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October 31, 2011

The Mike's True Heroes of Horror (10/10) - Christopher Lee

I started October with a guy who played Frankenstein's monster, and I'm ending the month with another guy who played Frankenstein's Monster.  But that portrayal alone is only one measly part of why this man towers over horror in my mind.  To end my list of 10 Heroes of Horror - and to start the process of my kicking myself publicly about the people I couldn't add to the list - I had to go with....
Sir Christopher Lee
Who is Christopher Lee?
Born on May 27 of 1922, Christopher Lee has been acting ever since a young age when he played Rumpelstiltskin while attending school in Switzerland.  The son of a soldier and a beautiful Countess, Lee grew into a 6'5 frame by the time he joined the Finnish forces for World War II.  Though he never made it in to battle during the war, he was active in intelligence duties throughout the war and left the Royal Air Force as a Flight Lieutenant.  After the war he expressed interest in acting once again, and began appearing in films in 1947.

Since he became a horror star in the late 1950s, Lee has been involved in many other pursuits in his personal life.  He married a model, Brigit Kroencke, in 1961, and the couple have remained married for the last 50 years.  Off screen, Lee has made music, written books, and kept a library of over 12,000 books, many on the occult.  He was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the person to appear in the most film roles, and was knighted by the British Government in 2009.
Lee is best known for....
His work with Hammer Films, particularly as Count Dracula.  Lee, along with his friend Peter Cushing (who would have made this list if I had 11-13 spots), was the face of Hammer for part of three decades.  Images of him as iconic characters - Dracula, The Monster, The Mummy, and more - have become iconic in their own right, and debates about whether he or Bela Lugosi (who also just barely missed the list) best represent Dracula still rage on.
Other Horror Hits....
I've mentioned Lee's famous monster turns, but his career has offered plenty of horror hits.  I've long talked about my favorite Lee performance in Hammer's occult chiller The Devil Rides Out, which allows him to be the hero instead of the monster for once.  And his most famous horror film is probably 1973's The Wicker Man, which has received a boost in popularity since Neil LaBute's pathetic remake.  Lee's horror credits, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s were varied, including a couple of films with great director Freddie Francis - The Creeping Flesh still charms me - and other favorites of mine like The City of the Dead and Horror Express.

Lee tried to get away from horror in the late '70s - joking on an episode of Saturday Night Live that he didn't "think that very good ones are being produced anymore"  - and notably turned down the lead in John Carpenter's Halloween, but he did return for several more horror films in his late career.  The most notable of these is certainly Sleepy Hollow, where he played a small role, and the most infamous is probably Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf.  Of course, Lee is most known to modern audiences for non-horror roles, after he appeared in the Lord of the Rings films and the last two Star Wars prequels. 
So, why's Christopher Lee here?
It's really hard for me to come up with something to say about just how awesome Christopher Lee is right now.  The biggest problem, I think, is that I've written about Christopher Lee about a thousand times on this blog already. 

I suppose the fact that I keep bringing the dude back up is one sign that he's among my favorite people in horror, but I don't think I can say it enough.  Though he was famous in his time for playing monsters and villains, every time I see Christopher Lee I feel like he's my third Grandpa or something.  His presence is soothing to me, which is a bit ridiculous when I stop to think about it.
As I mentioned above, the sheer number of films that Lee has appeared in pretty much guarantees that his work has covered the whole spectrum of cinema.  And I find it absolutely fascinating that a well-read, scholarly gentleman who is active in politics and loves music is generally remembered for being a monster.  He didn't even want to be in half the Dracula films he was in, but he did it anyway.  And he did it so well that people are still yammering about it.  How cool is that?

Like Vincent Price did around the same time, Lee had a legitimate beef with the direction horror was headed in the '60s and early'70s.  Though Hammer's sequels were still generally cranked out by talented directors - Francis' work on Dracula Has Risen From The Grave has some of my favorite Hammer scenes - the scripts behind these films were generally simple and offered little excitement for an actor like Lee.  One rumor about the first sequel - Dracula: Prince of Darkness - states that Lee chose to have no lines in the film because he found the scripted dialogue unacceptable.  It should be noted that this film was my first experience with Lee as Dracula - and I would have never guessed of Lee's displeasure until I read this story later.  Lee always brought his best, even when the films around him didn't.
It's this commitment to his trade - which he must have felt was a benefit to those working around him, that makes me admire Lee even more than I do when I see his commanding presence on screen.  While his image is worth plenty of praise, taking the time to look at the complex man who represented horror so well is what makes him a true hero in my eyes.  I'm honored to be able to pay tribute to him, and I'm sure this won't be the last time I stumble through an attempt to tell you all how great I think Christopher Lee is.  He is what I love about horror.
And he can sing awesomely too!

October 30, 2011

FMWL Indie Spotlight - Seeking Wellness: Suffering Through Four Movements

(2008, Dir. by Daniel Schneidkraut.)

