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September 30, 2011

Midnight Warriors! True Heroes of Horror Month is Near!

UPDATED: 10/30/11 - This project hasn't moved as quickly as I wanted it too, for which I apologize!  But the good news is that there's still time for you to join the listing fun!  I plan to recap the True Heroes of Horror Lists others have provided on the evening of November 1, so if you can get a list in to me (frommidnightwithlove(at)gmail(dot)com) by then you can still add to the master list of True Heroes of Horror and get yourself/your blog pimped at FMWL!  If you have questions, see the details below.....
The sun is setting on one more September.  There's less than two hours left in the month where The Mike lives and - by some strange science I don't understand - most of the globe IS ALREADY IN OCTOBER!  So I thought I'd take a moment to give a reminder of FMWL's plans for horror's favorite month - and a chance to remind YOU what you can do to be a part of it!

In case you missed it, my goal for the month of October is to compile a list of the people - actors, directors, writers, producers, whatevers - who horror fans feel are the TRUE HEROES OF HORROR.  It's a pretty vague idea for a list, and I've argued with myself about what the easiest way to explain it is.  In conclusion, my best answer is that I'm picking the 10 (TEN!) people that I think truly represent how great horror can be. If that doesn't make sense, click on the link back at the beginning of the paragraph - maybe I explained it better back then!
All you have to do is send me a list.  Got a blog and want to write it there? GREAT. Send me the link and I'll pimp your site out.  Just wanna contribute to the total tally? AWESOME. Just email me (frommidnightwithlove (at) gmail (dot) com) ten names.  You don't have to put them in any order, just gimme the names.  And if y'all could try to do so by October 20th (so I can tally up the lists and create a big list by Halloween) I'd be quite in your debt.

(If you did read this all the first time, apologies, I just wanted to post a reminder.  I GET EXCITED ABOUT OCTOBER!)
Throughout the month I will be announcing the 10 names that make up my own list of the True Heroes of Horror, each of whom will be profiled in my own unique way in a separate post.  Part of me worries that this might influence others' voting, but the other part of me says a) you're all smart mammals who can think for themselves and b) it's my blog and I'll post if I want to.  So get ready for some fun.

Along with that, we'll still have your previously scheduled Midnight Movie of the Week posts (we're creeping awfully close to hitting 100 weeks!), and I've got a TON of good stuff coming up for FMWL's Indie Spotlight scene.  I can't even tell you how excited I am to shine the light on some folks who are trying to make their own statement and become horror heroes in their own manner.

IT'S COMING FOR YOU, Midnight Warriors!  And I promise you one thing....I'll be having a heckuva good time.  So get your dancin' shoes on!

September 29, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #91 - Dark and Stormy Night

