Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

SPOILERS!

Bad City is a dour landscape of dull architecture and oil derricks, sucking the land dry.  The latter  might be an intended metaphor for 2014's A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, which features a mysterious girl who indeed spends her time walking home alone at night, intriguing and startling the young and old as she virtually hovers over sidewalks in a black chador.  Who is she? What is she doing? The city is meant to be somewhere in Iran, but if you've ever been to inland towns in California, it should look rather familiar.

"The Girl" (Sheila Vand) retreats nightly to a one room apartment, spinning pop songs on vinyl.  She loves music.  It may be more alive to her than anyone she meets in Bad City.  I can sometimes relate to that idea.  We learn early on that the girl is a vampire, albeit with a conscience.  She kills three people in this movie.  One, a vicious pimp/drug dealer, clearly deserves it.  But what about another man, an elderly heroin addict? He does force a prostitute to share a needle with him.  Then there's an anonymous street person, slumped over in an alley.   Maybe he was evil in some way, too.

Is the girl some sort of angel? She spares a young child, after scaring the shinola out of him.  "Be a good boy," she warns.  Her chador suggests she has been the victim of many not so good boys, perhaps an entire society of them.   She takes the kid's skateboard after he tears off in fright.  Seeing the girl riding it under streetlamps is one of the many oddly beautiful images in writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour's moody art piece.  Lyle Vincent's black and white photography is absolutely stunning.  It makes a literally colorless locale come to near phantamasgoric life, even if the film evokes more indie cool ala Jim Jarmusch than sheer terror or dread. Calling A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT a horror film does seem a bit of a stretch, aside from a few moments.

The girl also meets a fairly decent youth named Arash (Arash Marandi) and after deciding not to sink her fangs into his neck, finds he seems like someone she can connect with.  She even lets him pierce her ears.  How their relationship plays out will be one viewer's tedium and another's mellow poetry.  Amirpour places visual lyricism in every shot.  It may distract you from what seems like a thin script, or perhaps expand on it. 
 
Amirpour is as mysterious as her main character.  In an interview with Roger Corman, who comments on the Jarmusch vibe, the director shrugs and admits she's not a big fan of his work (aside from ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, of course) -  "I like Robert Zemeckis."

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Young Frankenstein

1974's YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is writer/director Mel Brooks' finest hour, hands down.  A beautifully directed, wholly affectionate parody of Universal Pictures' Frankenstein adaptations in the 1930s.  A lot of love, and perhaps more tellingly, restraint went into this motion picture.  It's a spoof that doesn't feel the need to assault the moviegoer with a gag every few seconds.  Contrast this with Brooks' 1981 opus HISTORY OF THE WORLD, PART I, which grows increasingly desperate in its efforts to make us chortle and guffaw, usually resorting to out and out vulgarity.  That film doesn't know when to quit, and runs out of gas long before its conclusion.  Perhaps Brooks was trying to cover too much ground.  We'll analyze it another day.

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN still has a plethora of jokes, not all of them successful (a few groaners), and for the most part uses innuendo as an occasional ingredient rather than as the main course.  Er, even with the "Schwanstucker".  Brooks and his lead actor and co-screenwriter Gene Wilder are far more interested in characterization and mood, very deftly evoking the feel of the old pictures.  The movie was shot in black and white, utilizes old school camera tricks, and features actual laboratory props from the original 1931 FRANKENSTEIN movie.  Wilder (as the reluctant physician of a dubious legacy) and cast are truly suited to their roles, especially misaligned eyed comedian Marty Feldman, who plays Dr. Frankenstein, ahem, Frahnk-en-steen's assistant Igor.

Well, by the time the good doctor travels to Transylvania to check on the family estate, he has given in to his checkered lineage.  His dismissal of the plausibililty of re-animating dead bodies changes after he reads his grandfather's old journals, and soon Frankenstein and Igor, aided by the shapely and flirtatious laboratory assistant Inga (Teri Garr), bring a rather large cadaver to life.  Unfortunately, Igor mucked up the doctor's instructions to retrieve the brain (from the local Brain Depository, of course) of a noted intellectual and instead brought home one from a jar marked "Abnormal".

