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March 29, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #169 - Gorilla At Large

If you wrote the script for a live action Scooby Doo that was also a homage to King Kong and then you filled the cast with Oscar types and a genuine television icon, that movie would be the 1954 epic Gorilla At Large.  I know, it sounds too good to be true, but I assure you - it is true. And it is wonderful.
A carnival known as "The Garden of Evil" which is run by an owner played by Raymond Burr is the setting for this tongue in cheek mystery, in which the prime suspect is a primate named Goliath. But the shady proprietor and his animal attraction are just two of the many characters caught up in this murder investigation, and much of the fun of the film comes from watching a surprisingly great cast have fun with a predictably silly plot.
Cameron Mitchell, a Broadway star who would become known to horror fans by working with Mario Bava repeatedly and starring in The Toolbox Murders, takes the lead as the dopey carnival worker who is promoted to the job that I would drop my real world job for - gorilla costume wearer.  It seems that the boss and his star trapeze swinger/wife - played by none less than Oscar winner Anne Bancroft(!) - have a grand scheme that will put Mitchell's Joey on the main stage and trick the audience into thinking he's the real Goliath. Which means we've got not one but TWO gorillas at large, one a dangerous killing machine and one a dangerous killing human.  I'll let you ponder which one's more frightening.
Once the murdering and gorilla-based-hijinks start we get more fantastic additions to the cast with police officers played by Lee J. Cobb - who was nominated for an Oscar the same year for On The Waterfront and also appeared in amazing movies such as 12 Angry Men and The Exorcist(!) -  and Lee Marvin - another Oscar winner who is pretty much the most underrated and possibly manliest action hero in cinema history.  Cobb chews up scenery as the lead detective, while Marvin's role is a comic one that now looks like a spoof of his future persona as an all-star tough guy.  Cobb, Burr, and Marvin add a lot of gruff charisma to the Sherlock Holmesy mystery plot, while Mitchell and Bancroft seem at home in their innocent roles.  And, going back to the topic of gorilla costume wearers, there's also the unheralded legend George Barrows - who made a lot of money wearing gorilla suits and even played the Ro-Man in the one and only Robot Monster - as Goliath. As if the film needed more star power!
 The cast is much of what sets this kooky film apart from other b-movies of its era - and it's easy to see why when you consider the names who were (apparently willingly) involved - but there's a charming energy inside the film that makes this more than just an a-list murder mystery. Gorilla at Large was not only a notable early effort for many of its cast members, but it was also one of the earliest entries in the original 3-D movement in cinema. This makes Gorilla At Large kind of a grandfather to today's 3-D genre films, sharing the same vibrant visual flair and playful trickery while maintaining the now cheesy moral compass that defined popcorn genre cinema of the 1950s.
The plot takes familiar turns as Gorilla At Large escalates through its final act, but the film still feels fresh and fun for fans of '50s cheese. The cast members would go on to bigger and better things in more serious and acclaimed fare, but it's still worth celebrating that once, even if it was just a for a moment in time, this much talent came together in one place and made a movie about a crazy carnival setting and a killer in a gorilla suit and a killer gorilla.  Better yet, it's not just the idea of Gorilla At large that makes me smile - if a great cast and a good premise was all it took to make a genre film work we'd all love Dreamcatcher(!) - because the film itself is the perfect tongue in cheek mystery for young and old viewers. It's a cliche that is too often abused, but I think it's safe to say that they truly don't make 'em like Gorilla At Large any more.