There's something I've always kind of found amazing about how innocent and naive classic cinema seems today.  Even some of the most shocking films of their times - films like James Whale's The Old Dark House and William Castle's House on Haunted Hill - have this sort of boneheaded charm that was cute in their day and seems completely foreign today.  It's that charm - which is certainly similar to the charm of science fiction films of the 1950s - and its inherent silliness that sets the stage for 2009's wonderful black-and-white spoof, Dark and Stormy Night.
Though its promotional tagline - In a house, everyone can hear you scream - spoofs the famous tagline of Alien, Dark and Stormy Night has its sights set much further into cinema's past.  Writer/director Larry Blamire - who similarly spoofed '50s sci-fi with 2001's The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (one of my favorite comedies EVER) - takes aim at the scenes we've seen play out in classic whodunits here, bringing together a group of cliche characters for the reading of a will in an the old Cavendar mansion on...well....on a dark and stormy night, naturally.
The will reading ends badly.
The will reading is used to introduce the characters, most of whom seem to have walked right out of a film by a low-rent Howard Hawks imitator.  From the wealthy folks who are related to the deceased to the outsiders - which include the likes of a stranded medium, a hunting guide, a seemingly innocent dope, and a cab driver who just wants his thirty-five cents - the film provides an adequate guide to stereotypical characters from classic cinema.  Among other great performers in these roles (Andrew Parks' rich-enough-to-think-his-jokes-about-trousers-are-funny Lord Partfine being one of them), my favorite spoofers in the film are probably the feuding male and female reporters played by character actor/horror superfan Daniel Roebuck and Blamire's wife Jennifer Blaire, who present a cracking spoof of the kind of characters made famous by His Girl Friday.
While the characters provide plenty of laughs on their own, Dark and Stormy Night also does its best to spoof the most memorable twists that made this type of film unique.  The events that are played for laughs include a seance in which the fortune-telling Mrs. Cupcupboard summons her rather unhelpful spirit guide Gunny Gunny Luckcakes, and many other horror cliches of the past are also fair game.  If you're looking for a disfigured sibling trapped in an attic, we've got that.  A guy in an ape suit?  Yup, that's here too.  Heck, the film's even bold enough to feature not one but TWO cloaked killers - The Phantom of Cavendar AND The Cavendar Strangler.  
Shopping in the same place? AWKWARD.
The plot that goes along with these silly characters and silly happenings slightly resembles a game of Clue (and, partially, the movie based on Clue), with the challenge being to see which character will die next and how.  It's a little easier to spot the jokes here than it was in Blamire's first Lost Skeleton film - I'm not sure I've ever seen a film flirt with terrible filmmaking as perfectly as that spoof did (That's a compliment!) - but Dark and Stormy Night still manages to harness the same playful brand of humor that has made Blamire one of my favorite recent comic voices.
As has been the case in each of Blamire's films, no joke is too small for Dark and Stormy Night.  The humor starts with the characters names, which include such mix-and-match oddities as Dr. Van Von VanderVon, Seyton Ethelquake (played by Return of the Living Dead's James Karen!) and, my personal favorite, Roca Santachow.  Blamire also works to make the characters act as silly as their names in many ways, with plenty of gags that revolve around simple tasks and the misuse of grammar.  In one of my favorite scenes, several characters take turns reading an ominous note that states "You will be next!", and also take turns voicing their concern that the letter directly states that they - specifically - will be next.  
The comic troupe - most of whom also starred in The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra and its sequel - are on board with Blamire's madcap sensibilities, and that's a big part of what makes Dark and Stormy Night a success.  When that is combined with Blamire's vast knowledge of the films he's mimicking, the result is a one of a kind success.  I don't feel like his films are really out to make fun of that cheesy charm these films had, because it seems like Blamire - like me - respects the innocence of those days gone by.  And its this balance between respect and mockery that makes Blamire's spoofs so refreshing to the genre film fan. That balance also makes Dark and Stormy Night one of the funniest horror comedies to hit screens in some time.

September 28, 2011

A Horrible Way To Die

(2010, Dir. by Adam Wingard.)

I'm gonna say something kind of surprising here.  I dunno, maybe it's not a surprise to you, but it's a big surprise to me.  I think there just might be a good trend that has risen from the ashes of the "torture porn" subgenre that gave horror a bad name over the last decade or so.  Films like Saw and its followers - which combined society's cravings for blood with the childhood game Mouse Trap - showed young filmmakers just how much brutality they could get away with on screen.  And lately it seems like there are a lot of directors that are able to take that kind of ultraviolence and put a pinch of it into a movie and still manage to HAVE A FREAKING POINT.

A Horrible Way To Die is one of those movies.  Despite its grandiose title, I want to say that the actual manners in which people die in this film are NOT that physically horrible.  No one is tied to a jungle gym while hyenas who have previously eaten wolverines charge their barbecue sauce covered flesh, or anything like that.  But what director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett do offer the viewer is a trio of realistic human characters who, for the most part, are put through emotional hell for 87 minutes.

The non-linear film weaves together the lives of three characters, two of whom are dealing with the disease of alcoholism and one of whom is a convicted-yet-escaped serial killer.  The latter is played by the rising horror star AJ  Bowen - who you might remember as the "Are you not the babysitter?" guy in my favorite horror movie of the last decade, The House of the Devil - who continues to be a fantastic "Oh, that guy seems so normal and ordinary and so polite and OH MY GOSH WHY DID THAT NORMAL GUY JUST DO THAT???" presence in the horror scene.  The former duo of alcoholics are played by Amy Seimetz and Joe Swanberg, who each have their own demons to face.  Seimetz' character's demons are a little more demanding - because she also happens to be the escaped killer's ex-girlfriend.

So, the killer begins to track his ex and her new AA beau, and bodies start to pile up.  But these aren't Saw-ified bodies, they're just bodies of people who are in the way and get stabbed or bludgeoned or shot until they are dead.  Don't get me wrong - the way they die is certainly horrible - but it's not something modern horror fans would call the most horrible use of gore on film.

No, A Horrible Way To Die is kind of restrained when you think about it next to the bloodsoaked films that have come before it.  But it holds nothing back when it comes to dealing with human characters.  Bowen provides that same violent unease we get from his character in movies like House of the Devil and The Signal, but also gives his character a few interesting personality twists.  One late film scene - in which he talks about his experiences in prison and his motivation for escape - is a perfect example of just how "outside the box" this film and this character are, and Bowen's performance in that scene alone had me seeing the actor in a new light.  It's a fascinating performance that is well worth the viewer's applause.

