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May 31, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #126 - The Leopard Man

I had to look up the name of those little clicky clacky musical things that you put on your fingers to make noise in musical settings to write this post.  I used to play with those little things when I was in the high school band - I don't think I ever used them for real musical purposes, but I did use them like a boss - but I never knew their name.  Anyway, they're called castanets (here's what Wikipedia says about them), and they play a crucial role in Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton's wicked little film The Leopard Man.
Imagine yourself at one of those slightly sleazy, slightly exotic, completely captivating naturally beautiful places of the 1940s.  There's a not-quite-Rita-Hayworth dancer named Clo-Clo performing, but she's interrupted by a rival named Kiki who walks onto the show floor with a friggin' leopard.  Clo-Clo, not one to be upstaged, takes her vicious little castanets - which can definitely deserve a place among the most grating musical instruments under the wrong circumstances - and snaps them in the face of the leopard, who promptly dashes from the premises and escapes into the small New Mexico town.
If you've seen The Leopard Man, you don't need to imagine the setting event that I just described. If you haven't, you might think it's a pretty ridiculous set up for a horror tale.  Two showgirls are feuding and bring castanets and a leopard into the fray? Even Elizabeth Berkley wouldn't stoop that low! But, if you know anything about Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur, you know that this type of event isn't played with even a tongue in cheek.  This leopard is serious business, and they don't offer any hint that we should think otherwise. The whole incident is played as a straight forward shock to all characters involved - including the waiter who flashes a freshly clawed hand to the camera - which means we aren't surprised the first time we see a character's blood spill as their life is ended.  Oh, you didn't think blood spilled in films of 1943? Don't tell Lewton that.
Like many horror films that would follow - even in slasher films released more than 40-50 years later - the first victim in the film is a young woman who we barely get the chance to meet. We know her name is Teresa, and later investigation shows that she's portrayed by a 20 year old actress named Margaret Landry who must have just been trying to make a name for herself.  She gets to walk alone, she gets to gasp in fear, and she gets to scream and beg and plead for her life...and that's it.  She has to be one of the first actresses to achieve this "honor" in a horror film.  Looking back, her work stands up to all the screaming first blood victims we'd meet in horror's bloody age.
With plenty of moments that would later become slasher traditions - from an opening voyeuristic camera outside the showgirls' dressing rooms to a police officer discussing traits of a "man who kills for pleasure" - The Leopard Man has an interesting place in the mind of the horror historian.  There are no more than three kills in the film and a few lulls in the proceedings, but Tourneur shows his skill for building tension repeatedly.  This was the third film the director made for Lewton - following the far more famous Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie - but Tourneur's skill for storytelling might be at its best here.
It's easy to miss some of the effortless cuts between characters and storylines at work in The Leopard Man.  This is a film that runs a mere 66 minutes, and a part of me wants to argue that the plot really doesn't take off until around the 50 minute mark.  But a closer inspection shows just how well Tourneur bounces from character to character and involves us in their everyday lives.  For example, Clo-Clo seems like our main character in the opening 10 minutes, but the camera simply moves off of her to Teresa as they pass on the street and goes on with her story from there, bouncing back to other characters when necessary.  Director William Friedkin does a commentary of the film on its DVD, and hypothesizes that Quentin Tarantino may have been influenced by Tourneur's skill for intertwining character paths when he made Pulp Fiction.  Friedkin's assessment seems to be a reach at face value, but I can see his point if I really pay close attention to the story's twists.
The Leopard Man is a fascinating piece of horror history when it's dissected, as there are clear parallels to be drawn to modern cinema favorites.  But it's also a great example of the early Hollywood murder mystery and a dark shocker with a surprisingly morbid ending.  There are plenty of ways a viewer can absorb The Leopard Man - maybe you just want to admire the "acting" of Dynamite, the actor/leopard who also starred in Cat People - which should make it a fun viewing for any lover of classic horror cinema.

May 29, 2012

8 Things I Love About... The Amityville Horror

The house has eyes.
But really the movie's pretty much about the beard.
Creepy kids and their invisible ghost pig friends.
The recurring 3:15 (and some cool '70s clocks).
Rod Steiger. Actor.
Shots from weird angles where the camera seems to be leaning up off the floor. (And the dude's afro.)
The red room haunts me.
No matter how silly and long the movie is (the answer is "a lot" on both accounts) the psycho Brolin stare is pure horror.

May 28, 2012

FMWL Indie Spotlight - Pretty Dead

(2012, Dir. by Benjamin Wilkins.)

Pretty Dead came to me as a new entry in both the "found footage" and "kinda zombie" subgenres of horror, and I have to admit I approached the film with some caution.  Is there anything new and/or interesting to be said by filmmakers who use these methods? Well, of course there is.  And Pretty Dead does a good job of showing that.

Regina Stevens is a young woman who seems to have the world in front of her. She's an aspiring doctor and has a fiance who loves her, and all of that would be excellent except for the fact that she's dying.  Not in the "we're all dying as we age" way, in the "I did some experimentation with cocaine and passed out and now I don't really have a pulse and have strange and bloody cravings" way.  Since her and her fiance are both medically knowledgeable folks, Regina initially sees this as an opportunity for research - even if she is the guinea pig in the experiment.

As the film takes on a scientific tone, an Animal Planet-style plot twist piqued my interest in the film's vision of infection.  I don't have the scientific mind to explain what the film tells us about the infection Regina is dealing with - the flick's website can give you better information on that than I could, though I think that's a bit spoilery for my tastes - but each of the ideas the film presents feel fresh to the horror scene.  I (obviously) watch a lot of movies that introduce a lot of monsters/infected/killers in a lot of ways, and it's fantastic to find a film that doesn't slip into old standards.  Pretty Dead's biggest strength lies in the ideas behind its plot, which surprised me by offering a new twist on what "zombies" could be.