A message at the beginning of Seeking Wellness - a warning, perhaps - lets the viewer know that this is not a film.  According to that message, this is a video ritual.  And this video ritual's makers want you to know from stage one that this is not your average film, from the warning on the DVD packaging about how to experience the film to the minimalistic opening sequence.

The four movements begin with a black and white surveillance feed of a doctor's office that is the victim of an obscene and brutal attack.  The sequence is punctuated only by a deep, booming musical score, which almost serves as a heartbeat to the proceedings.  It's a vicious sequence that takes control out of the viewers' hands by cycling through the different security cameras at a fixed interval.  Schneidkraut's technique here builds a strong sense of unease, which makes the first movement of his video ritual an effective success.

The second movement is probably Seeking Wellness' most heart-wrenching sequence, focusing on a depressed father and his Christmas interactions with his children while relaying his family's dark past.  The sequence puts the father - played quite effectively by Charles Hubbell - in a narrator role as he reviews slides from his childhood to his disinterested children, and it quickly slips in to a very dark place.  Suffering is achieved once again, and the ritual moves to two-for-two.

Things get more abstract in the final two movements, which take place in a lecture hall and are hosted by two female students who are presenting "final projects" on the human condition.  The sequence opens with a female student presenting on the use of subliminal and subconscious messaging in society that was a bit too tongue-in-cheek for my tastes, and is complemented by a second student presenting her project.  This video presentation follows a man who, after losing a lover, decides he will do everything he can to give himself cancer.  This sequence also left me a little flat compared to the first two, and it leads to a finale that I am still struggling to gauge.  I'm not sure if I was amused or annoyed by the final scene, but I'm afraid that I was uncomfortable for the wrong reasons.  Unlike the first two movements, these scenes seemed more blatantly scripted to me, and some of the realistic dread inspired by the opening segments faded away as the ritual started to look more like a film.

Production values are fantastic across the board.  The camera is almost always set in a fixed location, which helps the viewer feel like an observer of these "projects" as they unfold.  There's a delicate balance that is achieved to keep the film from looking too professional or too raw, and the simple sound design adds to Seeking Wellness' ability to get inside our heads.  Acting is never a problem, with the cast fitting in to this high concept idea well, and (aside from the concerns I've already shared about the final segments) the script doesn't lose focus thanks to their devotion to the material.

Seeking Wellness is not something I'm comfortable grading against FMWL's normal fare, because it's clear that Schneidkraut's production has greater aspirations than the run-of-the-mill slasher film or drive-in spook show.  I wonder if I prepared myself too well for Seeking Wellness - like a good horror fan, I approach something that tells me I'll suffer with an 'I'm a big boy, I can take it!" approach - because I'm not sure I felt the maximum effect of the suffering that the film wanted.  But I admire Seeking Wellness a lot for being a unique experiment that literally tries to push the viewer's buttons, and I imagine it could be quite a talking piece for a group viewing or a psychology class. 

For more information on Seeking Wellness, head over to the official site - where you can find more information about festival showings and even order the DVD if you like.  If you get sucked in to it, you may end up suffering through a unique viewing experience.

October 29, 2011

The Mike's True Heroes of Horror (9/10) - John Carpenter

This one didn't require thought at all.  When I tried to think of the people in horror who mean the most to me, this name came out immediately.  I wouldn't love horror like I do if there were no...
John Carpenter
Who is John Carpenter?
Raised in Bowling Green, Kentucky, John Carpenter grew up loving the films of Howard Hawks and John Ford and started making his own Super 8 horror movies as a young teen.  He started his secondary education at Western Kentucky University - and I'm obliged to mention that their school mascot is pretty much a Blob - but transferred to the prestigious USC film program, where he won an Oscar as part of the crew behind the short film The Resurrection of Broncho Billy in 1970.
Carpenter's personal life and his life in movies would intersect many times, with his significant others including Debra Hill (who co-wrote and produced his first hit with him), Adrienne Barbeau (who he was married to from 1979-1984 and had a son with) and his current wife Sandy King (who produced several of his later films before and since their marriage in 1990).  Today he's still active in horror - albeit far less frequently - and this weekend he's even contributing to well known comedy website Funny or Die.
Carpenter is best known for....
If we have to narrow it down, Carpenter's legacy most likely ties in to his two most revered horror films - Halloween and The Thing.  The former film was a revolutionary box office success that changed the face of horror in the late '70s, giving a face and a shape to the slasher genre that would inspire a subgenre to develop over the following decades.  It also, unlike most of the slashers that followed it, provided an example of just how tense, crisp, and dark a horror film could be.  I've talked about it plenty of times before, the short version of the story ends with me saying that Halloween is my favorite horror film.