Seimetz and Swanberg do their best to play more sentimental people on the other side of the film, and their performances also draw out a positive reaction.  Seimetz takes on the role of the vulnerable woman with ease and does a good job of keeping us interested in her character, even though it seems like the type of "survivor girl" we've seen a few times before.  Swanberg's character is kind of the film's wild card - a seemingly kind and caring love interest who makes a couple of choices that raise doubts in the viewer's eye - and I was pleasantly unsure about what to think of his character as the film moved along.  The film also does a great job of setting these two characters and their budding relationship against an Alcoholics Anonymous setting, which allows them a few moments to let loose their characters' feelings and give the viewer a glimpse inside their trouble minds.

The film winds to a fitting conclusion that features more than enough violence to punctuate the characters' path to its final moment, which arrives rather abruptly.  I was stunned as the credits rolled - the film had done a lot to get me interested and finished things up rather quickly - but the longer I sat and considered what I had seen, the more I was impressed by it.  This might not be the most violent or most grotesque horror film I've seen this year, but that's not where it keeps its horror.  The film's ability to involve us in these three lives and make us concerned about what comes next is very admirable - thanks to the combined efforts of the cast and filmmakers - and that's a great reason to recommend A Horrible Way to Die to the horror fan who is looking for something that values the fear of death over the act of death.

September 27, 2011


(2011, Dir. by Nicolas Winding Refn.)

After more than 25 years, our questions finally have some answers.  If you don't know what I'm talking about, allow me to do some enlightening for y'all.

The year was 1984, and The Cars - a groovy bunch of rockers by any standard - released a song that asked a lot of questions and provided no answers.  The song was titled Drive, and it left most of the world's population confused.  Who's gonna drive you home tonight?  Who's gonna pick you up when you fall?  Who's gonna pay attention to YOUR dreams?  Heck, all they told us is that we couldn't go on thinking nothing's wrong...and that's a great message, isn't it?  What kind of sick band leaves us hanging for so long?

Now it's 2011, and Nicolas Winding Refn - a new challenger to the throne of "Director with the most confusing to pronounce name ever" (NAME ONE OTHER TIME YOU'VE SEEN AN F AND AN N BACK TO BACK IN A WORD!  JUST ONE!) - has directed a film that answers those questions.  I'm not sure why Ric Ocasek isn't in the credits - Refn even goes out of his way to claim that this film is based on one of those "books" written by a guy named James Sallis - but it's clear that the introspective tone of The Cars' haunting single are at the core of the film version of Drive.

If we're working through the song, we quickly learn that Bernie Rose - an old-school crime lord played by veteran awesome person Albert Brooks - is here to tell the driver played by Ryan Gosling (or, as I like to call him, Ryan Baby Goose!) when things are too late.  The crime lord is a ruthless fellow, assisted by a Jewish pizza shop owner/thug played by the great Ron Perlman, and he seems intent on telling this young driver that things aren't so great.  In a mid film scene, he tells the lead character about the misfortune that befell his lone friend - a mechanic played by Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston - when he crossed the vicious duo, and sends a simple message to the driver.  In one of the final confrontations between the two, he points out bluntly that the rest of the driver's life will be trouble and that it's too late for that to change....basically saying that the driver would be wise to stop thinking nothing's wrong.

In the midst of the driver's confusion, a young woman who lives down the hallway (Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan) seems to pick him up when he falls.  Or perhaps it's the driver that does the same for her, since he also seems to pay attention to the dreams of the woman and her young son, who are missing their incarcerated husband/father (Sucker Punch's Oscar Isaac).  The driver is not much of a talker - the viewer should be prepared for countless awkward pauses - but he always seems to here what's going on around him and seems to have a keen understanding of what's going on around him.  He can block out the distractions around him, and at one point it even seems that he plugs his ears when an associate played by Christina Hendricks screams.  Again, this is all in the song, and it can't be denied.

You'd expect a movie about a driver for hire involved with the mob to be a high octane action movie, just like you'd expect a hit song by The Cars to be uptempo and powerful.  In both cases, Drive is not what you'd expect. I wouldn't call Drive a film noir type story - it's not dark enough visually - but the themes of betrayal, mistrust and impending doom that fill those old L.A. based crime tales are prevalent in Refn's film.  It's one of those movies that reminds me of movies I love dearly - like Vanishing Point and Shane - but creates its own identity as it goes on.