What is interesting about YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is while it is consistently funny, it may not evoke all that many belly laughs. Certainly far less than some of Brooks other pictures.  This is a movie one smiles through more often than holding his or her sides.  The humorous possibilities build, are carefully laid and gel into "comedic interest" rather than are randomly dropped into a scene for an easy gag (most of the time).  Peter Boyle's performance as "The Monster" is wonderfully earthy yet graceful.  He's really skillful with his eyes, almost as much so as Feldman.

I particularly enjoyed moments with The Monster and the blind hermit, nicely played by Gene Hackman. With that scene and as with Boris Karloff long before him, we feel a certain sympathy and pity for The Monster, and Brooks never merely treats him as an endless gag.  There is a funny twist on that scene from the original film with the little girl by the lake.   And how he sings "Puttin' on the Ritz" does always make me laugh out loud.

P.S.  Kenneth Mars is quite amazing as Inspector Kemp, he of the exaggerated German accent and prosthetic arm.  His movements suggest that of a figurine, a wind up toy.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Sleepwalkers

There are really only two reasons to watch 1992's SLEEPWALKERS: the women and the cats.  Two of God's best, most beguiling creations.  One of the few things this movie manages to achieve with any degree of success is the utilization of these creatures for sheer intrigue.  You might take issue with my calling a woman a "creature", but "Mary Brady" (Alice Krige) is in fact a shape shifter, a sort of vampire whose source of fuel comes from virgin women.  She employs her son/lover "Charles" (Brian Krause) to use his good looks and charms to lure pretty young things back to their house for the refueling.

The incestuous pair (yes, there's a sex scene) have taken their act on the road, forced to vacate more than one town as in their wake they've left corpses....and trees filled with dead cats.  Felines are the Bradys' mortal enemies, for reasons that are never quite elucidated in Stephen King's original screenplay.  King (who has a cameo, of course) doesn't really explain much at all about these nomads, whose mirror reflections reveal the alien-looking beasts within. What of their lineage?  I guess it doesn't matter.  The movie establishes from its first scene that this will be nothing more than a dopey popcorn muncher.  Why is it when King writes for movies that his unusually perceptive takes on the human condition and psychology are muted, quite unlike that in his novels? SLEEPWALKERS and the King directed MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE are just so, dumb.

Most horror fans don't care, but films like SLEEPWALKERS don't help non-fans take this genre any more seriously.  Apparently King had some unfinished ideas for a short story or novella, and decided instead to write a screenplay.  The raw materials are there for a decent tale.  Director Mick Garris does competent work, but his staging of big moments is usually unexciting and by-the-numbers.  An example would be the graveyard scene, when latest would-be victim Tanya (Madchen Amick) suddenly realizes the cute guy in her creative writing class is not the beau she was looking for.   The struggle between them is blocked awkwardly, and the awful special effects certainly don't help.  In fact, cheesy visuals undermine several key scenes.  Were Tom Savini and Richard Edlund too busy for this gig?

Some of Garris' buddies in the biz, such as directors Tobe Hooper, Joe Dante, and John Landis, have brief, undistinguished cameos.  None are especially good actors.

Ms. Krige, however, does some effective work as the ghoulish matriarch.  She portrays the right dangerous mix of sexiness and otherworldliness.  Amick manages to be both cute and lust worthy.  That gang of cats forever hanging outside the Brady house also have their moments, though not enough of them.  Clovis is a real hero, though. 


P.S. Fans of FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF may enjoy two of the other casting choices.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Get Out

I watched this year's GET OUT the night before the violence unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia.  I had this film on my mind the entire weekend afterward. Timing.  Many feel that writer/director Jordan Peele's horror film was a runaway smash because it opened soon after the victory of Donald Trump.  The "Make America Great Again" a platitude at best, a thinly veiled call to the multitude of  racist Caucasians at worst to many Americans.  When a neo Nazi rammed his car into a crowd of counter protestors, after a day of demonstrations by white supremacists who carried tiki torches that appeared to be purchased from Bed, Bath, & Beyond,  this movie's themes loomed larger, more forboding, more resonant.