Though today's horror audiences condemn remakes more often than they shower, Carpenter's most loved film might be his remake of The Thing From Another World.  I'd say The Thing is one of those movies that is so good that it makes me want to shun how good it is sometimes. Like, I feel like I'm rooting for the Yankees when I like it, but it's just so dang good.  And people didn't like it when it came out!  that's one of many things that makes me very mad when I think about John Carpenter, but we're gonna talk more about that later.
Other Horror Hits....
It's safe to say that Carpenter has spent his entire career - unless you count his TV biopic Elvis - making genre films, with sci-fi (Escape from New York, They Live) and action (Assault on Precinct 13, Big Trouble in Little China) hits among his most loved films.  But he's never strayed too far from the horror genre in the three decades since Halloween.  His follow up to that film was the classic ghost story The Fog, and he made a couple more pure horror films - the Stephen King adaptation Christine and the religion-meets-science tale Prince of Darkness in the 1980s.  His later works have been almost completely horror, with my favorite of his late films being In the Mouth of Madness and Vampires (which I still say is underrated).
So, why's John Carpenter here?
My respect for John Carpenter is probably best summed up by how mad I get when I think about the ups and downs of his career.  I'm not sure who I'm mad at - the studios, the viewers, Carpenter himself - but I'm just mad.  I think I'm mad that we're not all worshipping Carpenter the same way Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorcese get worshipped.  I think I'm mad that studios don't say "Hey, we want to make a good genre flick, why don't we let John Carpenter do something?"  I'm certain that I'm mad that the last thirteen years feature only 6 films by Carpenter, who had the best run any genre filmmaker has ever had between 1976 and 1988.

When Carpenter was in his prime and had control over his movies - writing, directing, and even composing the music - I strongly believe that he was as good as any filmmaker has been since Alfred Hitchcock.  But the first red flag regarding Carpenter's ability to gain a hold over Hollywood was his films' box office performance.  We know that Halloween was a big hit - 47 million dollars at the box office in 1978 is a hefty sum, especially when you consider that it cost about 320,000 - but Carpenter's next highest grossing film - Starman, an Oscar-nominated family sci-fi film he made for Columbia Pictures - falls about 20 million dollars behind that one.  According to, the total earnings of Carpenter's films (288 million) is less money than each of the top 47 grossing single movies of all-time made at the box office (Number 47, one of the Harry Potter films, made 290 million).  I realize that these totals aren't adjusted for inflation of ticket prices and that kind of stuff, but that's still kind of a problem when you consider that films that were considered gigantic bombs like Last Action Hero and Cobra made more money than Carpenter's most successful film.
Of course, you can't blame the studios for not giving the keys to the kingdom to a guy whose films didn't make enough money, which brings us to the viewers.  The fact of the matter is that  most people who go to the movies - dare I call them "the average moviegoer" - want things wrapped up in a nice neat package with a happy ending.  John Carpenter has never really subscribed to that theory.  If you look at Carpenter's films, I say that not one of them wraps everything up well.  Almost all of his endings are ambiguous, ranging from blatant hints of danger (Halloween, Christine, BtiLC) to antiheroes winning but messing up society (The Escape flicks, They Live) to wide open and possibly damning finales (The Thing, Prince of Darkness).  The masses don't always want that kind of ending, but Carpenter sure seems like he did.

Though the box office figures were meager, many of Carpenter's films turned a profit on their initial release.  The four that were generally mentioned as busts - The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live, and Prince of Darkness - can easily be earmarked as his films that stray the farthest from the comfort zone of mainstream audiences.  The Thing is certainly the most puzzling example in the group, considering the fact that it's pretty much universally loved by everyone who likes horror movies. I seriously can't wrap my head around the fact that people didn't like it when it came out.  It blows my mind.
I've spent like four paragraphs complaining, and I think that has to be a sign of how much I connect with Carpenter's work.  In my eyes, he's just what the genre fan needs - a practical filmmaker who won't sugarcoat things and will make the film he wants to make.  And it kills me when I think of how he made a bunch of films I love and got so beaten up by the studios and the audiences and the critics that he suddenly was gone from movie screens for five years and resurfaced with a half-cocked Chevy Chase vehicle that the studio tinkered with.  I know that some of the blame falls on Carpenter - his insistence on control cost him the chance to direct films like Santa Claus: The Movie, Fatal Attraction, Exorcist III, and even Top Gun - but I....well, I guess I'm too much of a homer to buy in to that.

And that's where I realize just how much John Carpenter has meant to me as a filmmaker.  He doesn't pull punches, he didn't just rent himself out for a paycheck (some would argue that this has changed, I won't go there), and he brought an unflinching and dark vision to his films.  He represents what I want from genre cinema and, particularly, horror cinema.  And even though I wish he ran Hollywood, I wouldn't trade the films he's done for the films made by of any of his contemporaries.  John Carpenter's world isn't a world I want to live in, but I could watch his world unfold any day.  And when I consider his best horror films and everything else he's done,  it's impossible for me to not list him here.
When it comes down to it, I'll go to battle alongside John Carpenter any day.  That's the mark of a true hero.