Unlike the song, there's a nasty side to this film.  Most of the violence is teased and only shown in brief flashes, but what we do see includes exploding skulls and stomped faces. But the film doesn't linger on the violence. It doesn't make the scene about the violence.  It wants us to know the violence is out there, and wants to show us that this "kid" who seems like a good guy despite his criminal activity still has an animalistic side. But it would rather have us be afraid of the emotions and the actions than the images of that violence.

Maybe I'm way off on Drive.  Maybe The Cars didn't have anything to do with it.  It's one of those movies that's one of a kind and makes you think too much.  I probably haven't done the film justice with this half-cocked ramble, but that's the beauty of it all.  Drive is something you don't expect - just like a review that compares a art-house action flick to a 27 year old ballad.  And I think I'm for that.

(Oh, and the soundtrack is AWESOME.  And doesn't feature The Cars.)

September 25, 2011


(2011, Dir. by Steven Soderbergh.)

Why hello there, Ms. Kate Winslet.  It's good to hear from you again!  Why yes, I would like to take this conversation somewhere more private...but uh, ummm....well, my readers are here.  You understand, don't you?, I do not have a date for the Oscars yet.  Of course I'll call you later!  OK, darling, we'll catch up soon.


Contagion is one of those movies that's not really a horror movie but at the same time is a movie that preys on real world issues.  There are people out there who are afraid of diseases and such being transmitted by those pesky germs we all here about, but a lot of us don't really care to think about that too much.  In general, most of us save our big fears for things that aren't realistic, and we look for horror in that...not in a medical thriller.  Contagion knows this and acknowledges this, with Winslet's character making a quip about people being more afraid of "a plastic shark in a movie" than a warning on a pack of cigarettes. And she's got a point - because this movie is so grounded in reality that we don't even think to call it a horror movie.  Despite its genre confusion, I'm covering Contagion here anyway - and not just because my future companion Ms. Kate Winslet tells me to.

No, I'm speaking of this film because Contagion is clearly a movie for the masses that pillaged the horror genre a few times during its production.  The film follows the spread of an infectious disease, MEV-1, which derives from bats (kinda like vampirism) and is capable of striking down anyone quickly.  This means that - like the best slasher films - anyone can die at any time.  No, really.  Just watch the trailer. Yep, that's a dead Gwyneth Paltrow.  Nope, she does not come back from the dead.  And she's not the only big name who doesn't survive.

No one else - from star to extra - comes back from the dead in Contagion either, which means that it often feels like a zombie film without zombies.  Some of the most exciting moments of the film show society breaking down completely, and people who are desperate to save themselves and their families doing criminal, violent things in the name of survival.  These mobs also leave a few population centers - primarily San Francisco and Minneapolis - looking like a post apocalyptic wasteland at times, with several scenes reminding me of grim recent genre films like Children of Men and 28 Days Later.  As you can see, it's easy to draw parallels between Contagion and the lessons we learn from horror films (yes naysayers, they DO exist), but that's really not what this film's about.  I suppose we could argue the semantics of whether or not the film is a horror film and what exactly a horror film is or isn't all day, but I'd prefer we just stick to talking about this movie.

The film is directed by Steven Soderbergh, and the versatile filmmaker's fingerprints are all over the film's presentation.  Colors jump off the screen as a pulsating musical score serves as the film's heartbeat, which makes it really easy to get caught up in the film's style.  The idea behind Contagion - mainly that a new virus could spring up and shake the world's societies completely - is a riveting one in its own right, but Soderbergh's vision certainly helps keep the viewer involved with the film.  Soderbergh's also assisted in carrying his film by an A-List cast that features no less than 8 Oscar nominees.  Some of these stars are more difficult to buy in their roles than others (Jude Law as a millionaire blogger is a little less convincing than Winslet as a doctor or Laurence Fishburne as a wise authority figure, for example), but each of them brings something different to the film.

With so many known actors playing characters that take the film in different directions, Contagion's plot becomes a web that resembles the spread of the deadly virus.  This becomes one of the few things about the film that I wanted to nitpick as plot points began to wrap up in the final act, because there's far more going on in Contagion than can possibly be contained in 100 minutes.  There were times when I wanted some of the plot threads - like Marion Cottilard's World Health Organization official who was trapped in Hong Kong or Law's power hungry blogger - to just go away so I could get more of the sciencey stuff from Fishburne & Winslet's crew or more of Matt Damon coping with the virus and trying to survive the iuncreasingly looted Minneapolis.