(I'm of course using the quotation marks on "zombies" because that age old debate on what constitutes zombiedom - Do you have to be dead and buried? Do infecteds count? - is a touchier subject than politics or religion to many I know. Not touching it with a ten foot pole here.)

With an interesting twist to the formula, Pretty Dead is left to its stars and its filmmakers, and they don't disappoint.  Carly Oates stars as Regina, and does a fantastic job during the character's transformation from successful young woman to potentially undead monster. She controls and partially narrates the film - which raises a few small concerns with the found footage format when the film slips into non-found-footage-movie mode - which is very well constructed by director Benjamin Wilkins and co-writer/producer Joe Cook.  There's no Hollywood gloss to the film, which means everything feels pretty natural as it reveals what's going on in Regina's world.

The story doesn't wrap up perfectly - stay through the end credits for not one, but TWO(!) brief scenes that add to the film's narrative - and it telegraphs a few of its final twists early on. But Pretty Dead still left me very impressed with what Wilkins, Cook, Oates and the rest of the cast and crew pulled off. This is a fascinating, unique, and intelligent film that makes the most of its resources.  It's exciting to see a movie that feels as new to the horror genre as Pretty Dead does, and that makes Pretty Dead a horror hit that's just waiting to happen.

Pretty Dead is currently on the festival circuit and awaiting wide release, but keep your eyes peeled for more news on this one.  In the meantime, more information can be found on the official site, which is right about HERE. Or, you can find the flick on Facebook and/or Twitter.  Do it!

May 27, 2012

The Mike's Top 50 Horror Movies Countdown: #32 - The Phantom of the Opera

Previously on the Countdown: Number 50 - Happy Birthday to Me  Number 49 - Prince of Darkness  Number 48 - House on Haunted Hill  Number 47 - The Monster Squad  Number 46 - Hellraiser  Number 45 - The Fog  Number 44 - Creature From the Black Lagoon  Number 43 - Zombie  Number 42 - Tales from the Crypt  Number 41 - Bubba Ho-Tep  Number 40 - Phantom of the Paradise  Number 39 - Dog Soldiers Number 38 - Pontypool  Number 37 - Dark Water  Number 36 - Army of Darkness Number 35 - The Legend of Hell House  Number 34 - Poltergeist  Number 33 - The Abominable Dr. Phibes
The Phantom of the Opera
(1925, Dir. by Rupert Julian.)
Why It's Here:
Age hasn't been incredibly kind to most silent films. Most of the blame for this must fall on modern viewers, who have been spoiled by bright colors and loud noises.  But if you were to give me the choice between most modern Hollywood horror films and the works of the silent icon Lon Chaney, I know exactly what I'd pick almost every time.  Which brings us to The Phantom of the Opera, which tells the ageless tale on a grand (especially for its time) scale, and Chaney's turn as the title "monster".  Technology has progressed, yet Chaney's performance works just as well today as it did almost 90 years ago.
The Moment That Changes Everything:
This is an easy one, because everything I love about horror stems from the unmasking sequence and Chaney's contorted face that is revealed to us.  It sends chills straight up my spine.
It Makes a Great Double Feature With:
If you want to see Chaney get real crazy and less made-up, check out his 1927 flick The Unknown - in which Chaney plays an increasingly deranged circus star who is obsessed with wooing a peer played by a young Joan Crawford.  The man shows of at least a couple dozen of his "thousand faces", and the finale is silent cinema gold.
What It Means To Me:
This is a sentimental pick for the list in a lot of ways, because The Phantom of the Opera was my introduction to horror as a child.  It opened my imagination to the possible horrors of the world, and I haven't looked back since. Though it would be easy to shun it in honor of newer and flashier films, that vision of Chaney as the Phantom still pops into my head and reminds me why I love horror all the time. I respect the heck out of that.

May 25, 2012

The Mike's Top 50 Horror Movies Countdown: #33 - The Abominable Dr. Phibes

Previously on the Countdown: Number 50 - Happy Birthday to Me  Number 49 - Prince of Darkness  Number 48 - House on Haunted Hill  Number 47 - The Monster Squad  Number 46 - Hellraiser  Number 45 - The Fog  Number 44 - Creature From the Black Lagoon  Number 43 - Zombie  Number 42 - Tales from the Crypt  Number 41 - Bubba Ho-Tep  Number 40 - Phantom of the Paradise  Number 39 - Dog Soldiers Number 38 - Pontypool  Number 37 - Dark Water  Number 36 - Army of Darkness  Number 35 - The Legend of Hell House  Number 34 - Poltergeist
The Abominable Dr. Phibes
(1971, Dir. by Robert Fuest.)
Why It's Here:
Vincent Price and I are certainly homeboys. And I don't think he's ever been in a more unique, interesting, and all-out FUN film than The Abominable Dr. Phibes.  As a mute and disfigured doctor who is out to avenge the death of his wife (CAROLINE MUNRO!!!!), Price moves through the film like a silent movie star.  He haunts most every scene with his visage - which has been assisted by some fantastic special effects - and unleashes the fury of the 10 Biblical plagues on the doctors and nurses he blames for her death. The concept alone is worth a place on this list.

The Moment That Changes Everything:
Gosh, I really struggle to break Phibes down to one moment.  The most effective moment in the film might be the sequence that involves locusts, but the film goes off the rails into Awesometown long before that scene. From the first time the Doc's robot band kicks out a tune, it is ON.

It Makes a Great Double Feature With:
Price + Price is always a recipe for success.  The sequel, Dr. Phibes Rides Again, is surprisingly good - some prefer it to the original - but I'm not going that route.  Instead, I'll toss you another late Price gem, Theatre of Blood.  It's almost the same movie in some ways - this time the murders are based on Shakespeare plays and the crimes being avenged are poor reviews - but it's got Price and the lovely Diana Rigg and lots of great stuff.

