Wednesday, October 22, 2014

John Dies at the End


You might wonder what acclaimed actor Paul Giamatti is doing in 2012's  horror/comedy film, JOHN DIES AT THE END. A low budget, recently minted cult item based on a way out there 2001 novel by David Wong and directed by Don Coscarelli, the guy responsible for the ridiculous PHANTASM franchise and the sleeper BUBBA HO-TEP. Is Giamatti slumming? The answer comes from the horse's mouth during one of the DVD's extras: "I wanted to do a monster reaction scene. Most scripts bore me after 5 pages in. This one was unpredictable."

No argument there. JOHN DIES AT THE END, which we'll henceforth refer to as JDATE for brevity's (and tired digits') sake, is an insane pastiche of science fiction and blood and guts horror. But also certainly a comedy, often funnier than most straight ones.  It proves to have many enviable, sometimes crazily brilliant, ideas, but is a real mess. It plays like a mash up of inspiration via the original EVIL DEAD, BUCKAROO BANZAI, and NAKED LUNCH, with which it shares a fascination with bugs.  Lots of bugs.

David (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes), who perhaps not by accident reminded me of the TV show Psych, are best friends with psychic powers. They are first seen attempting to assist a woman who reports being harassed by her boyfriend, who's dead. The duo discuss the case and begin to realize they see the woman's features quite differently. It is at this point that the woman transforms into a monster comprised of frozen meat. A doorknob in the room turns into a penis. To the rescue is TV psychic Albert Marconi (Clancy Brown), who destroys the monster over the telephone. I detail this so as for you to decide early on in this review if this movie is for you.

The plot develops with many further amusingly disgusting set pieces. How many films have you seen with a bratwurst used as a telephone? The catalyst for trips into other dimensions and omnipresence that figure prominently in JDATE is an injectable drug known as "soy sauce", sold to John by a Jamaican dealer named Robert Marley (Tai Bennett). The resulting delusions come rapidly for both John and David, and the drug will prove helpful in the navigation of a plan to overthrow a militaristic computer called Korrok, found beyond the "ghost door". A dog called "Bark Lee" is a key ally in the plan.

The entire story, by the way, is told in flashback by David to a skeptical reporter named Arnie (Giamatti) in a restaurant. Arnie repeatedly has to be convinced of David's alleged powers, which does include that monster reaction scene.  And what of Arnie's certainty that he is a black man?

Got all that? Coscarelli's script makes it all somewhat clear, not that hard to follow.  But transitions among scenes are rough. JDATE plays like a collection of mostly good moments, but the film jumps from one bit of oddity to the next with little continuity. Like a series of goofy short subjects. By the time we reach the very last scene, a funny bit where David and John leave a group of rebels (in need of assistance to save their world) in midsentence because they're so verbose and annoying, I was smiling but strangely dissatisfied.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Thing from Another World

I sat down to view 1951's THE THING (FROM ANOTHER WORLD) and was quite surprised to see the film's title burning into the screen, much the way it had in John Carpenter's 1982 remake. I don't know why I was so taken aback by it. Maybe I was wasn't expecting this '50s sci-fi/horror flick to resemble the newer film in any possible way. Like it would simply be 100% laughable cheese. The '82 THING set new highs (or lows) in icky special effects, and had a tone of dread that kept me on edge its entire running time. It was another film a 13 year old probably shouldn't have been watching.

I only recently saw THE THING (FROM ANOTHER WORLD), which is based on the Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell (nee Don A. Stuart) after years of reading about it. The great Howard Hawks' name was usually mentioned. He did not direct (although there are reports to the contrary) but rather did an uncredited co-write with Ben Hecht! As with pretty much every film of this type in the 1950s, the anti-Communism metaphors waft strongly. A character even barks: "Tell the world. Tell this to everybody, wherever they are. Watch the skies everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies."
The movie is unabashedly pro military, but additionally casts squinted eyes toward the reckless blind embrace of science and technology in a society still reeling from the Manhattan Project. And what of the dangers of playing God?