The film struggles to fit all its characters into the film, which leaves some of the questions that it raises unanswered.  There aren't any giant gaping plot holes to be found, but as the film bounces from day to day it seems like it needs to cut thematic corners at times.  My mind was often racing, wondering how come there wasn't more discussion of how many people were immune to the virus (one character is, and that's about it), or discussion of how other cities dealt with the catastrophic effects of people freaking out over the virus.  Instead of getting too in depth with these plot points, Contagion seems content to keep certain parts of the film's message attached to individual characters, which does leave some details of each character's journey off screen for large parts of the film.  With so much tied up into such a short film, I get the feeling that there's a much longer version of Contagion somewhere out there - and I'd be very interested to see it.

These concerns are mostly minor ones, because I was sucked into the film from the beginning.  In fact, some of these concerns probably came up because I was so involved in the movie and wanted to see more of the fear-based chaos that it alluded to.  Soderbergh and company have great control over where they want Contagion to go, and the result is a well-made and intelligent thriller that should have something for everyone.  Maybe it's not quite a horror movie, but the scary side of Contagion helps make it one of the better movies I've seen this year.

September 22, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #90 - Doctor X

When you consider the greatest horror movies of all-time, you can generally boil each film down to a great visual image that represents the film at it's best.  Think of it this way - if horror movies were on Facebook, they'd have to have a profile picture.  And if they wanted to show off for the other folks on their friends list, they'd want to bring their best stuff.  The Exorcist would show off Reagan with her head spinning, Halloween could feature The Shape in front of the Wallace house, Night of the Living Dead might show off a horde of undead folks approaching the farmhouse.  But part of what I'm here to tell you tonight is that Doctor X - a mostly forgotten chiller from all the way back in 1932 - might have my favorite profile picture moment in horror history.  And it looks a lot like this:
But more on that later....
Doctor X is a bit of a horror oddity, primarily because it was filmed in the early "two-strip" technicolor technique.  As far as I can tell (by skimming Wikipedia, naturally), this process brought color to the cinema by having a camera photograph black and white film under two red and green filters.  This process produced two different strips of film - one filtered red, one filtered green - which were then combined to make the final "color" film.  In the case of Doctor X, the result is both a) a film that has a green and yellow tone to every single scene and b) a film that is FREAKIN' GORGEOUS IN MY EYE SOCKETS.
Seriously, it blows my mind that something this cool exists and was only used for a couple of years and is now a footnote in cinema history.  (In fact, many of the original prints of films made in this process were disposed of by Technicolor in the '40s when they ran out of warehouse space.) Sure, having actual HD colors is probably better than this, but Doctor X is just so darn good looking that I want to find a way to make other movies look like this again.  It's so moody and cool that it makes me ridiculously sad to see it gone away.
The movie itself - if I can allow myself to get past the purdy old fashionedy colors - is one part mad scientist film and one part comical whodunit. It follows a bumbling reporter (Lee Tracy, who annoys me here) investigating a "Moon Killer" case, which also must make this one of the first movies to deal with serial killers who kill on a lunar cycle (as explained by Sigourney Weaver in Copycat).  His snooping leads him to a house of science, a medical academy lead by Doctor Xavier (Lionel Atwill), a house in which amputation, cannibalism, sexuality and other topics that would later become Hollywood Code bugaboos are covered.
With the police and the stupid reporter convinced that the killer is one of the people inside Doctor X's school - which could imply that those X-Men ripped this movie off! - most of the film is spent establishing the odd doctors inside the building and showing off state of the art special effects that are part of the Doc's plan to weed out the killer among his people.  Oh, and a large part of the film features the legendary Fay Wray.  Which is another reason this movie rules.
Director Michael Curtiz - who would go on to Hollywood immortality with Casablanca ten years later - fills the film with weird images, particularly for this stage of Hollywood's infancy.  Horror was a booming business by 1932, but more successful films like Frankenstein and Dracula didn't directly deal with topics like cannibalism at the time.  As mentioned earlier, the Hollywood Code that censored the inappropriate between 1934-1968, was not being enforced yet, and Warner Brothers took a risk by releasing such a "controversial" film at the time.  Thankfully Doctor X was a success financially, which led the studio to produce another two-strip terror flick with Atwill and Wray, Mystery of the Wax Museum, which was the precursor to the Vincent Price classic House of Wax.  (The film also inspired a sequel in name only, The Return of Doctor X, which is notable for starring Humphrey Bogart as a mad doctor.)
While I could sit here and talk about the history of the film and how friggin' cool the two-strip thing looks to me and post images like that abstract Caligari-esque one above all night, I really should get back to Fay Wray.  Guys, I really don't feel like we give Fay Wray enough credit these days.  "Scream Queen" is a popular term these days, and every wannabe actress with a set of lungs thinks they can call themselves a scream queen.  Those of us who love horror go back to Jamie Lee Curtis or Janet Leigh as original scream queens, but I'm pretty sure Fay Wray had them all beat back when she was dealing with Doctor X and Wax Museum and, of course, King Kong.  And, in one late film scene, she pretty much cements her place as one of the most powerful and talented scream queens of all-time.  