It's a horror film, with traditional scary music by Michael Abels and jump out the shadows scares.  A terrible moment of realization that your friend is actually your enemy.  There are also campy moments of mad doctor brain surgery, stabbings, impalings, and more.  Peele is paying homage to directors of several eras.  Had it been a "straight" terror pic with an empty head, it would've merely been an impressive calling card for a new talent.  But the director has created something far more ominous and thoughtful.  I'm pleased to at least think that the film was wildly popular because it touched a collective nerve, got folks talking.  Many thrillers mask political and social themes with shocks and mayhem, or at least use those elements to personify them.  What is the real terror out there?

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is joining his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) for a weekend at her parents' home in the country.  Potentially intimidating, especially for a black man dating a white girl.  Even in present day.  Dean (Bradley Whitford), a physician and Missy (Catherine Keener), a hypnotherapist are hospitable and warm, but something is odd about their African American help.  Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel) seem very Stepford like in their relentless politeness, speaking like those who are trying to put on a performance for listening ears while meanwhile plotting something.

What's happening? GET OUT is a film of surprises, so I won't reveal them.  The eventual explanations owe to the great traditions of horror and science fiction, and even as we plunge deeply into some pretty improbable and outrageous scenarios, the film is always driving home some pretty devastating points.  Peele's screenplay ingeniously uses historic events with real life notables to figure into the latter day plot, which again makes some uncomfortable proclamations about racism.  The more I think on the script, the more impressive it is, even if at first glance the movie is plotted like many a genre offering.

But look deeper.  And carefully.  Even the smallest of moments mean something, and go back the very real themes of discrimination, something sadly still faced by our brother and sisters of color.    Peale wants to entertain, and certainly does, but also wants you the feel uncomfortable for more reasons than your usual horror movie hangover.


Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Blob

SPOILERS!

I've always heard that 1958's THE BLOB was an allegory for Communism.  I guess you don't have to dig too deeply.  The film's antagonist, an ever expanding red colored glob of what resembles raspberry jam, engulfs residents of Everytown, U.S.A. before it is discovered that anything cold is the only defense.  It's all right there.  If you need any other overt signs, check the scene where a little boy, clad in cowboy duds, symbolically fires his cap guns at the blob, of course to no avail.

And other than grocery store freezers and carbon dioxide from fire extinguishers, nothing can stop this mysterious gelatinous blob, which originates within a meteorite and one night lands in a rural Pennsylvania town.  Local teens, led by twenty-seven year old "Steven" McQueen as Steve, try in vain to convince the police that something is out there, killing folks.  The reasonable Lieutenant (Earl Rowe) and his hard ass Sergeant (John Benson) have been pranked too many times in the past by these hot rodders to buy such a wild tale, especially since there is no trace of the blob or its victims. 

Criterion has included this low budget sci-fi/horror in its library and you may come to the conclusion of it wondering just why.  Historical significance, for sure.  All the political subtext, probably.  The screenwriters deny that they created anything other than a modest chiller meant to play the drive-in circuit, but again, the case can certainly be made.   THE BLOB is a fairly serious movie, with far fewer unintentional laughs than expected.  McQueen is just so earnest in the lead, though there is at least one moment where he appears to be holding in a chuckle.

Director Irvin Yeaworth does a workman's job, maintaining something that resembles suspense without actually making you feel that anxious. Admirably, he doesn't give us too many shots of the red mess.  Less is more. Less is more.  Yeaworth does wring an emotion or two when our heroes are trapped in the cellar of a diner.  Prior to that, the blob infiltrates the town cinema, interrupting that classic of expressionist terror, DAUGHTER OF HORROR.

