Thursday, November 1, 2018

HALLOWEEN reviews

From a month-long series of Facebook posts:

It's time for horror movies! Watched the original THE FLY. Hadn't seen it since I was a kid and Chiller Theater showed it. Never knew it was in color and Cinescope till now. Effective movie with that famous shocker ending.


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RETURN of THE FLY. Not as effective as the first. But then, what could be? Fun anyway despite sub-par effects. What is it about black and white widescreen movies I love so much?

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Continuing on the horror binge. THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970) The first, and best, of Dario Argento's giallo films. "Borrowed" from a novel by Frederic Brown, the story is a fine, twisty-turny mystery with all the slasher movie elements that would be stolen over and over by other filmmakers from this influential thriller.

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Okay, the first SAW movie was better than I remembered. On to SAW 2 which I'll be seeing for the first time.

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Watched SAW 2 and SAW 3. Halfway through SAW 3 I realized that the soundtrack is CONSTANTLY there, a minor chord ambience behind EVERY scene. I like watching these franchises to see how the writers meet the challenges to keep them going. There's an internal logic to these flicks.that makes them kind of hypnotic.

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Watched SAW 4 and 5. I will make it to the end! Kind of fascinating watching the writers loop back on the original story to keep this franchise rolling with (some) degree of cogency. The presence of Julie Benz helps the fifth movie go better. And the five victims connected by a common story was a pretty compelling idea. Though it was easy to see their mistake early on.

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I made it! SAW 6 and 7(3D)! They managed to bring the whole, damned, mess ordeal full circle. The store window sequence in the last flick was nasty. I kept wondering just how far ahead Jigsaw planned this rampage. And we're also left to wonder where the Costa Mandylor character went to school for engineering. Or did he sub-contract? And who was paying the electric bills for all those abandoned sites filled with deadly mazes and torture machines?

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Staying with the horror theme. I watched one of those UNDERWORLD movies. Which one? Does it matter? I realize now that every line of dialogue in all these movies is exposition. EVERY LINE.

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More horror in keeping with that October spirit. The 1986 version of THE FLY. Haven't watched this one in years. For the first time I noticed how small the cast is. They really dialed the story in to just a few characters. More disgusting than actually scary. But that's Cronenberg in a nutshell for me.

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Thought I'd take a break from horror to watch a Ben Stiller/Vince Vaughn comedy. SURPRISE! I did not know THE WATCH had a sci-fi horror element at its core. Boy, they sure didn't market it that way. Anyhow, a pretty standard rude comedy with a few laughs but mostly by-the-numbers stuff relying on the cast to provide the yuks with ad-libs pulled from multiple takes. You know the drill.

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Tonight was THE FLY II. Kind of spotty and VERY 80s, but with some seriously creepy moments. And, for my money, the best revenge ending ever put on film. The bad guy got just what he deserved.

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Tonight it was NEAR DARK, the genre-bending vampire flick that takes the bloodsuckers out of Transylvania and brings them to the Texas panhandle. Stellar cast including Bill Paxton, Lance Henrikson and Tim Thomerson. I remember being blown away by it on video back in '86. Still dig its spare style and that Tangerine Dream soundtrack.

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TENEBRAE. Dario Argento giallo starring Tony Franciosa as the world's most credulous mystery writer and John Saxon as the world's least convincing literary agent. This movie would have gone down a whole better if their roles were reversed. A fine, bloody time with some creepy scenes but not Argento's best.

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THE HOWLING (1981) A werewolf movie that sure seemed cutting edge back in the 80's. A new, very graphic re-thinking of the transformation scenes and a cinema verite feel to much of the shooting. Looking back, the seams show. The movie has too much on its mind as it tries to comment on the media and self-help movements. And the in-jokes, references and cameos that seemed so amusing at the time are just annoying now. Dante had an excellent script to work from and should have stayed with its lean style. Instead, he clutters the rising action and sense of dread with unnecessary asides. And while Dee Wallace is just fine as a horror heroine, she is utterly unconvincing as a TV personality. Still, it is what it is, a grindhouse wolfman movie.