Just take a look and see what I mean....
As you can tell by the eight screencaps of a 10 second sequence, I can't understate just how fantastic this moment is.  Though it does represent one of the most overused trends in horror - men terrifying and abusing women - it friggin' shatters my nerves.  Wray emotes something different in each movement, and the scream she unleashes is a real and frightened one.  I'm not sure if a scream has ever been as real and as deserved as this one, because the lovely Ms. Wray knows exactly why she's here in this moment.  It's one of the most fantastic scenes of horror that I've ever come across.
I know I'm really going nutso on Doctor X here, and the movie quite honestly is not that good.  It's terribly dated and it's pretty slow and its kind of cheesy.  But there are bits and pieces of this movie that just friggin' thrill me.  With Fay Wray at her best and the gorgeous colors and Curtiz' daring direction, Doctor X has a place in my heart as one of the most interesting films in horror history.  Now available as part of a fantastic boxset from Warner Brothers, I strongly believe that Doctor X is one of horror's earliest underrated gems. (Oh hey, you can also watch it on YouTube.)

September 21, 2011

A Birthday List: The Mike's Top Ten Stephen King Flicks

That dapper fella who made writing (and reading) horror cool for a couple of generations, Stephen King, celebrated his 64th birthday today.  And though the man should be most noted for his writing, it's no secret to any Midnight Warrior that the dude's work or contributions have led to more than a few moving pictures.  And, even though I had a long day, I couldn't let the dude's birthday pass without a little bit of listing.  (And yes, the odds are it's no longer September 21st, his birthday, wherever you are.  But y'know what, it is his birthday IN SPIRIT.  So pipe down.)

So, here's a quickly thrown together - seriously quickly, I'm not even thinking about what I type right now - list of what are probably my ten favorite midnight movies based on the works of the legendary Stephen King.  (No, there's none of those miniserieses on here.  Partially because they're not movies, partially because IT is not as good as you think IT is.)

#10 - Cujo
I'm not totally wild about this one, but Dee Wallace rocks it. Also, I played Cujo in a re-enactment of the book once.

#9 - Maximum Overdrive
I AM too wild about this one, which is clearly a) one of the worst movies ever made and b) one of the greatest movies ever made.  (FUN WITH AC/DC LYRICS AND MATH: If the question is Who Made You? and You = Maximum Overdrive...then Who = Stephen King.  It's science.)

#8 - The Dead Zone
This might be my favorite of the dozen or so King books I've read, and the movie doesn't quite hold up to it.  But it's got great performances by Christopher Walken and Martin Sheen. (Also, I do love the TV show.)

#7 -  The Running Man
I've been meaning to read King's...err...Richard Bachman's *wink* for some time, as I understand it is pretty much nothing like the movie.  But hey...that's Schwarzenegger, man.

#6 - Carrie
It kinda kills me to rank this one - the inaugural King movie, released 35 years ago when the dude was only 29! - this low.  Brian De Palma's direction is as good as ever, Sissy Spacek is golden, and well...I dunno why it's only #6.

#5 - Christine
I'm probably overrating this one because John Carpenter directed it.  But I really do dig it, specifically because Keith Gordon rocks one out of the park as Arnie Cunningham.  Oh, and Leigh Cabot = LOVE.

#4 - Creepshow
I'm still not gonna call it the best anthology ever - Dead of Night still rocks my socks - but the gap seems to close every year. And King's performance as Jordy Verrill rules.

#3 - The Mist
I absolutely fell in love with this book when I was a teen, even had a whole cast planned out for the movie in my mind back then.  Waited 10 years plus for the movie to finally happen, and it totally met my expectations (even though they didn't cast Kurt Russell).

#2 - The Shining
I know that King himself is not a big fan of this one - which strays quite a bit from his novel - but....well, it rocks anyway.  Jack and Kubrick make it one of the most effective horror films ever.