October 28, 2011

The 2011 Halloween Horror Movie Playlist

If you're one of those people who needs a good set of horror films to show at their Halloween party this year - perhaps you're looking for a playlist that offers ten films and spans the history of horror from the 1920s through the 2000s and ends with an all-time classic of the genre - and you have 854 minutes to spare, FMWL has one thing to say to you.

You're welcome.
The 2011 Halloween Horror Movie Playlist
Movie #1 - The Unknown (1927, Dir. by Tod Browning.)
An armless knife thrower who plots revenge in the name of Joan Crawford?  A great way to start an evening.

Movie #2 - The Old Dark House (1932, Dir. by James Whale.)
Frankenstein director Whale takes us into a classic horror setting, with Karloff leading the mayhem.

Movie #3 - Cat People (1942, Dir. by Jacques Tourneur.)
Romantic black-and-white chiller, punctuated by the chilling swimming pool scene.

Movie #4 - House on Haunted Hill (1959, Dir. by William Castle.)
The drive-in classic offers classic horror and Vincent Price at their most playful.

Movie #5 - Brides of Dracula (1960, Dir. by Terence Fisher.)
Hammer is a must, and Peter Cushing's battle with some female bloodsuckers should suffice.

Movie #6 - Blacula (1972, Dir. by William Crain.)
It's better than you think it is. And I gotta have a slice of '70s American International Pictures goodness.

Movie #7 - The Gate (1987, Dir. by Tibor Takacs.)
Child horror of the '80s with fantastic stop-motion monsters and some real chills.

Movie #8 - In the Mouth of Madness (1994, Dir. by John Carpenter.)
It's about time we start recognizing this riff on Stephen King as one of Carpenter's classics.

Movie #9 - Lake Mungo (2008, Dir. by Joel Anderson.)
Documentary style horror that may provide the new millennium's most haunting images.

Movie #10 - Dawn of the Dead (1978, Dir. by George A. Romero.)
At this point in the marathon, there's sure to be "No more room in Hell".

And remember, please enjoy Halloween responsibly. You never know what can happen...

October 27, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #95 - The Exorcist

People think I'm really messed up when I say it, but The Exorcist is easily one of my ten favorite movies in any genre of any time of the history of cinema.  And here's the kicker - I think it's a rather uplifting film.  I think it's one of the greatest representations of what a film - not just a horror film, a film in general - can do to take control of the viewer's emotions and change their perception of things around them.  I think it's a flat-out moving cinema experience, and I think it's awesome.  I think a lot of it, obviously, and now I should probably stop myself and try to see if I can come up with a few of the reasons why.
Though it's uncool to admit it in today's political/social climate, I'd be crazy not to admit that a large part of The Exorcist's effect on me is because I am in fact a Christian horror fanatic.  Though I'm far from Catholic, and though I don't know how much faith I'd put in an alleged case of demonic possession, the battle that is waged over several souls in The Exorcist just strikes me as fantastically epic.
At the center of the war between good and evil - well, it's actually normalcy vs. evil - are two of the most interesting characters in horror.  One is a 12 year old girl - Regan McNeil, played by Linda Blair - and the other is a psychiatrist and priest - Father Damian Karras, played by Jason Miller - who's losing his faith while battling personal demons.  There are a lot of other established movie star folks in the movie - Ellen Burstyn as Regan's mom, Lee J. Cobb as a nosy investigator, Max von Sydow as the well-aged title character are among them - but for me almost everything in the movie comes back to Father Karras and little Regan.
I've talked about how much I love Miller's turn as the doubting padre many times in my days, but I will continue to sing his praises until the day my horror lovin' heart dies.  The poor guy just seems beaten and broken early in the film as he deals with his mother's fading health and the realization that he can do nothing to change her mortal fate.  There are few moments when he doesn't appear that he wants to submit to the world, which are basically the moments when he's punching the sin out of a punching bag or jawing with that investigator about rites of confession and John Garfield and Sal Mineo.  He just can't muster the strength to be the religious man that he is supposed to be on a daily basis.
Enter Regan MacNeil, the daughter of an actress who doesn't go to church and who suddenly and inexplicably becomes a host to the demon Pazuzu.  We don't really know why the demon picks Regan as a vessel into our world - and I'm not sure I've ever bothered to ask that question either - but the marriage between the demonic force and the seemingly innocent young girl creates some of the most unnerving events we've ever seen.  Little Linda Blair would deservedly receive an Oscar nomination for her role, because the line between human and demon must have required a lot from the young actress. (It also required plenty of special effects and makeup and one helluva voice talent in Mercedes McCambridge, but that's another story.)
It's important to note that The Exorcist never has its characters start preaching to Regan or her mother, who are at best closeted Christians.  There's a trend in horror that uses religion, particularly in the vampire subgenre, that states the characters who are being assaulted by an evil force must do things like renouncing sin and accepting God and being made pure.  This was never the intent of director William Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty, whose film seems to be more about the faith of Father Karras than anyone else, and he's only given a brief "Catholic Cowboy Up" speech from the elder Father. 
 Though both of the priests who play into the film's outcome are men of the cloth, both have human weaknesses that the demon can exploit.  This certainly isn't one of those films where the scholarly doctor rushes in to save the day because he knows everything about the villain. One could argue that the film's statement here speaks to the uncertain nature of faith; that making the exorcists so frail can remind the viewer that all control lies in the hands of whatever God is out there.
I suppose the presentation of the two priests is just one example of how unconventional The Exorcist is in the annals of horror cinema.  I don't think there's another film that was made before it or an imitator that came after it that so blatantly invites demonic wickedness into our world.  There's nothing in The Exorcist - except for maybe a couple of moments where Cobb's character makes us laugh - that brings levity to the proceedings.  The stories of how Friedkin kept the set tense - including freezing the room, shaking the floor with hydraulics and even firing a handgun in the tight space for effect - are well documented, and you can certainly tell that it worked.  At one point or another, everyone in the movie looks like they've had their spirits broken by the demonic presence.
So how the heck can I say that The Exorcist is an uplifting experience to me? The easy answer would be to say that it's just a movie.  You know, it's that age old "horror makes us feel good because it scares us and then lets us loose in a safe world" argument.  But I think The Exorcist is bigger than that.  Because if we believe in the kind of evil that The Exorcist offers - even if its dramatized like this - then we're reminded that we also believe in the kind of good that Father Merrin and Father Karras devote their lives to.  It reminds us that these imperfect men represent something bigger, and that something is worth fighting for when evil shows up in our world.
With Halloween upon us, there's no reason any horror fan couldn't benefit from another viewing of The Exorcist.  There's plenty to love for everyone - Christian or non-believer - and I don't think anyone can effectively argue against its technical prowess.  But to me it's always been something bigger than that.  It's an experience that represents everything a movie can be, and a life changing piece of cinema.  I don't necessarily believe in the events of The Exorcist, but I believe in what they stand for.  And that helps make The Exorcist a midnight movie that moves me like no other movie can.