What It Means To Me:
The Phibes movies and Theatre of Blood always seem like Price's last great stand as a leading horror star to me. But, really, I'm also pretty sure that this is my favorite Price film by a good margin. I don't mean to discredit anything else the man did - I love his work in the '50s and '60s a bunch too - but Phibes just sticks out as something that is really a special film.

May 24, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #125 - Chopping Mall

After Popatopolis, I felt like I needed a reminder about why Jim Wynorski belongs in the heart of the midnight movie lover, despite his more recent SKINematic adventures.  Enter Chopping Mall, the only slasher movie whose killers are robots that look like souped up and angry at the world versions of Johnny Five.  Wynorski's 1986 flick - the second of the 90 films he's directed - might be the greatest thing he ever did. That might sound sad to some, but I'm determined to make this a tribute to Wynorski's fine early work, not a reflection on his tit-flicks.
If you need a synopsis, here it is.  A bunch of couples - offset by nerdy guy Fredy (Tony O'Dell) and sweet girl Alison (Night of the Comet's Kelli Maroney) decide to have sex and/or petting (gotta keep one virgin in the game, right?) in a shopping mall department store after hours on a Friday night (apparently the store won't be open again till Monday...which seems kind of ridiculous).  The problem, as evidenced by the film's alternate title (Killbots), are three security robots, once known as "Protectors" who are malfunctioning due to a good old fashioned lightning strike.  When Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity, he was clearly looking forward to this moment in history.
With that synopsis and a script that includes lines like "I guess I'm just not used to being chased around the mall in the middle of the night by killer robots", Chopping Mall pretty much sells itself to the viewer.  This is the part where I'm supposed to pull a magic rabbit out of my film observing hat, and tell you how there's a deeper, underlying issue in the film that really makes me love it.  But, if I were to pull that trick right would be a crock of crap.
With apologies to the deep meaning lovin' crowd, Chopping Mall is exactly what you'd expect Chopping Mall to be - a tongue in cheek flick filled with carnage, poor attempts at comedy, a few nude scenes, and the horror cliches that anyone who grew up in the '80s was born to love.  And it's that face value charm - the charm that comes out when you realize that Chopping Mall offers up EXACTLY what you'd expect from a film called Chopping Mall - that really makes this one a winner in my book.
Of course, expectations might run a little low for some - I'm ashamed to admit that I avoided this movie for years because I couldn't believe that it wouldn't find a way to mess up the premise - so perhaps I should point out a few high points of Wynorski's film.  The cast of '80s actors doesn't include any glaringly awful performances that detract from the experience. (On the flip side, Maroney and O'Dell are actually very likable, and the gorgeous Ms. Crampton is never a bad thing to watch.)  The camerawork and editing are professional, are accompanied by a synthetic musical score that fits the time period perfectly, and the whole flick clocks in well under 80 minutes - meaning it can't overstay its welcome.  I know it sounds like I'm basically saying "the movie does everything OK", but don't tell me you haven't seen an otherwise exciting b-movie ruined by one or more of those things going terribly wrong before.  The film also gets a boost in credibility - at least in my mind - because it's shot in the same Los Angeles mall that has hosted a ton of Hollywood productions, most notably - again in my mind - Commando.
The point? The point is that all of those things that you might expect would ruin a cheesefest like Chopping Mall are handled well by the director and his cast and crew, who were definitely having fun with such a sensational idea for a horror film.  It's truly a rare occasion when such a blatant b-movie meets its potential perfectly - Remember how excited everyone was about Snakes on a Plane? I love that flick too, but it certainly missed a few marks and left a lot of bad impressions - and that's the kind of movie that I'll always throw my weight behind.  If you're looking for something that you can write a term paper on for a film class, go elsewhere.  If you want to see the prototype for after hours cable cinema of the late '80s, go hit up the Chopping Mall.

May 23, 2012

Here's A Podcast I Did About They Live

Gosh you guys, I've been supposed to tell you about this for like two weeks. And I'm stupid sometimes, so I forgot.
Anyway, I'm very honored to have been given a chance to be a guest on The Sinister Spotlight over at Mephisto's Castle, where good ol' Jose let me pick any movie in the world that I wanted to talk about.  He hit me over the head with a hammer when I picked Take The Lead starring Antonio Banderas as a dance teacher, so then I changed my mind and picked They Live.

What follows is the YouTube link to said podcast.  It features some good thoughts and an unconstitutional amount of "uh huhs", "yeahs", and "yeps".  There's a reason I keep to using this keyboard, folks.

Anyway, if you'd like to peep you go.

May 22, 2012


(2009, Dir. by Clay Westervelt.)

You know you're a b-movie nerd when you find yourself immensely fascinated by the chance to watch Jim Wynorski at work. I've never given much thought to what it's like on a Martin Scorsese set or pondered how much work gets done in a day by Quentin Tarantino. But when I heard about Popatopolis - a documentary that follows Jim Wynorski through the filming of a b-movie - I was instantly intrigued.

I've written a little bit about my experience with Wynorski in the past, but here's a recap. When I was a wee The Mike, Wynorski's The Return of Swamp Thing was one of my favorite things in the world.  That was my first Wynorski experience, so imagine my surprise when a much older The Mike decided to give Cheerleader Massacre - which looked like a cheesy slasher from the outside - a chance based on Wynorski's name.  The gap in both style and substance between the goofy and fun '80s flick and the poorly constructed, z-grade slasher with a softcore sex scene in the middle was gigantic as can be.  (And that's considering how little style and substance something like The Return of Swamp Thing has.)