#1 - The Shawshank Redemption
An easy pick, a cliched pick, but also the right pick.  Modern cinema doesn't get much better than this.

Honorable Mention: The Night Flier, Stand By Me, Misery, Apt Pupil, Riding the Bullet, Pet Sematary.

September 20, 2011

Staunton Hill

(2009, Dir. by Cameron Romero.)

"This is as scary as it gets" - George A. Romero

With all due respect to the great George Romero, he might be just a little bit biased when he makes a comment like the one that appears above AND on the DVD packaging for Staunton Hill.  The film is directed by a fellow named Cameron Romero, who the same DVD packaging later identifies as the son of the legendary Night of the Living Dead director.  The similarities to his father's work don't end there - an early film discussion includes one character asking the others if they ever saw NOTLD - but Staunton Hill makes it increasingly clear that the younger Romero doesn't just plan to stand in his father's shadow.

Aside from that flippant-yet-blatantly-audible early film remark, Staunton Hill is a zombie free zone.  Instead, we meet five friends who are wandering the back highways of Virginia in 1969.  After joining up with a similar wanderer, the stranded group takes refuge in a barn on a farmstead.  And let me tell you something you probably already know....that is a BAD idea.

As one who spent many years of his youth on a farmstead, allow me to give y'all a little advice.  You do NOT, under any circumstance, just wander into a farmer's barn.  That farmer owns a firearm.  Probably a shotgun.  I don't like to speak in certain terms, but that's a gosh darn guarantee.  If they spot you trying to squat on their land, they will treat you like Elmer Fudd treats a "wascally wabbit".  And you're not animated.  And if they don't go all Fuddy on your stranded butt, they're definitely gonna do something worse to you.

Something worse is what happens to the folks in Staunton Hill, but Romero handles the action in an odd way.  This could have easily gone the way of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the more recent Virginia's-based-stranded-with-mountain-folk-flick Wrong Turn, but Romero takes it slow and hones in on developing the characters during the first act of the film.  He presents a quiet and almost peaceful setting, despite the fact we all know the characters have just walked into no man's land.  The six young folks are given a chance to talk about their relationships and be young and full of life in the barn - none of them are incredibly interesting, mind you, but they do at least seem to be human.

Woven into these characters' tales, we also meet the family who owns the farm - a wheelchair-bound old lady, an overweight mother, and her son, Buddy.  Buddy is a large fella, clad in overalls, with a skin condition on his face and what seems to be the mind of a horny five year old.  I know that last sentence reads as too good (or perhaps too bad?) to be true - I can't believe I typed it - but it's totally what this movie offers.  Buddy is certainly a character somewhat inspired by the likes of Leatherface, perhaps crossed with Leo DiCaprio's character in What's Eating Gilbert Grape.  He's got the brute force of a killer - as evidenced by his shocking first encounter with one of the youngsters - but at other times grills weird meats and goes through the girls' bags to play with their undergarments. I don't really know what to think of Buddy, because the character is kind of a remix of a cliche, and I'm just not sure if I think it works as something different or is too basic to make me care.

In fact, I'm struggling to come up with anything about Staunton Hill that works really well.  I found myself interested in the film early, mostly because I didn't know what to expect from Romero's film, but as the story moved on the violence became the film's central point.  And we've all seen that before.  Seriously, if I see one more movie where people repeatedly get strapped to a table and bled out...well, I'll complain about that movie too.

I suppose there are a few good things going for Staunton Hill - it's got a great autumn setting and curly haired redhead Cristen Coppen kind of reminds me of a young Elisabeth Shue - but the early intrigue wears away too easily.  This Romero doesn't break new ground like his father did - which isn't anything to be ashamed of, few people have broken new ground like George A. did - and his film just doesn't stick out as a positive thing.  I wanted to get behind it, because the young Romero does show some of the restraint that other modern horror directors lack in the film's first two acts, but I'm gonna have to go ahead and disagree with George's "scary as it gets" comment.  Good fatherhood skills, but not the best assessment of a mediocre horror film.