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THE RITUAL, a Netflix jaunt. Decent enough horror story about four pals who go hiking in the woods in northern Sweden. Suffers from the overused guilt-trip trope (that was used in the similar and excellent THE DESCENT). The monster is pretty terrific and used to great effect. But by the time it shows up we've been drubbed with far too much character stuff to care. Unfortunate because it really is a well mounted production with solid acting. But it succumbs to that bland sameness of tone and presentation that is beginning to infuse way too many Netflix genre productions.

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TREMORS: COLD DAY IN HELL Poor Burt Gummer deserves better than this. A tedious SyFy Channel level sequel. Barely any plot, suspense or character development. I actually lost count of the actresses because they all looked the same. I wasn't sure who was getting killed at any one time. The direction was spotty and the editing done with a hatchet. The story was obviously written around the fact that they had limited locations and thirty seconds of effects available. Not the usual fun time of a Tremors flick.

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THE CURED Kind of an after-horror movie, almost like a sequel to a movie that was never made. Though, with no changes, this could have easily been a 28 Days Later sequel. The "infected" are cured and attempt to assimilate back into society with mixed results. VERY Irish movie with its sadness and all, and all. And its firebrand politics in which the cured decide that they are being unfairly put up and oppressed and turn to (surprise!) terrorism. Still, some good apocalyptic action and scares.

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GINGER SNAPS BACK (2004) closes out this werewolf sisterhood trilogy with the unusual choice of a prequel set in the Canadian wilderness of 1815. A handsomely mounted production finds the sisters Ginger and Bridget back at the very beginning of their saga and the start of the curse that would plague their lineage for generations. As always, the two female leads make the material work. Katherine Isabelle is entirely convincing as the lycanthropic Ginger and Emily Perkins can sustain a believable level of agonized terror for an incredible length of time. And I can even excuse the girls' often anachronistic dialogue because it's all within the odd spirit of this series.

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SUSPIRIA (1977) Thanks to a brand new restoration this flick now matches the experience of seeing it on the giant screen at the old FOX theater in Philly. Considered to be Dario Argento's masterpiece, this slice of delirium is set at a German dance academy that conceals a coven of witches. The sets are wild and the mood of the film unsettling. This is Argento removed almost entirely from the real world and immersed in a dreamworld of weirdness and bloodshed. Released the same year as Star Wars, Fox formed a holding company to put it out in the USA because, while they wanted the money, they didn't want their name on it. The movie turned out to be highly profitable and was the real beginning of what would become a horror boom in the 80s.

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SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999) Just shows what Tim Burton can do with an actual story. And while the story is great ( classic), the movie is not. I can imagine the pitch meeting when one of the producers pipes up, "What if Ichabod Crane was a New York cop?" The same roomful of producers probably forced the extended action sequence ending on the filmmakers. Explosions, a fire, a fight atop a tall structure AND a chase! More is better, right? No, more is tedious. The production is handsome with terrific sets and costuming and the cast uniformly excellent. But why make an R-rated version of this? Wouldn't a PG-13 have been smarter box office? And Christopher Walken looks like he's having fun.

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So, Tim Burton without a good story or script. DARK SHADOWS (2012) tries to simultaneously be a parody, remake, re-boot and homage. It fails on every point. The "humor" arrives so late in the film it feels like someone switched reels with another movie. And there are story elements that come out of NOWHERE but do nothing to augment a story whose ending could be predicted in the first three minutes of running time. A vampire returns from a centuries long imprisonment in a grave to rescue a seafood business?