My studies of Wynorski moved backwards to campy '80s goodness like Not of this Earth and Chopping Mall - and I seriously had a conversation yesterday with someone about Chopping Mall being one of the 100 best movies ever - so it was another sharp contrast when I jumped into this documentary, which follows the director as he makes his 2005 opus The Witches of Breastwick - and does so in three days.  The film follows Wynorski and his cast - which consists of a bunch of girls who are willing to "pop their tops" and one dude - while also interviewing some b-movie icons like Roger Corman, Julie Strain, and Andy Sidaris - about Wynorski's work.  The disconnect that I felt is certainly present in this movie, too.

In fact, the most interesting thing about the documentary to me is when the people around Wynorski - primarily actress Julie K. Smith, who seems like that one person in a group of friends who is smart and likes everyone but just can't stop gossiping about stuff - start to question the director for "settling" into these softcore thrillers instead of making drive-in-style films like Chopping Mall or Swamp Thing anymore.  Many of the actresses interviewed - like adult film star Stormy Daniels, who seems to have no understanding of where she's at while making her first "mainstream" movie (though she did go on to appear in both The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, which is probably proof that Judd Apatow likes porn - don't have a lot to add to Wynorski's story and are just in the film because they happen to be in this softcore film. But Smith and Wynorski alumnus Strain, have a lot of interesting things to say about where Wynorski is at this point in his career and how the man works.

Another interesting, if not sad, twist occurs when the filmmakers interview the 55 year old Wynorski's mother, who talks about how little she knows about his films and how she saw Chopping Mall and doesn't understand why there had to be a naked scene in it.  The filmmaker seems to be making another comment about Wynorski's choice of genres at this stage in his career.  I haven't done all the research, but I'm willing to bet that the majority of Wynorski's 90 films have some female breasts in them, but titles like The Bare Wench Project, The Witches of Breastwick and the more recent Cleavagefield (you get bonus points for that pun, Jim) leave little doubt about what the director's intentions are.  And yet, here we are, talking to his 75-80 year old mother, about what kind of sweet boy he was and how he warns her not to watch his movies because she won't like them.  It's more than a bit awkward.

Popatopolis almost makes a joke out of Wynorski - Smith probably gets the biggest positive rub from the film, even though I get the feeling that the actress tries really hard to come off as a pair of tits with a heart of gold - but as we see him at work we get the feeling that there's more to the director than his half-hearted boob films.  The Jim Wynorski we see on set of this throwaway film is a passionate director who cares about what he's making and seems determined to overcome terrible odds to get his film done.  In a way, Wynorski reminds me of every day challenges where we have to buckle up, admit that we can't make everything perfect, and just fight to get the best out of the resources we have.

I've made a bunch of assumptions about a bunch of real people in this review, and I mean none of them as disrespect.  The corner of b-moviedom that hosts Jim Wynorski is just as valid to me as any other, and I'll gladly sit down with more from the director (probably from his early years, but I'm not too discriminatory) any time.  It's just that Popatopolis pulls back the curtain that I was already wondering about (Curse you, Cheerleader Massacre! You didn't even have cheerleader outfits in that movie!) and got me in that same kind of loving gossiper mode that Smith seemed to enjoy.  For better or worse, Jim Wynorski has done some cool stuff for b-movies, and Popatopolis helped my clear up my perspective on the director in plenty of ways.

If you wanna check out Popatopolis, I encourage you to use that Instant Netflix thingy and check it out.  It'll take 75 minutes of your life and - if nothing else - remind you of a few cool '80s flicks and show you some chests.  If you're like me, you might get even more out of it too.

May 21, 2012

ALAN WAKE: The Horror Universe That The Mike Needed

You guys, I'm just gonna say it. I'm really bad at video games. I try, because they're so darn fun some times, but I struggle mightily whenever they require things like more than four buttons or hand-eye coordination.  (Seriously, why can't they all be Tecmo Super Bowl?)  Anyway, I think I'm even worse at horror video games than real video games.  I like to observe horror, I don't like to participate in it.  (Yeah, that's my excuse for being a pansy.) 

So, you can see why it took me far too long to get into Alan Wake, despite my gamer friends; insistence that it was "a The Mike game" and "right up my alley."  I finally went ahead and got the game sometime last November, but it still took me forever to actually get into the darn thing. When I did, I kept thinking more pansy thoughts, like "Man, this would be great if I didn't have to PLAY it."
But I was dumb and wrong when I thought that.  As I finished Alan Wake this weekend, I became terribly mad at me.  OK, so the game play is a chore and it's wicked hard sometimes, but dangit...I kind of loved the horror story it told.  Why's that, you ask?  Well, here's a few reasons why.

I suppose backstory is important - the backstory of the game, not the boring exposition into my boring life that I already gave you - so here's Alan Wake in a nutshell.  Famous writer Stephen King Alan Wake heads to a small town called Bright Springs, where he and his wife, Alice plan to spend some time in a cabin on Cauldron Lake so he can write and not have nightmares and she can not be afraid of the dark.  Those things don't happen, Alice disappears into the darkness, and Alan - armed only with a flashlight and whatever guns, bullets, and batteries that he can find along the way - must make it through a series of crazy and supernatural nights in which ominous shadow people known as "the taken" try to off him while grunting weird one-liners from their past lives.  There's a dangerous woman in black, a weird diving suit guy who might transcend time, an angry/irrational FBI agent and a whole host of "poltergeist" objects out to stop Alan too, and plenty of twists and turns along the way.
Here's the thing: Alan Wake shouldn't work. It's repetitive, it doesn't always make sense, there's not really any "boss" battles that lead to fist-pumpingly triumphant moments, and most of the "scares" are telegraphed and or given away by the formula.  But for every one of those annoyances and flaws, there's something that makes me really love what Alan Wake has to offer as a horror narrative.