March 23, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #168 - When A Stranger Calls

If you start talking to a horror fan about When A Stranger Calls, the first thing that they'll say will probably something like "Oh man, the first half hour is so gooood!"  I don't disagree with their assessment - more on that in a bit - but I've always felt kind of bad for the rest of the movie. Because it was one of the first films to follow Halloween's lead in the formation of the slasher subgenre, the film plays more like a sterilized Brian DePalma thriller than a hack-and-slash serial killer film.  But there's a lot to like about the whole picture, even if the discrepancy between Part A and Part B forces people to discuss the movie as two separate entities. Which, despite my best efforts, I'll start to do now.
The central facet of When A Stranger Calls' mystery is based in urban legend, and most people with a hankering for scary stories probably heard "the call is coming from inside the house" before they ever knew about this movie.  Director Fred Walton takes that simple terror tale and expands upon it perfectly in the film's opening sequence, with a babysitter played by comedienne Carol Kane - who is perfectly unfunny in the role - being harassed by a threatening caller and taunts of "Have you checked the children?"  Walton's film isn't perfect throughout this sequence - the repeating ominous musical cue gets a laugh out of me by the tenth time it is used - but the setting is dark setting of this 1970s' home and the quiet that surrounds Kane in this environment provide a lot of reasons for the viewer to feel unease.
Looking at the segment from the outside makes it easy to see how simple this manipulation of the audience is. The viewer never even meets "the children", but the implication of a threat against youngsters who have been left in the care of another is instantly effective. Parents and young women alike can relate to the worries that come along with leaving your children behind for the evening. Most of the worries that parents or babysitters have about their position are irrational or misplaced, but When A Stranger Calls uses them to its advantage in the setting sequence. This is the kind of horror scenario that may leave viewers at home shouting rationalities at the character on their TV screen, but that's often the kind of horror scenario that grips us most tightly - and When A Stranger Calls' opening act is a perfect example of that.
Which brings us to what comes after that opening sequence.  For starters, it's worth noting that When A Stranger Calls has one of the most obvious three act structures of any film ever made. It starts with the setting event and the babysitter, jumps ahead seven years to a police officer turned investigator (Charles Durning) and his pursuit of the killer, and then retreats back into the life of Kane's character for the final showdown. The set up - killer kills, goes to a mental institution, escapes, terrorizes hometown - is almost a direct replica of Halloween before it, but the structure of Walton's film is more episodic than that of Carpenter's babysitter and killer opus.  I get why it bugs some, and I get why Walton - who would later make another oft misunderstood sorta-slasher, April Fool's Day - ended up spending most of his career making TV movies. But that doesn't mean the approach used on this film doesn't work.
In fact, each time I view When A Stranger Calls I find myself appreciating the film's segmented narrative more thoroughly.  The cat and mouse game between Durning and the killer is particularly effective on its own, with dark city streets and dirty apartment buildings serving as a perfect backdrop for the exploits of this unhinged madman.  British actor Tony Beckley is fantastic as the villain, and his unpredictable actions and deep voice (which is assisted in key moments by some over the top sound effects that sound leftover from The Exorcist) really help the actor stand out in the film and make the killer more engaging to the viewer. It's a shame that this would be the final film Beckley appeared in before his death in 1980, as he seems like the kind of actor who could have given a special something to a lot of horror films in the 1980s.
The final act is more open to scrutiny than the rest of the film is, and there's a definite drop in tension from where we were in the opening. Still, it moves pretty quickly to a resolution and keeps us guessing along the way, ending with an abrupt sequence that is pretty ridiculous but fits with what the movie has offered us so far.  Few people will accuse the film of being a horror classic based on the tension and the tone that it offers, but the pulpy young slasher film still makes me smile with its sleazier-than-you-expect approach that is led by Beckley's turn as the villain.
When A Stranger Calls doesn't keep up with the creepy highs of its opening act - and, in fact, Walton's made for TV sequel that premiered 14 years later has moments that sometimes overshadow this film - and few people will list the whole product as a horror classic. But closer inspection makes me think When A Stranger Calls deserves a second look, because the full film is a wonderfully melodramatic killer story with great performances and plenty of atmosphere. Fans of TV crime dramas may like it more than fans of slasher films do, but that's OK by me. It might be divisive in some ways, but at least we can all agree that we'll check the children next time we're the babysitter.