Monday, October 2, 2017

It

The current IT is indeed one of the best filmed Stephen King adaptations. Faint praise? I cite THE SHINING, THE DEAD ZONE, STAND BY ME, MISERY, CARRIE, SALEM'S LOT, and a handful of others in that small class.  All classics to some degree.  The novel It was one of King's epic horrors that was more about how folks band together than perhaps the very thing that terrorized them.  But yes, the terror does often define them as well.  This would certainly be the case with this story of a group of adolescents in small town Maine who are scared shitless by a malevolent clown who hangs out in sewers and wells and scary old houses, waiting to lure children to a gruesome death.

I only saw bits and pieces of the miniseries that aired in the early '90s, so I can't comment on that.  I've heard that Tim Curry was quite animated as the clown. 

IT opens with a young boy tragically reaching out for his toy in a storm drain.  The evil known as Pennywise is there, and he seems to know a lot about Georgie, and his older brother Bill, who gave him the paper sailboat.  The clown mauls and abducts Georgie, who joins the many who mysteriously vanish in the town of Derry.  We'll learn later that over the past few hundred years, cycles of missing children plagued the town.  What is Pennywise anyway? Is he, er, it real? An embodiment of their fears?  Of everyone's?

The time period from the novel has been switched from the late 1950s to the late 1980s. This allows for some nifty period jokes and references for us Gen Xers.  Here is a rundown of most of our heroes, the "Losers' Club":

Bill (Jason Lieberher), who stutters, is the leader of a group of social outcasts who are chased by town bullies and trade the usual boy insults.  Richie (Finn Wolfhard) is the funniest, a smart and foul mouthed brat with huge glasses that overwhelm his face. Stan (Wyatt Oleff) is the son of a rabbi who is having difficulty focusing on his upcoming bar mitzvah due to his lack of interest.  Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) is the hypochondriac and germaphobe of the group.  He has a smothering mother who is clearly the source of such misery.  Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is the new kid who is painfully shy and overweight, an easy target for the bullies who call him "tits".  Mike (Chosen Jacobs) is the African American, homeschooled kid, a sensitive soul.  Bev (Sophia Lillis) is the one girl, who suffers an unfair reputation at school for promiscuity and very real sexual abuse from her father.

As many have stated, IT is like THE GOONIES in many ways, and the comparison is favorable and accurate.  Siimilarities to STAND BY ME are also inevitable.   IT plays best as an ode to friendship, to beating the odds, to never quitting, even when things are really, really bad.  To growing up.  Old hat cornball stuff, but it works.  The movie is well cast; the kids are endearing and most of the adults are portrayed effectively as either evil or worthless or both.  This is a kid's story after all.  And King really captured how a kid's story would be told, with outrageously heightened imagery.

The screenplay of IT (one of its writers is original director Cary Fukunaga) makes changes and omissions from the novel that in my opinion do not detract.  Director Andy Muschietti delivers the shock scenes with panache and serious intensity, although sometimes his film feels like a clumsy volley between the frightening and the heartwarming. Bill Skarsgard plays Pennywise with a terrifying ferocity, always out in the open, ready to scare the you know what out of everyone. We may see a bit too much of him, but he does in fact own every moment, CGI or not.  Skarsgard seems to have a good handle on how this particular brand of evil would act as a clown manifestation.

Overall, this movie delivers the goods, and is finally just good old fashioned scary fun.  The end credits inform us that we just watched Chapter One.  You do know this story picks up years later, when the kids are adults, right? We'll see if the producers milk this franchise for more than one sequel.  Or a miniseries...

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Horror Month '17

I never planned for this to be an annual thing, but here we are once again. Horror month!  This October will be devoted exclusively to films designed to make you shudder and clutch your date, should you be blesssed with one.  Maybe laugh, too, intentionally or otherwise.  There is one spoof among the offerings.  A Stephen King adaptation, and another that the author penned for the screen himself.  Another is a highly regarded classic piece of camp. There is also a very socially conscious thriller.  An Iranian "horror" film.  A Canadian one, too.  Two of the films were released this year.  I don't see many contemporary chillers, but these are worth the time.

Turn down the lights and enjoy!