October 25, 2011

The Mike's True Heroes of Horror (8/10) - Vincent Price

As my own True Heroes of Horror list rolls to a close, the choices become much more obvious to me.  With three spots left, it's time to bring out some of horror's most revered names, starting with...
Vincent Price
Who is Vincent Price?
Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1911, the Vincent Price you know was actually the third in a line of very successful Vincent Prices.  His grandfather, also Vincent Price, invented a revolutionary baking powder and his father, Vincent Leonard Price, Sr., was the president of the National Candy Company.  In a way, that kind of makes the junior Price the Willy Wonka of the horror movie world.

Price left St. Louis for an education at Yale University in the 1930s, which is also when he first began acting on stage.  He got into film in 1938, but only sporadically appeared in horror films before his career as a horror star took off in the 1950s.  Price would stay active in schlocky genre roles - despite his education and his polite manner (check out this statement he made on racial and religious prejudice in 1950) - through most of the 1970s, and stayed as active as he could in television and film until his death from lung cancer in 1993.
Price is best known for....
Being the biggest star in horror for nearly a quarter-century.  From 1953's House of Wax to the Dr. Phibes films of the 1970s, Price made his mark on horror repeatedly.  Whether he was collaborating with a showman like William Castle or a low-budget maestro like Roger Corman, Price always commanded respect in the Gothic horror scene.
Other Horror Hits....
Price first got into the horror scene when he appeared with Boris Karloff in 1939's Tower of London, which was followed up by him getting the title role in the 1940 Universal Monster sequel The Invisible Man Returns.   After plenty of dramatic roles and several forays into film noir in the 1940s, it was House of Wax that established the horror genre as a money maker for the 1950s.  Price's star shot to the roof quickly, with The Fly and its sequel, House on Haunted Hill, and The Tingler all becoming hits by the end of the decade.
 In the '60s, Price spent a lot of time making Edgar Allan Poe adaptations with Corman, including The Pit and the Pendulum, Masque of the Red Death, and The Fall of the House of Usher.  Also in that span Price made a couple other favorites, the I Am Legend adaptation The Last Man on Earth and the inquisitive Witchfinder General.  The '70s brought a few more favorites via the American International Pictures banner, with modern/Gothic horror combos The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Theatre of Blood.  That's just a small sample of Price's horror output, but it's a good one.
So, why's Vincent Price here?
Price is kind of a funny horror icon to me.  On many days I wouldn't list any of his films in my Top 10 horror faves, and I think I might even struggle to fit him into the Top 25 sometimes.  But when it came time to make this list of people who represent great horror, he was one of the first two or three names I came up with.  What's up with that?