March 19, 2013

My Amityville Horror

(2012, Dir. by Eric Walter.)

When I was a kid, I was once in the middle of an earthquake. It's hard to believe that I, a mid-Iowan farm boy, could have been caught up in an earthquake in my natural habitat - only 13 earthquakes have ever been recorded in the state, and none within a three county radius or a 15 year time span of my childhood - but I remember it vividly.

Well, actually, I remember my parents telling my sister and I that there was an earthquake after a glass that my sister was holding fell and broke. What actually happened, as far as I assume, is that my younger sister dropped the glass, which shattered and made her cry like a little girl. (In fairness, she was.) My parents, trying to shut her up, told us that there was an earthquake and that was why she dropped the glass.  And we bought it. Or at least I did, I think. Heck, maybe this never even happened. Maybe I dreamed it and just assumed it was real. I don't know. I was a kid.

So when I consider how gullible I was as a kid and/or how my memory may be playing tricks on me, it makes me naturally skeptical about My Amityville Horror, a new documentary that revisits one of America's most notorious hauntings through the memory of a childhood survivor. Daniel Lutz, the son of Kathy and the adopted son of George Lutz, was the oldest of three children living in the infamous house, and now he's the guy telling us about his life and his childhood experiences at 112 Ocean Avenue.

Daniel Lutz, now in his 40s and working for UPS in California, comes off as a volatile man with that stereotypical "New York" accent and attitude, and his distaste for any doubt of his story would probably make him mad at this reviewer already.  While it seems like I'm making light of Daniel's story by pointing out that children are a) susceptible to manipulation and b) not the most trustworthy folks at remembering things, I don't mean to condemn the person as much as I want to cast doubt on our faith in human memory. There's a reason why most Psychology professors and doctors and generally smart people will tell you that eyewitness testimony isn't generally reliable - because it's not.

Horror hounds might find themselves a little bored with the early stories told by Daniel in this documentary, as they seem to follow the events we've seen immortalized in print and on film far too closely. Who's to say that Daniel's memory hasn't been influenced by the public versions of what happened inside his childhood home?  Some of the second hand accounts of other peoples' experiences and the experiences of the few people involved that are left - mainly a former TV investigator and an elderly woman with connections to the supernatural - corroborate Daniel's story, but it's hard to really buy in to new accounts from 35 year old memories, especially when they are based in the supernatural.

Despite all of the reasons to be skeptical, it's actually pretty darn fascinating to see what has become of Daniel Lutz.  I don't know if what he says happened is what actually happened, but I am certain that Daniel Lutz believes that it happened. At the same time, the character is most fascinating when he talks about his relationship with George Lutz, who we all are still afraid of thanks to James Brolin, and there's a lot to read into when it comes to Daniel's hatred of his stepfather.  What we think about Daniel Lutz is immaterial, because the story that Daniel tells is told with such frank honesty.

Though I'm cautious about the implications of My Amityville Horror - which insists that a story that was generally debunked 30 years ago might still be true based on testimony of a child - I still found myself enamored with how it told its story. The production slickly moves between reminders of the events in the Amityville house and accounts of Daniel Lutz' life since then, and it's easy to feel sympathy toward a man who's had to deal with something - whether it's supernatural or criminal - of this magnitude for most of his life. My Amityville Horror inspired a lot of internal debate within me, but that added perspective on The Amityville Horror is more than welcome.

I may not believe the Amityville story is true, but I'll listen to Daniel Lutz talk about it just in case.  If you're interested in the book, the film, or just hauntings in general, you'll probably be interested in hearing his story too.