September 18, 2011

Supremely Cheesy Cinema, Vol. 8: Ghost In The Machine

As far as I can tell, Rick "Art Weingartner" Ducommun survives this movie!
In nerd society, it seems we're always nostalgic about our childhood years and our late teenage years.  But there's something to be said for those in between years of our not-quite-teenage years.  Nothing from them actually looks good in retrospect - especially to those of us who have to claim the early '90s when the likes of Vanilla Ice and Saved by The Bell ruled the world - but there's just something so charming about it all anyway.  We were innocent, but teenage rebellion was starting to rise up in us...we just didn't know it yet.  So, when we look back and see that time period, we remember it as the time when we would make a face that looks like this.....
....because we're about to see this.  (And only this.)
Enter Ghost in the Machine, a ridiculously dated cyber-horror film that was made when cyber-horror films were still in their infancy. (Though it's still predated by Demon Seed, which has it beat by 16 years!)  This 1993 thriller stars Karen Allen of Raiders of the Last Ark, Scrooged, and Starman fame (even though her star was slightly outdated by the time the film came around) as a single mother who loses her address book at a computer store and proceeds to totally freak out.  After all, her whole life is in those tattered pages inside an oversized leather carrying case.
Worse for her, the dude who works at said computer store happens to be a fella who is known by the name "The Address Book Killer", who enjoys stealing address books and killing the people in them....and he promptly scans said address book into a computer.  Can you imagine that?  Someone storing contacts and information IN a computer?  I'm sure there were people in the audience in 1993 who acted like Derek Zoolander and Hans at this revelation....
Anyway, the address book killer - a creepy blue-eyed dude played by a dude named Ted Marcoux - promptly dies in a car crash and manages to transfer what could be called his soul into the fine city of Cleveland's power grid before he dies.  Which means he can control computers and all electrical appliances and everything else of the sort for the next 70 minutes of movie.  With the world as his digital playground, said killer begins to pick off Allen's friends using things like microwaves and dishwashers, which I did not know came with a "DIE" setting.
There's an unwritten rule about technology that states that any technology used in a film will probably appear outdated within five years.  There are exceptions, but Ghost in the Machine is NOT one of them.  I mean, look at "special" effects like this....
or this.....
or this....
....and then consider the fact that this movie came out 6 months AFTER a little movie that relied on CGI called Jurassic Park did.  
Now, it'd be silly to assume that Ghost in the Machine director Rachel Talalay had the same resources that Steven Spielberg did.  But you gotta think there's something in between those two examples that this film could have strived for.  These effects were dated when the movie came out.  (On a side note, I feel kind of bad for Talalay, a female director who got the chance to direct a franchise horror film (Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare) and a comic adaptation (Tank Girl) around this film...but never directed another feature again after the three misfires.  Alas, Talalay has used her abilities for a career in TV, so that's a positive ending to her story thus far.)
To those of us in today's computer-based society, the film's bigger problem is its presentation of computers and what could be called "the internet"...though i don't think I ever heard that term used in the film.  I remember what computers were like in the early '90s (thanks to the Tandy computer that inhabited our farmhouse basement...we were hip) and Ghost in the Machine isn't too terrible in that regard, but looking back it's just so distractingly silly.  It doesn't help that the main things we see the film use computers for are a) Address book scanning (decently represented), instant message style e-mail (very weird) and the pre-teen son using a program called "Love Corral".
Yeah, that's out of style these days. We have real porn.
But here's the thing: if you can get past just how dated the film is (which is a gigantic chore, I will say), there are some really fun moments.  The few kills we get have a lot of fun showing us just what Mr. "I'm in the computer and control all electrical things" can do to set up the victims, and there's a legitimate Final Destination vibe to the film at these times.  One moment involving a toddler and an oven had me actually yelling at the screen, which was a good example of how playfully destructive the film was able to be.
And, as I stated in the opening, there's that ridiculous "I remember the early '90s!" charm that I just can't resist.  This film is so early '90s that I half expected Zack Morris to walk on screen, freeze the movie, and say something douchey.  From the wardrobe to the technology to the soundtrack of rap music that didn't use swear words or n-bombs, it reeks of early '90s-ness.  The cast helps sweeten that deal too, with the very '90s kids (including Brandon Quentin Adams, who was immortalized as Fool in The People Under the Stairs!), Ducommon of The 'burbs fame, and - most fantastically - Shevonne Durkin, whose career peaked when she starred opposite Warwick Davis in Leprechaun 2.  I'm pretty sure Ms. Durkin was on of pre-teen The Mike's favorite sights in that film, and getting reacquainted with her here had me making that face that Fool is making up at the top of this review.
Ghost in the Machine is not a good movie, and is certainly one of the most outdated movies I've ever seen.  Yet I found myself content while watching it, and not just because I could make fun of how old it was.  This is a fun little movie, as stupid as it is, and I'm willing to give it a little bit of a pass because of that.  If nothing else, it's an interesting period piece that's totally early '90s cool.  Totally.
And, Shevonne Durkin, if you're still out there somewhere....please marry me. I promise that I'll run the dishwasher.