To me, Vincent Price is one of the few actors in the world who has the gift to raise the quality of any material he touches.  I am Legend is a fine example of this.  I love the book, and I gotta think it's one of the more "unfilmable" books I've ever read.  Megastars of the 1970s and 2000s (Charlton Heston and Will Smith, respectively) both got a shot at the story in different adaptations, and both had only limited success with the material and the one-man-show nature of the story.  But Price's turn in The Last Man on Earth - an extremely low budget European production of the story - seems almost effortless at times.  Few actors of his generation were as gifted in monologue as Price was, and his ability to step up and take over makes it the most interesting adaptation of Matheson's book.  Heck, I like the other movies well enough - but I don't think the competition is even close.

Other Price films of the '50s and '60s were wise to frame their own stories around Price's talents.  To the horror fan, House on Haunted Hill was an invitation into Price's home for an evening, and Vincent got to play the perfect host in almost the whole film.  Masque of the Red Death and The Pit and the Pendulum are only a couple of examples of films that focused entirely on Price while urging the audience to hate his character.  Amazingly, the audience complied - and still left the film happy that they got to see Price in action.  Witchfinder General turned him loose in a more straight-faced role as real-life witchhunter Matthew Hopkins, but even that film is as much about the Vincent Price experience than it is about the historical events that it's following.
According to many anecdotes, Price never really bought in to the horror genre like most horror fans do.  When I recently read Jason Zinoman's great take on horror of the 1970s, Shock Value, I was struck with a bit of sadness during a section that talks about Price losing a televised battle of wits to a scholar/censor who was set on condemning the horror genre to the world.  Price knew where his money came from and knew there was a loving audience for his work, but you kind of get the feeling that he knew what he was doing wasn't high art.

And yet, his performances never suffered.  Even in the '70s, when his brand of horror had clearly been surpassed - case in point being William Castle's ousting from Rosemary's Baby, a film that was supposed to star Price, in favor of Roman Polanski  - Price found movies that kept him relevant to modern audiences.  The Abominable Dr. Phibes (which might be my favorite Price film) is a perfect example, as it gives Price the same kind of macabre role we'd expect from him while moving the setting to modern day London.  It's a film that bases murders on the Biblical plagues, but at the same time it's a film that bought in to modern British humor and allowed Price to teeter on the brink between the new and old brands of horror cinema.  And Price - who spent most of the film emoting only with his eyes - turned the role into a horror icon with ease.  The same formula, with a few twists, worked a couple of years later for Theatre of Blood, which replaced the Bible with the works of Shakespeare and kept letting Price do his thing.
Despite a generational gap, many of today's horror fans have grown up recognizing Price as the face and voice of horror cinema.  A large bit of credit must be played to his voice cameo at the end of Michael Jackson's iconic Thriller video, but Price was more than willing to keep showing up on TV and other mediums until his death.  Despite any troubles he had with taking the genre he is known for seriously, Price's willingness to hold on to the image horror fans of the '50s-'70s once knew helped keep the horror films that preceded Rosemary's Baby and its sort alive.  Even if those films aren't my favorite horror films, they often provide the best Midnight snack, and I'm extremely grateful that Vincent Price was willing to dedicate more than 40 years of his life to horror fans around the world.
Even if it was occasionally a pain in the neck.

October 24, 2011

Paranormal Activity 3

(2011, Dir. by Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman.)

In its third October, the Paranormal Activity series is certainly going strong.  Since it's interested in going into the past, it's only fair that I remind you all how far back the PA movies and I go.  The first movie, for lack of a better explanation, shook me to the core when I saw it in theaters, despite some concerns that arose when I actually stopped to think about it.  When it hit home video I checked it out again, and was surprised to find that it still held much of the chill I had seen before.  The first sequel, which served as an immediate prequel to the first film AND a follow up to its ending, hit just over a year later, and left me a little less pleased than the original.  But revisits to that film have made me feel a little better about it, and left me excited to check out the third film in the series, which is another prequel.

After a brief opening with original star Katie Featherston and her on-screen sequel sister Kristy (played by Sprauge Grayden) that precedes the events of PA2, we're taken back in time (thanks to a box of old VHS tapes) to the totally tubular 1980s, where childhood versions of Katie and Kristy first begin to experience the activity we've come to expect from these films.  We're joined by their mother and her live-in boyfriend, the latter of whom shoots wedding videos as a job and thus really likes using camcorders around the house.  (These camcorders also appear to take HD Widescreen video of all the film's events despite being in 6 hour EP mode, but I think we're supposed to ignore that.) 