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RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985) A not-too-serious entry into the zombie genre from Dan O'Bannion (famous for ALIEN) and contributions from John Russo, one of the writers on the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The conceit is that NOTLD was based on a true story covered up by the government who, in typical fed fashion, lost a bunch of barrels containing contaminated corpses. The barrels turn up a medical warehouse in Louisville for some reason and the dead and the infectious contaminant are released over a cemetery where zombies rise to threaten a gang of teens meant to represent the supposed demographic of MTV watchers. Fun and often silly with a few truly impressive practical effects. And this one is the source of the common zombie trope "Brains...."

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THE CONJURING (2013) Currently my favorite horror franchise/universe. It's a haunted house mystery basically but with plenty of inventive twists and nuances. Patrick Wilson and Vera Famiga lead a great cast as a ghosthunting married couple who work as part-time lay exorcists. The chemistry between them holds the movie together. This is my kind of scary flick. It takes place in a very realistic environment rather than a world of gray delirium. That makes he horror elements all the more...horrifying.

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Okay, now for a haunted house mystery with no inventive twists and zero nuance. MAMA (2013) could easily have been written by an algorithm. Every moment is predictable and, while well produced, it features the same gloomy, shades-of-gray visuals as every other cookie-cutter spook movie of its type. There's no real effort to establish a base reality. Every setting looks like it could be haunted. The scares are all blocked out with the same ABC regularity and no effort made to fool or surprise the viewer. And not an iota of humor, of course. Guillermo DelToro had something to do with this and it shows. But the little girls who play the sisters are very good.

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COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970) Super-cheapie production that, at the time, was kind of cutting edge in in its "modern" take on a vampire showing up in LA. Legendary for having started out as a "skin flick" until Robert Quarry urged the producers to do a straight-up horror movie. An oddity now but, believe me, it was quite effective on TV as a late-night programmer in the 70s.

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THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA (1971) is more of the same. Which is the function of a sequel when you get right down to it. Mariette Hartley, in some kind of career slump, is the Count's object of affection this time out. And Craig T. Nelson makes an early appearance here. Some attempts at humor and an extended maze chase through halls crowded with big-hair vampirettes. These had to have been profitable. I wonder why the series ended here.

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PIRANHA 3D (2010) An unapologetic exploitation film featuring prehistoric piranha let loose on a buffet of Spring Breakers in a lake in Arizona. Clothes come off, flesh comes off as this movie hits every branch of the grindhouse tree on the way down. Well done production and predictable as hell but, who cares, right? Highlight for me? Richard Dreyfuss getting gnawed to death.

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SCREAM (1996) The surprise hit that re-started the horror movie cycle that's basically still with us more than twenty years later. Wes Craven has a fun script full of meta observations about the slasher movie genre. My favorite part (and I'm sure I'm not alone) is how much punishment Ghostface takes as he pursues his victims. A crowd-pleaser that must have been a blast to see in a theater and still a lot of grisly fun today. The thirty-second delay gag was so cutting edge then!

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MANDY (2018) An attempt to make an arthouse/grindhouse hybrid revenge flick with strong horror elements. The results leave you wondering if the filmmakers are geniuses or morons. Often, the editing makes you wonder if someone fell asleep at the Movieola. It's all train wreck fascinating and held together by the thespian Krazy Glue that is Nicolas Cage. Say what you want about the man, he's carried more than one awful movie on his back, turning the unwatchable into the watchable by sheer force of will. Here, he is not so much cast in the role as unleashed. Do yourself a favor and watch it so that you can assure the inevitable army of cinemaphiles, who will adopt this movie as a cause, that you did see it.

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SCREAM 2 (1997) The franchise goes full meta with the opening of a movie-within-a-movie based on the first movie! A worthy sequel filled with soon-to-be-familiar faces like Tim Olyphant and Liev Schreiber and Portia DeRossi. More of the same, the goal of any sequel, with plenty of twists, turns and contrivances. The action moves to a college campus and, as Jamie Kennedy promises, the body count explodes. Features perhaps the longest motivation/exposition psycho monologue in horror film history.

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