First off, there's the most obvious thing I love about Alan Wake, which goes against a lot of thinking in both the horror genre and the video game world: There's pretty much ZERO blood in Alan Wake.  I don't know about you guys, but I rarely have nightmares that are as gory as a Fulci film or a crappy modern horror remake or anything in between.  I have nightmares that don't make any kind of sense but creep me the heck out and seem like endless struggles against whatever evil is out there.  That's what Alan Wake feels like.
 Alan Wake doesn't have to sensationalize things, it doesn't have to gore things up, it just goes kinda crazy and keeps doing the same thing until it wears you down.  It was several episodes into the game - oh, we gotta talk about the episodes in a few - when I realized that the fatigue I felt while playing the game wasn't as much because it was tedious as it was because the game was intentionally trying to wear both Alan Wake and I down. It's like the Billy Zabka in Karate Kid of video games. It annoys you and that's exactly what it's supposed to do. You can't blame it for that.

There's also that big elephant in the room about Alan Wake that it really took me a while to "get". Alan Wake, the character - or, to put it more simply, the guy we're forced to spend 8-10 hours controlling - is kind of an annoying dude.  He's all emotional, he's totally monotone sometimes, and he spends a lot of time sounding like he really isn't capable of dealing with his predicament. He's not exactly a whiner, but he's not a hero.  Basically, I didn't want to like Alan Wake. So, I'm running around, being to Alan Wake what Cusack was to Malkovich, and I'm not really caring. But again, it's one of those things that just kind of happened as the game went on. Alan Wake works as an anti-hero, even if we don't like him personally, because we care about his plight.  We get so invested in the journey, and the film reveals more and more about what Alan's up against, and we start to "get" Alan Wake - both the game and the character.
(By the way, I simply can not understate what Alan's agent/friend, Barry, brings to the game.  He's one of the most fun side characters in a video game I've played, and he's a great comic relief while also being a sympathetic character too.  There's a sweet moment between Barry and Alan that was a total fist pump moment for me, and that was another moment where I really realized that I was falling for Alan Wake's methods.)

Now here's what I'm hear to really say. I think, as bad as video game adaptations usually are, that Alan Wake might actually work better as a TV series.  As I mentioned earlier, the game is specifically designed to look like a TV series, segmented out into six episodes, each of which have their own story arc and each of which tie back into the bigger plot.  I'm not gonna go all the way and say that the thing wraps up everything by the end of Episode Six - there are two more DLC Episodes and a stand-alone Arcade game that I hear add to the Alan Wake universe - but the way things tie back together shows that the folks who put together Alan Wake had a greater vision than they sometimes let on.  It's absolutely fascinating to me when I realize that I've seen very few video games with a better narrative tale than Alan Wake - because I can't believe that someone allowed a video game to tell that much story while being a horror tale.
I was so wrong about Alan Wake in the early chapters of the game, and when I got to the end I was shocked by how satisfied I felt. But my thirst for this universe of horror was not quenched, and I doubt some short DLC and an Arcade game will do the trick. When Alan Wake utters his final line of the game, it's the game's way of admitting that there is a world of possibilities out there for what could happen next in this universe.  There's no reason we couldn't have an HBO or AMC series with that guy from True Blood (the Skarsgaard kid, not v-neck shirt guy) that's produced by someone like David Cronenberg, is there?  Because that's really what Alan Wake is - a mind-bending introduction to a horror world that exists somewhere between In the Mouth of Madness and Videodrome.  There are stories to be told about Alan Wake and his world, and the ones runnin' through my head remind me of horror titans like King, Carpenter, and Cronenberg.

I know that comparison of a video game to three of the best voices in modern horror sounds cray-cray, but I honestly kind of believe it. Despite my efforts to the contrary, it turns out that Alan Wake is exactly the breath of fresh air (OK, it's a two year old breath of air now, I TOLD YOU I WAS SLOW) that I needed in the horror scene.

Well played, Xbox 360.  Well played.
Oh, and the soundtrack kicks tons of butt.

May 18, 2012

The Mike's Top 50 Horror Movies Countdown: #34 - Poltergeist

Previously on the Countdown: Number 50 - Happy Birthday to Me  Number 49 - Prince of Darkness  Number 48 - House on Haunted Hill  Number 47 - The Monster Squad  Number 46 - Hellraiser  Number 45 - The Fog  Number 44 - Creature From the Black Lagoon  Number 43 - Zombie  Number 42 - Tales from the Crypt  Number 41 - Bubba Ho-Tep  Number 40 - Phantom of the Paradise  Number 39 - Dog Soldiers Number 38 - Pontypool  Number 37 - Dark Water  Number 36 - Army of Darkness  Number 35 - The Legend of Hell House
(1982, Dir. by Tobe Hooper.)
Why It's Here:
When I talked about "classic" haunted house movies in that last post about The Legend of Hell House, I was talking old-fashioned stuffy stone foundation haunted houses.  I was not talking about them "Oh hey, it's a modern house that's got some haunting going on!" situations, like the one in Poltergeist.  The collaboration of Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg - if that's what it was....we may never know - brings haunting to a new generation.  And it does so in pretty darn fun ways.
The Moment That Changes Everything:
There are a lot of great moments I could mention here....the swimming pool (YOU TOOK THE HEADSTONES BUT YOU DIDN'T MOVE THE BODIES!), the good ol' "They're here.", or even the wacky sliding across the kitchen floor in a football helmet gag that reminds us that this is the happy '80s and that even hauntings have their happier moments.  But the clown doll and the old gnarly tree are really what get me.  
It Makes a Great Double Feature With:
Considering how successful Poltergeist was, you'd figure there would be some decent imitators that followed it.  But, you'd pretty much be wrong.  Seriously, there just aren't a lot of movies quite like Poltergeist out there.  I guess it'd play pretty well with A Nightmare on Elm Street, the other darling of the early '80s that sets its horror in a very '80s neighborhood with very '80s people and dads with receding hairlines.
What It Means To Me:
I never really quite know what to make of Poltergeist.  Part of me's all like "Hey man, nobody gives Poltergeist much credit, probably because it's all commercial and stuff". Then part of me's like "Dude, you're only putting Poltergeist at 34? What's wrong with you? It's iconic and everyone's gonna laugh at you!" Such is the conundrum of Poltergeist. I'm not wildly in love with it, I'm not gonna be some pervert who goes around websites trolling and talking about how much I love Heather O'Rourke's dead corpse, but I'm also not gonna dismiss it and usually when it's on I'm not gonna change the channel. It's a paradox of horror goodness, but when you get down to it it's basically just a darn good horror movie.