The film that follows is certainly the most playful entry in this young series - which is sure to add a fourth film next year after this one broke box office records this weekend - thanks to a little more comedy and some unique tricks to keep things interesting.  Christopher Nicholas Smith takes the skeptical lead role as the girls' father figure, and his interactions with his friends and the girls add for a little bit humor in the otherwise tense film.  Smith fits well alongside directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who helmed last year's faux-documentary hit Catfish, who seem to have an knack for teasing the viewer like the first film's helmer, Oren Peli did.  Their film is less physically assaulting - particularly with a friendly sound design which doesn't overuse LOUD NOISES to scare - than the first two PA films, but maintains the same unease that filled them.

One of the new tricks that adds to the film's tension, as silly as it sounds, comes when Smith's character figures out that he can rig a camera on the base of an oscillating fan to view two rooms at once.  This slow panning shot of the family's living room and kitchen is one of the film's most lasting images, and really does a great job of taking control out of the viewer's hands.  For me, the first film was so effective because I didn't know what to expect, and much of the second film lost its effectiveness by pushing the same vision as its predecessor.  This simple trick to keep the camera mobile and build tension as the fan slowly turns from one room to the next had me back on the edge, because I wasn't just looking at the same spot waiting for something to pop out.  This little trick forced me out of my comfort zone, which was a strong achievement for Joost & Schulman's film.

PA3 moves at a very brisk pace, and the script ties together most of - but certainly not all of - the major events from the first two films in unique ways.  If there's one thing we've learned through the two pre/sequels to the first film, it's that creator/producer Oren Peli and the filmmakers he's working with have some unique ideas for how to keep this franchise going.  I wouldn't dream of telling you where this film ends up - you'll probably guess it due to a few hints that tie in to revelations from PA2 - but the final act gave me some serious chills.

PA3 feels like a more polished film than the first two flicks, but I think I like that about it.  I dig Joost & Schulman's willingness to toy with the viewer, and their touch leaves PA3 feeling like a more fun production than the earlier films in the series.  Since they're able to add levity to the film without dropping the chills - especially in the final scenes - PA3 feels like a complete horror film.  I don't think it reaches the heights that the original did for me - I doubt I'll ever be as vulnerable to this activity as I was two years ago - but it's a fun experience that has me interested in seeing how the fourth film will continue to tie things together.

As I near an end, it's worth noting that many scenes that were shown in advertisements for the film (about 60% of the trailer linked below, for example) are completely missing from the film that ended up on the screen.  I chalked this up to the tricky nature of the filmmakers - who are still claiming Catfish wasn't fictional - and wasn't bothered, but folks who paid attention to the film's marketing will probably be as surprised by what's not in the film as they are by what's in the film.

Still, I don't think that trickery takes anything away from PA3.  If anything I think it - like that silly oscillating camera gag that works about 5 or 6 times - just adds to the charm of this chapter in the Paranormal story.  And that charm has me sure that I'll be ready to dig in to another chapter of that story if it hits screens next October.

October 23, 2011

The Mike's True Heroes of Horror (7/10) - Stephen King

In the mainstream pop culture scene of the past thirty years, there probably isn't a bigger horror star than this guy.  With 49 novels, numerous short stories and over 130 film or TV productions based on his work, He's pretty much an institution at this point in his career.  I almost thought it was too easy to put him on this list, like I would just be stating the obvious to people who already recognize his effects on the genre.  Usually, the easiest answer is the right one. Which brings us to...
Stephen King
Who is Stephen King?
A favorite son of the state of Maine, whose real and fictional villages host most of his twisted tales, Stephen King was born in Portland and was educated in the state all the way through his graduation from The University of Maine in 1970.  At that point, King had already sold his first short story and had written for the campus newspaper, but it was his inability to quickly earn a teaching job that led him to keep selling stories to magazines.  He began working on his first novel in the early part of the '70s, which was published in 1973 and adapted for the screen three years later.

Around the same time is when King developed a drinking problem that affected him for much of the next two decades, which - along with his teenage love of H.P. Lovecraft and EC Comics - also contributed to the dark vision that inhabits his works.  Despite personal issues - including an auto accident that severely injured him in the late '90s - King has kept writing for over 40 years, and continues to stay in the spotlight with new works and a column for Entertainment Weekly on pop culture.  He remains married to his first wife, Tabitha, and has three children who have all become writers themselves.
King is most known for....
In horror circles, Kings early novels define his impact on the genre quite well.  After debuting with Carrie, King created 'Salem's Lot, The Shining, The Stand, and The Dead Zone by the end of the 1970s.  Each of these have been adapted for film or TV as well - all but The Stand have more than one adaptation as I write this, and that one's remake is allegedly coming - and each show a common theme that's become a known fact these days: it's really hard to adapt a Stephen King story to the screen and maintain all the detail of his intricate prose.
Other Horror Hits....
I might run out of hosting space on Blogger if I try to list everything King's done that has mattered to horror fans around the world. (I did recently try to sum up my favorite films based on the dude's stuff, however.)  Aside from the small sample of novels I listed above, King has produced plenty of horror classics.  Names like Pet Sematary, Cujo, Christine and Children of the Corn will be very familiar to fans of horror on the silver screen during the 1980s - which is probably when King's horror popularity peaked, though it hasn't really dropped off much in the ensuing decades.  King also got involved with writing and directing for the screen during that decade, though the results are varied from the epic Creepshow to the comically mishandled Maximum Overdrive.
In print, King has remained one of the best selling authors of ever throughout his career, and most of his horror tales dramatically tower over the film versions that are more popular to many.  I'm going to talk about my favorite King story and how it affected me shortly, but I would certainly be leaving this article incomplete if I didn't mention one of his most beloved creations, the Dark Tower series of novels that is now seven (going on 8 in 2012) books long.  I, out of what must only be ignorance or stupidity, have not yet read these works, but a large consensus of folks around the world will reference King's tales of Roland the Gunslinger as an epic tale that rivals The Lord of the Rings for pure fantasy bliss.
So why's Stephen King here?
I think - no, I hope - that my recounting of the man's career thus far has left little doubt that he has been one of the most iconic folks in horror throughout his career.  But the question remains: Why does he matter to me? I'm not here to just repeat popular opinion, after all.  If Stephen King's gonna be one of my top ten heroes in horror, I need to make darn sure that I really feel as strongly as most do about King's work.