March 16, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #167 - The Salton Sea

A crime drama centered in the world of California meth users isn't the kind of film you'd normally find in the Midnight Movie of the Week spotlight, but there's nothing normal about The Salton Sea.  A multi-layered story of revenge and rebirth that centers on an informant who is stuck in a real world purgatory, D.J. Caruso's film is one of my favorite hidden treats of the new millennium. It's a film that I found fascinating when I first saw it more than a decade ago - I was a college kid and it was undeniably cool - but as I watch it now I'm even more fascinated by it.
Val Kilmer stars as a meth-head who is actually a police informant, more commonly known as a snitch.  But it's clear from the opening that this man, known presently as Danny Parker, has a different moral code than most of his methamphetine abusing acquaintances. As he moves through this underworld of "tweakers" he interacts with a rich supporting cast that features plenty of talented actors in unique roles.  As Danny works his way around this world of users, dealers, and cops, he finds himself sinking deeper into a mystery that seems to swallow him whole.

In my professional life in the real world, I've heard the word "snitch" used as one of the most damning insults of a person's character more often than I can count. I get the mindset behind the "snitches get stitches" mantra that has permeated the culture of drug use - it's the same as playing in the playground as kids, when mom doesn't see it it doesn't happen unless someone tells her - but it always amazes me at how much this ideal is accepted. You walk into a room with a bunch of potheads - and comparing potheads to meth users is like comparing toddlers on a tumbling mat to Olympic gymnasts - and they're going to tell you that snitches get stitches in the same tone they would use to tell you the sky is blue. It's become a fact in drug circles, and it's an almost unwritten part of The Salton Sea's tense plot. No one ever says "Hey, this guy's a snitch, he's in danger" - but it's understood from the first time we learn about Danny Parker's role.
The negative stigma that surrounds his secret makes every relationship Danny has a bit difficult. Some of these relationships are just awkward, like the one with his tweaker best friend, played by a young and mullety Peter Sarsgaard or the ones with the more volatile-but-light-hearted tweakers, led by Adam Goldberg. Other relationships - one with a completely nonsensical dealer played by Glenn Plummer in a fantastic cameo, another with a diabolical distributor played by a noseless Vincent D'Onofrio - are dangerous to Danny's life. And then there's the triad of lawmen he's working with - played by Doug Hutchinson, Anthony LaPaglia, and B.D. Wong (as a cowboy-themed FBI agent - who are obviously using Danny for their own needs.  There's a sense of dread much like what you'd find in a classic film noir, because the lead character is clearly on his own if he wants to meet his own goals.
Danny's reasons for what he does are expanded as the film goes on, and what begins as a look into a bizarre subculture of bizarre Los Angeles evolves into a more meaningful and profound film. But the film never loses its sense of humor along the way, as the script is peppered with oddities that keep us surprised by whatever comes next. I won't spoil all the reveals, but let's just say that brain-eating and genitalia being stuck in a badger's cage are two examples of The Salton Sea's bizarre world. (By the way, one of those examples leads to one of the all-time great mantras on film, "People say a lot of things when they're sportin' badger food for a pecker!")
Like cinema's most mysterious treasures, The Salton Sea is better appreciated after the final credits roll. The ending is true to the film's noir roots - which means it is a little over narrated and a slight bit melodramatic - but looking back at the film as a whole makes me recognize that its heart is in the right place. The Salton Sea is a fascinating look into a dark society that doesn't lose sight of where it wants to go. Despite the well-known cast and the assist of producer Frank Darabont, The Salton Sea has been lost in the years since its limited release in 2002. But I assure you that this film, like the truth that Danny Parker seeks, is worth finding.
(By the way, that's an awful trailer. The movie doesn't have the plot or tone it implies. Think noir!)

