maintains strong momentum in the final reels, save for a few cheesy segments. I can deal with slow-motion fog while Dracula sensually scales a wall, to an extent, but a mid-film sequence that resembles a Bond film's opening credits a little too much is difficult for me to handle.

This version of Dracula isn't a bad film, and is worth seeing, but it's hard to recommend it over things like Hammer Films' Horror of Dracula and both versions of Nosferatu. Plus, it doesn't have the iconic imagery of Lugosi's Dracula either. As a romantic option in the Dracula history it scores high points, but these were later surpassed by Coppola's Dracula.

I know, I know. I'm basically saying it's about the fifth best Dracula film (if that, there are plenty more to choose from...Jess Franco's is good too, and Hammer has at least two more worth seeing), which isn't high praise. But, the cast and the look of the film are enough for me to call it a Solid Selection, slightly more likable than Branagh's Frankenstein that I reviewed last time out. Just see a few other Dracula films first.