May 17, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #124 - The Ghost In The Invisible Bikini

Don't look at me....I can't explain it either.

I might have been supposed to say SPOILER ALERT right then, considering that quote I just typed is the final line of The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini.  But anyone who's gonna be upset about spoilers for a movie called The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini isn't ready for The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini.   Heck, anyone who's planning on looking at a movie and going "oh, I didn't like how they did that scene" or "I think the tone could have been different when Monstro ripped apart the bars of his cage" isn't ready for The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini.  This is not one of them "thinking" movies.
I probably sound kind of silly, and I will continue to sound so for what is likely to be the rest of this article.  But there is something in my brain - something I, like the quote says, just can't explain - that tells me that The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini is basically the greatest mindless movie ever made.  The part of me that's researched cinema of the '50s and '60s and knows that there were tons and tons of beach party/haunted house/haunted beach party movies that came long before this one - which arrived at the tale end of that cinematic "movement" in 1966 - should probably dismiss the movie too, considering it's derivative of a lot of movies that came before it.  But those parts of me just have to be content to shut the heck up right now. Because I've been in love with The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini for several years now, and they don't have the power to take that from me.
Just listen to this set up: A recently deceased rich old guy, Hiram Stokely (played by the late Boris Karloff) is woken from his coffin by his old lover Cecily, a trapeze artist/sex symbol who tragically lost her life in a circus accident.  She lets him in on the secret of his passing, but informs him that she's here to help him "get up there". To achieve that, he has to do one good deed within 24 hours - which he parlays into a gathering of his heirs at his old, allegedly haunted estate.  He can't leave the crypt - I guess that first day of being buried is kinda an incubation period? - but if Cecily can prevent his bad heir (a sinister guy named Reginald Ripper who's played by none less than Basil Rathbone) from getting the estate and help his good heirs gain the prize and his millions, then Hiram's headed to the pearly gates.
As the characters converge on the old haunted estate, a pool party - complete with band and musical numbers led by Nancy Freakin' Sinatra - breaks out.  A seance happens, a biker gang starts to scope the joint, and a couple of circus workers show up with a giant ape in the back of their truck.  Ripper's redheaded daughter, Sinistra, tries to use her assets to woo one of the young heirs, while the two less party-centric young heirs team up to try and find a positive solution to this night of terror.  As you would guess, a mild form of madness follows.
As the characters all race around the house, crashing into each other and their surroundings, Cecily's ghost from the title moves among them - invisible bikini and all - manipulating the surroundings and causing a lot of confusion for the less morally driven partygoers.  Primarily, this means we get to see a blue outline of Susan Hart - minus those areas that would have required a bikini - popping up on the screen and making some sort of silly thing happen.  Sounds childish? Yep. But it's so ridiculously fun.
And, knowing that no movie is truly complete without some man-in-gorilla-suit action, the carnival star known as Monstro starts to make his way through the house - all the way into the "Chamber of Horrors" where the film ends as the mayhem escalates throughout the last 20 minutes of the film.  I seriously want a guy in a gorilla suit in every movie ever, you guys.  I know that's ridiculous, but I dang sure want it...and you can't take that from me.  Guys in gorilla (or ape or orangutan or whatever they are) suits are ALWAYS welcome in my world.
If you can't have fun with The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, I'm just not sure I can talk to you right now.  It's basically like watching a live action version of Scooby Doo, except there's no stoner and dog and there's lots of girls in bikinis and there's goofy musical numbers and there's Boris Karloff getting hit on by a cute blonde who then becomes a ghost with no bikini.  And that's really all you need to know.  If you think that sounds like fun, you should probably check out The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini.  I can't explain why...but I know I'm right.  And that will help me to sleep well tonight.
 The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini kind of completes me.

May 15, 2012

Mother's Day

(2010, Dir. by Darren Lynn Bousman.)

I have to admit, I've never finished the original Mother's Day, a 1980 cult film treasure - according to some - from the folks over at Troma.  I remember trying to watch it a while back, but I was in the mood for something shiny and watching Instant Netflix is about my least favorite thing in the world, so I ended up moving on and saying I was gonna catch up with it later.  And I never did.  So, this review of Mother's Day - the recently released remake of said film - shall just focus on the newer, shinier Mother's Day.

Rebecca De Mornay - who I feel like we haven't heard from since like 1995 and something like Never Talk To Strangers - takes center stage in Darren Lynn Bousman's film, as the matriarch of a criminal family who take control of a private residence where a bunch of hip and trendy people are having some sort of celebration.  It seems that Mother's three sons have just failed in crime, and need the safety of their old home - despite its new owners (a married couple with their own issues played by Jaime King and Frank Grillo) and their guests who appear to have just walked off the set of a Light Beer commercial.

What follows is a long and painful evening of torture, tears, and tribulations.  With 5 criminals and about 10 hostages/victims, there's a lot of opportunity for varying kinds of madness and violence in the film, which runs for what feels like a terribly excessive 112 minutes.  Most of that time is spent making sure each and every character is given some sort of unique torture while also being involved in one or more different attempts to escape or overthrow the family that is holding them hostage.  Sometimes it feels like Bousman and writer Scott Milam wrote their script while playing Clue - Is it the husband in the upstairs with the clothes iron? Or is it the tattooed lady in the kitchen with the knife? - as they refuse to pass up any opportunity for a good bit of trauma.  Surprisingly, there's evidence of more restraint when the film deals with gore - there's blood, but not on a Saw-esque level - than evidence of restraint in the editing room.