March 8, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #166 - THX 1138

In the year 2013, it's impossible for many - including myself - to hear the name of George Lucas and not think "Oh, yeah, he's that guy who made Star Wars and then spent three decades ruining it!"  Lucas the filmmaker barely exists in the eyes of most, and Lucas the multibillionaire who can't stop tinkering (and also making money) is what we think of when the man is discussed. And then we go back and look at his debut feature THX 1138 - a thoughtful and philosophical sci-fi film that seems to be the project of a great dreamer - and we get our minds blown.
It should not come as a surprise that Lucas can dream up some good stuff - y'know, there is that whole Star Wars universe thing as evidence of his talent - but it's still a bit of a shock to our system when we compare THX 1138 to Lucas' cash cow of a franchise.  Deriving some of its themes from other great works of sci-fi - comparisons to 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 are inescapable at times - Lucas' first film is a story of the future that focuses on human fears and features pretty much no lasers.
Robert Duvall stars as the title character, a worker in a society that numbers its members, mandates drugs to suppress emotions, and doesn't really want anyone having hair or having sex or being happy. Well, it does want them to be happy, because their video Jesus that takes confessions in phone booths always ends his comments to "work hard, increase production, prevent accidents and be happy". But it's kind of like that scene from Citizen Kane, because this god-face wants the bald members of this society to be happy on his own terms. And if you know anything about Robert Duvall, you know he's probably not gonna put up with that crap.
Don't set your expectations to Skywalker yet, because this revolution against the robot cops and faceless controllers doesn't take the fast-paced approach that films like Logan's Run would take later in the sci-fi game. Lucas' film is a strangely poetic piece of work, rolling through the different stages at a delicate pace and never really pushing the tempo for the sake of thrills. As Duvall and the other prisoners of this neutered society (including the fantastic Donald Pleasence, playing a key role and being as wonderful as usual) face the system, Lucas is wise to never give an aggressive side of the story. There are some creepy robotic police officers that enforce the law, but these are just tools. There's no "big bad" to be found, and that's when we start to realize just what sets THX 1138 apart from the pack.
As we see these nameless, often indistinguishable characters move through their surroundings, it becomes evident that life in this society itself is the film's biggest villain. The film is littered with all kinds of messages - anything from "drugs are bad" to "sex ruins everything" to "conformity is death" could be pulled from the film and discussed thoroughly - but the biggest thing I take away from Lucas' slow-paced and visually inventive film is how difficult it can be to escape the monotonous side of life.
Getting back to Lucas, it's little surprise that the version of THX 1138 that exists today is not the one that premiered in 1971.  Items that were cut from that version by the studio have been restored, and new footage has been shot and added, leaving us with a DVD version that is billed (redundantly) as "The George Lucas Director's Cut."  But the tinkering hasn't poisoned the well here, and THX 1138 still stands out as a mature and bold vision of a terrible future, boldly put together by a director whose care for his material is impossible to miss. THX 1138 is a neat sci-fi film that promotes a lot of thought, and a nice reminder of how George Lucas became that multibillionaire through a lot of talent and hard work.

March 4, 2013

One Minute Review - Julia's Eyes

(2010, Dir. by Guillem Morales.)

Twin sisters with degenerating sight are the centerpieces of Julia's Eyes, an atmospheric horror film from Spain that is most noticeable from a distance because it has the blessing of horror hero Guillermo Del Toro.  The blessing of a top notch director doesn't always mean much when it comes to quality, but I'm happy to say that Del Toro seems to have backed the right horse with this one.

Belen Rueda stars as the title character, who hopes to investigate the strange death of her blind twin sister Sara (also played by Rueda), which is detailed in a fantastic opening scene. Julia slips closer and closer to blindness as she tries to figure out who or what is responsible for her sister's death, and we

A palpable atmosphere of dread is the film's biggest asset, as director Guillem Morales takes the story into plenty of dark places as we follow Julia's investigation. Rueda is a more than capable star, and the supporting characters all seem to have a place amidst the film's twisty ride. The final result is a neat game of cat and mouse that should hold your attention.

Items of Note: Lots of blind people with zombie eyes. Naked old women with blind/zombie eyes. Commentary on the size and beauty of the universe. One creepy basement. Mouth knifing. Moments that remind me of the blindfold match between Jake Roberts and Rick Martel at Wrestlemania VII, which I thought was awesome when I was nine. An impressive dual performance in the lead.