Growing up in the '80s, I'm not sure I can pinpoint my first interaction with something related to Stephen King.  Around the time, he was just someone you knew about by living in the '80s, like Ronald Reagan or Sylvester Stallone or Madonna.  If I had to guess, I'd think that the first thing I officially experienced that had King's name on it was Stanley Kubrick's version of The Shining, which was one of the first horror movies my parents made readily available to my sister and I.  Of course, King has nearly disowned this film, and when I later read his book, I could tell why.  Though Kubrick's film remains one of my very favorite horror films, I will often argue with myself that King's book is in fact a better, deeper, and more meaningful horror story.
I'm pretty certain I can pinpoint my first King reading experience, which I think was his 1994 novel Insomnia.  It isn't necessarily regarded as one of King's best works, and it's definitely been surpassed by most of the things I've read by him since, but it certainly painted a new vision of what horror movies could be in my teenage mind.  After being transplanted from the small town home of my first 10 years into the family farm in the nearby countryside, reading King's books - which were generally set in small Maine towns that were similar in size to my home town - was a mental escape back into the small town setting that I missed at the time.  It wasn't easy to relate to the novel's AARP lead characters, but the dark side of their life and the small town they lived in certainly awakened my active imagination about how evil could lurk everywhere, even in a quiet small town.  It would be later that I would really start to understand how King's world works and how many connections to his other works were hidden inside that 800 page book.  (The book was set in one of King's favorite fictional towns, Derry, which previously hosted King's revered novel It and later Dreamcatcher.)

That small town evil was expanded upon in one of the next King novels I read, and one that might still be my favorite King story in print.  Needful Things was that book, and at the time I thought it was the most awe-inspiring horror tale I'd ever read.  Set in King's other infamous fictional town, Castle Rock, the tale of the devilish Leland Gaunt setting up a shop that offers something specific to everyone, as long as they play a prank on another person in town.  The long tale focuses on how evil humanity can be when prodded in the right way, and really struck a chord with me.  I could picture the events playing out in my old neighborhood, even using real houses in town as the setting for the scenes in my mind, and it really blew my mind.  And when I later read The Dead Zone and Cujo - which I also loved - and found out they tied in to the landscape of Castle Rock is when I was kind of in love with King's crazy mind.
As if reading those four novels as a teen wasn't enough to blow my mind, a couple of collections of King's shorter works helped shape my universe as a horror fan too.  Different Seasons was most memorable for its less horror-tinged stories - particularly the ones that became The Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil, and Stand By Me - and Skeleton Crew introduced me to another horror tale that infected my mind for good: The Mist.  Remember the first time you read something and immediately started filming the movie in your brain with your favorite actors?  For me that was The Mist.  (Yes, I did mentally cast Kurt Russell. No, I was not disappointed by the eventual movie, though I did hate the ending.)

I lost track of reading King somewhere along the way - probably in the middle of the segmented release of The Green Mile in six boring parts - but my occasional revisits to his work have reminded me often that this is certainly someone who knew how to create horror.  He's been dismissed at times for writing popular fiction and churning out a few duds along the way, but I don't see any way I could leave King off a list of horror heroes based on his mainstream status.  King represents horror to an entire generation, and even some of his less famous works could inspire a young horror fan, just like Insomnia inspired me.
With his interlocking universe full of connections between several of his iconic stories, Stephen King's works did a lot to make me think about the horror genre and how deep a horror story could be, taking me out of the "monsters and slashers" mindset that I had previously known of in horror.  I worry that I sometimes get caught up in the film side of his work - which varies in quality - but a reminder of what his best books and stories could do is proof that Stephen King truly is among the best horror has to offer anyone who loves the macabre.