Despite its repetitive nature, the film doesn't wear out its welcome entirely.  The cast is hit and miss, but the performers that shine - like King, Warren Kole as one of the brothers, and Deborah Ann Woll as the timid sister of the criminals - give very strong performances that hit all the right marks.  Other cast members are less likeable - Patrick Fleuger has some bad moments as the alpha brother, while most of the folks who spend the movie whining in the basement grated me (except the always welcome Briana Evigan, who's...well...HOT) - but there's no one in the film who completely sucks life from the production.

But the film's really all about De Mornay and her wicked turn as Mother - which, thankfully, is the best thing about the movie.  The character is one of the more interesting and disturbed that we've seen in horror for a while, and the actress plays off her past work - like her unhinged turn in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle - to balance between brutal and loving throughout the film.  There's some fantastic dark comedy inside the motives of Mother, which also allows De Mornay's performance to offer a tiny reprieve from the other terrors on screen.  To put it simply, she's the main reason I can even come close to recommending this film.

There are some good moments throughout the film - an interaction between one of the aggressors and two ill-fated women at an ATM was fantastic, and plenty of other brutal scenes are handled with surprising grace - but another edit and a little more grit would have gone a long way to making Mother's Day feel like something more than just another run-of-the-mill home invasion film.  I wanted to like the film a lot - several moments and one fantastic lead performance gave me hope - but the full package fell a little short of being something I feel comfortable suggesting to others.  I guess you could give it a rental if you're really interested, but don't get your hopes too high for this one.

May 14, 2012

The Fields

(2011, Dir. by Tom Mattera & David Mazzoni.)

Being a kid on a farm is really friggin' boring sometimes. Much like the kid at the center of The Fields, I was once a kid on a farm too - I feel his pain.  Granted, I was a kid on a farm who had to do farm work and who had a satellite dish and a Super Nintendo Entertainment System at his disposal.  But, when I wasn't busy winning Home Run Derbys with Ken Griffey Jr. and when Wayne's World 2 or Last Action Hero weren't on HBO and when I didn't have to help my dad castrate pigs or lift bales of straw - well, then I sometimes got bored.

Since this kid is on a farm in 1973 and comes from a broken family (who'd have guessed that Tara Reid wouldn't be the world's most stable mother?) - he has to deal with a lot more boredom than I did.  Which means he decides to not listen to his grandma, played by one of the greatest Iowans of all-time Cloris Leachman, and starts playing around in the fields that surround their farmhouse.  We know that's a bad choice - partly because the movie makes it seem pretty ominous, partly because it's the damn title - but it takes a long time for us to figure out why.

Instead, we get a prolonged look into the psyche of young Steven, the real star of the film, a curly haired kid who I kept expecting to shout "O'Doyle Rules!". (Yes, it's a Billy Madison reference.  HE LOOKED LIKE THOSE KIDS, alright?) But then again, I'm not entirely sure what we learn about Steven, except that he likes Godzilla and Ultraman (WHO THE HECK DOESN'T?) and runs around in corn fields while his Grandpa is nice to him and Cloris Leachman watches horror movies - if nothing else we get glimpses at Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead during the film.

The Fields thinks it's a lot more dramatic than it appears to be.  Everything is presented with a kind of graceful and subdued tone, and the film does a good job of giving everything an autumnal color scheme that goes along with the mood the directors seem to desire.  It's all well and good in the looks department - even if those looks are rather drab and unappealing - but that doesn't really matter when very little drama actually happens.

Look, it's OK to try and be something bigger and more interesting than your standard indie horror film - I definitely appreciated the fact that The Fields wasn't another gorefest full of torture and teenage idiocy - but you gotta offer the viewer something more than a half-cocked story about kinda crazy folks that look like the family from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre's normal cousins from Ohio.  Seriously, if this movie was set in a desert the title would be The Hills Have An Unstable Temper But Really Aren't Scary.

It can't have that title though, because there's those darn Fields.

The Fields is now on DVD via our friends over at Breaking Glass Pictures, so feel free to learn more about it at their site or at the film's official site. It's not the worst thing I've seen in a long time, but it did little more than remind me of how boring farm living would have been without Schwarzenegger, Griffey Jr. and Wayne & Garth.

May 13, 2012

The Mike's Top 50 Horror Movies Countdown: #35 - The Legend of Hell House

Previously on the Countdown: Number 50 - Happy Birthday to Me  Number 49 - Prince of Darkness  Number 48 - House on Haunted Hill  Number 47 - The Monster Squad  Number 46 - Hellraiser  Number 45 - The Fog  Number 44 - Creature From the Black Lagoon  Number 43 - Zombie  Number 42 - Tales from the Crypt  Number 41 - Bubba Ho-Tep  Number 40 - Phantom of the Paradise  Number 39 - Dog Soldiers Number 38 - Pontypool  Number 37 - Dark Water  Number 36 - Army of Darkness
The Legend of Hell House
(1973, Dir. by John Hough.)
Why It's Here:
I hate to go all smear campaign right at the start, but here's the thing.  If you put The Legend of Hell House and The Haunting in front of me - which are probably the two classic haunted house movies in my mind - I'm gonna pick The Legend of Hell House at least 4 out of 5 times. And most people go the other direction.  The Haunting is revered as the king of haunted movies and Legend of Hell House is seen as kind of its kooky cousin...and that saddens me.  The reasons for my sadness are twofold: a) I REALLY love The Legend of Hell House, and b) Julie Harris' narration of The Haunting makes me want to put drumsticks through my eardrums like a Spinal Tap drummer on a drum kit (before combustion).
The Moment That Changes Everything:
One thing I absolutely love about Hell House is that this house is a vile, foul-mouthed, and often perverse muddertrucka.  Perhaps the most intense example in the film is when the straight-laced wife of a scientist played by Gayle Hunnicutt gets a little bit possessed and starts ranting about sadistic sexual fantasies to the terrified Benjamin Franklin Fischer, portrayed be the always scare-able Roddy McDowell.  The intensity shown from the character is one of the clearest indicators in the film that this house is not playing Scooby Doo with its inhabitants.
It Makes a Great Double Feature With:
Well, The Haunting, obviously.  I know I was dogging on it earlier, but a double feature of these two films could basically be called The "Everything You Ever Need To Know About Old Dark Haunted House Movies" Double Feature.  So what if the voiceover makes me want to staple my ears to my cheeks and bring out the crazy glue, the rest of the movie is bloody perfect.
What It Means To Me:
I learned how much I love Richard Matheson from the movies - to be honest, I'm just now finally reading his novel Hell House for the first time(!) - and The Legend of Hell House represents exactly what I love about the writer.  There's a mixture of science and supernature, a balance between physical and mental struggles, and a heck of a lot of wonderfully drawn scenes that don't hold anything back.  To me, Hell House is a prototype for a lot of the things I want to see in any horror movie/story.