The Score: 4 blind victims out of 5.

March 3, 2013

The Last Exorcism Part II

(2013, Dir. by Ed Gass-Donnelly.)

Ashley Bell returns to The Last Exorcism Part II, and by doing so she becomes the one great reason to see this film. The sequel to the 2011 independent horror sensation (which I pretty much love) seems like a studio cash in - especially after that film's much-maligned final twist - but with Bell leading the charge the film manages to pick up the pieces and run further into her character's battle against evil.

Both films are essentially about the damnation of "backwoods" teenager Nell Sweetzer, but the tone has changed from the first film to the second. In the first film, Bell's Nell was the innocent who has been possessed by a demon. Now, she's the survivor who's trying to move on with her life in a girls' home in New Orleans while dealing with young love, teenage girl drama, and the possibility that she's still the target of something demonic.  You could almost look at the film as a rape survivor's story - in fact, that is an accurate leap to make - but it's clear to us throughout this film that Nell Sweetzer is troubled by more than just human problems.

This Part II is most interesting when it allows Bell to fill the screen, because every trial she faces feels legitimate. The film does a fantastic job of showing things that are out of her control - like silent masked observers and middle-of-the-night terrors - to the audience while keeping the girl unknowing. The film is entirely about Nell's attempts to figure out what is happening to her - one character spells it out, saying bluntly that she needs to choose her own path - but the film gives more information to the viewer than it does to the girl. There's some unsettling tension to be had thanks to this, especially because the actress seems so pure.

Those who saw the first film have already seen Bell do and say a lot of shocking things, and considering this we shouldn't be so surprised by the actress' range here. But Bell manages to restore our faith in Nell in her new environment, and her ability to present innocence in human settings sets us up to once again fear for her when things get out of control. I truly believe her performance in the first film was worthy of Oscar consideration (as was the performance by Patrick Fabian in the lead, but horror never gets the love it deserves) and her ability to take the lead in this sequel only cements my belief that she's a talent to watch out for in the future. The 26 year old is willing to buy in completely to the role and everything it requires, and the range she shows lifts the film above a lot of its problems.

Those problems are numerous, unfortunately. The found footage aspect of the original film is gone, and without another strong presence across from her Bell often has to carry too much of the film's weight. Nell wanders through her bouts with evil without much guidance - save a few scenes from horror veteran Muse Watson (I Know What You Did Last Summer) and the returning Louis Herthum as Nell's father - and when she finally stumbles into someone who will help her it seems like the script is just jumping to a conclusion.  This leads to a final act that feels pretty forced, and some New Orleans-flavored voodoo takes away from the biblical battle that has been set up through the first film and a half.

The first film's ending was hated by many, but I've been impressed with its willingness to change directions and shuck audience expectations (while still making enough sense within the plot) since day one. Part II offers a similarly grand final act, but by the time it gets to it the twists that continue to one up each other have watered down the impact a bit. Also unfortunate is the cheap and ugly CGI work that bleeds into the conclusion. I shouldn't be so fickle, but the the final moments of the film offer fantastic ideas to think about and then distracts us from them by showing off some goofy developments that don't appear realistic in any way. I'm truly intrigued by the way the film wrapped up Nell's story (for now?), but the flaws in presentation take away from the effect that these developments have on us. If nothing else, the first movie got it right with its "less is more" approach to the climax.

I want to flat out recommend The Last Exorcism Part II, because I think Bell is that good in the lead and I think the story heads in a fascinating and engaging direction. The film had my attention piqued throughout and wasn't dull for a second, but it makes a lot of wrong steps that seem like shortcuts, particularly in the final act. Fans of the first film and Bell's performance there should at least get something out of this sequel, but I'm not sure viewers will be able to overcome all the little things that just don't feel right. Still, I'm glad I saw where Nell Sweetzer's story went, and if they brought Bell back for an (even more unlikely) Part III, I'd probably check in. This one's at least worth a rental for her work.