May 10, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #123 - Phantasm

I seriously don't get Phantasm.  I've seen Phantasm a bunch of times - like, 12 or 37 times, at least - and I swear that every time I watch it again for the past 15 plus years I've been like "Wait a minute, what in the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was THAT?" at least once.  (Sometimes I don't curse FDR, sometimes I say Amelia Earhart...depends on my mood.)  But what I do quickly realize whenever I take a gander at Phantasm, is that few films have ever mimicked an actual nightmare quite like this one does.
In a way, one could argue that much of Phantasm plays out as the nightmares of a slightly pathetic young boy named Mike (this post has been edited because I'm stupid sometimes, act casual) who looks and talks in a manner that isn't traditionally masculine.  His parents are dead, his brother might leave him behind, and he's certainly not cool enough to be popular at school - we can tell that even though we never see him in that setting.  About 87% of the film is about realizing just how helpless Mike is, by my estimate.
Normally a film about such a character would be difficult, but we get the sense early on that the world of Phantasm isn't quite right.  So many sequences throughout the film feel like nightmares that the characters might be having.  At the beginning, a beautiful woman kills her lover and then morphs into an old man/cryptkeeper.  Later, another sexual encounter adds a bit of voyeurism and some kind of critter that looks like one of those Star Wars Jawas. (Sorry, you will never get me to talk about Phantasm and NOT mention Jawas.)  But primarily, bad stuff starts happening to Mike, and most of it feels like something we can't be sure is dream or reality.
The thing we learn pretty quickly is that Mike is one of those kids who's a) got a heck of an imagination and b) doesn't seem content with the simple parts of life.  Heck, his bed is next to a giant wall sized photo of the view of Earth from the moon - how much more "out of this world" can a kid be?  But it doesn't mean that Mike's dreams are all ridiculous.  Some moments - like the one when we see Mike chasing his brother who is always just out of reach and mysteriously can't seem to hear Mike's effeminate shouting - are pretty realistic human nightmares that let us in to the kid's troubled mind.  These aren't exactly unconscious thoughts in his mind - he vocalizes to a fortune teller (his only counselor, I guess) that he fears his brother is planning to leave him behind, but the signs are clear: Mike doesn't know how to deal with his fears, and they're seeping into his dreams.
There's a catch in Phantasm, however.  Writer/Director Don Coscarelli never really lets the viewer in on the gag.  Very few scenes are really played straight up as straight out "dream" sequences, but so much of what we see doesn't seem possible in a real world.  And a lot of the events that happen don't tie in to later scenes, leaving the viewer - or maybe it's just me, but for the sake of my own sanity I'm going to assume this happens to other viewers - pretty confused as to what really did just happen.
When Coscarelli and the film are on top of their mysterious and dark game, the images on screen seem completely surreal.  Many scenes feature pitch black backdrops, showing only the things the director wants us to focus in on.  Other sequences, like a strange antique shop late in the film, seem to embrace clutter and try to obscure our vision.  Each change in perspective seems intentionally drawn - and is usually punctuated by one of my favorite horror movie musical scores ever - it just doesn't always make sense from a storytelling perspective.  Especially when it gets all intergalactic planetary. (Or is it planetary intergalactic?  RIP MCA.)
I could drive myself mad trying to put together the pieces of Phantasm - I haven't even mentioned the chilling performance from Angus Scrimm or the iconic-if-not-ridiculous "silver sphere"! - but I don't really want to.  There's enough here, from Mike's gender issues to the Jawas from Mars with Banana Pudding blood (Can I trademark that moniker? "Jawas From Mars with Banana Pudding Blood" would make a great rock band!), to make the sum of the parts one of the most interesting and incessantly watchable horror movies of all-time. If I could have nightmares that look like Phantasm, I'd be really friggin' proud of my nightmares.  Why should I try to bring little things like "making sense" into that equation?
 (One more thing, and it's a GIANT FREAKING SPOILER. So stop reading if you haven't seen Phantasm.  Seriously. Stop it!

OK....the ending of the movie.  You know how awesome it is when Angus Scrimm shouts BOOOOYYYY. But y'know what I really love? The sound effects right after that.  Mike goes through the mirror into dreamworld, and all we can hear is this crazy cacophony (I just had to say's a real word, and I love it.  It's used to describe that sound when a bunch of noises are fighting against each other, like jazz music or Oprah Winfrey eating a canned ham.) of noises that sound like a bunch of dogs and demons (I swear one of those sounds in there is straight outta The Exorcist.) fighting over the girly boy's bones.  I swear, it's one of the coolest sets of sound effects out there.  Check it out.)

 Sweet dreams, Midnight Warriors!