Air Force crew and scientists gather in Alaska to investigate the downing of what they believe is a U.F.O.  They accidentally destroy the aircraft but retrieve its passenger in a block of ice. A radioactive, man-sized figure, capable of decision making and discovered later to be a form of plant life. Puzzling though, as it feeds on the blood of sled dogs and eventually some of the crew. Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) learns the creature needs the blood to survive and reproduce. He will covertly acquire seed pods left by the alien and attempt incubate new plant life from them. An amazing discovery. But after some men are killed, the military just wants to put the thing down.

Given the talent behind the typewriter, THE THING has more than a few inferences of larger issues than "who goes there." It isn't only interested in cheap shocks. And while the movie is essentially cheerleading our armed forces and casting suspicion toward investigative science, the more rational among the academics on the crew win out, displaying a cautiousness with meddling with "things" beyond our comprehension. You can take that last sentence as you will, as its very declaration may raise on a few hairs on your necks, invisible audience.

The movie is still a campy thriller. There are laugh out loud implausibilities (watch the way that door swings when the thing enters) and a silly romantic subplot that actually involves tying up one's beloved! Surprisingly kinky for its era. But the most curious flaw of THE THING? Non-stop dialogue. Sometimes overlapping. All of it ridiculous. No Pulitzers for words here. The talking more than once undermines potential suspense. Particularly that reporter. Maybe you should just mute the movie and queue up Dark Side of the Moon.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Brood


Writer/director David Cronenberg describes his 1979 film THE BROOD as a "twisted version of KRAMER VS. KRAMER". I don't know what sort of visions that conjures for you, invisible audience, but aside from an absence of courtroom scenes, that's pretty accurate.  To know that Cronenberg was in the midst of an ugly divorce while he concocted this movie will immeasurably add to its poignancy. Yes, THE BROOD, for all of its blood and guts reputation is at its core a deeply felt drama of a torn apart family. Also, of unchecked rage, depression, and psychosis.

And there is blood and gore. A climax that will repel many viewers. I knew what was coming and still found myself open mouthed. It is as effective an image as I can recall in a film. I wouldn't change a frame of it.

Frank Corveth (Art Hindle) worries over his five year old daughter Candice, who is revealed during bath time to be covered in bruises. She had just spent a weekend with her mother Nola (Samantha Eggar) who is in deep therapy at the Somafree Institute, run by the suspicious but oddly reassuring Dr. Raglan (Oliver Reed). Raglan uses role playing to get to the seat of his patients' illnesses. During an arresting opening sequence, the doctor works with a very troubled young man who exhibits serious abandonment and paternal issues. Raglan assumes the role of the father, completely belittling the man/boy.  At first, we're not sure who they are. The scene is harshly lit, as if we're seeing actors on a stage. Cronenberg then cuts to an audience. Raglan is demonstrating his methods to the public. This is as effective a manner in which to introduce the doctor as I can imagine.

Frank and Candice are reconciling a pending divorce and custody battle. The father wants to make the case that his soon to be ex is not even fit to have visitation rights due to her extreme mental state, as she rarely leaves her room at Somafree. During a series of appointments with Raglan, Nola reveals a childhood of abuse and neglect, traits she may well be capable of passing on to her own brood, er, offspring. I don't want to give too much away, here......

Grisly murders are committed by what appear to be children clad in snow jackets (like most Cronenberg movies, it takes place in Canada). Eventually we learn the pint sized killers are some sort of mutants, with harelips and no belly buttons. Candice's grandparents and school teacher are beaten to death with meat tenderizers, glass tchotchkes, and toy hammers. Who/what are these mutants and how do they relate to the other characters?

You'll find out, if you dare watch. This film is, like so many of the director's pictures, very unpleasant and uncomfortable. Sometimes horrifying. Primarily for the violence but this time the psychological elements are far more disturbing. You cannot accuse the director of shying from the darker impulses that can erode marriage and parenthood: toxic jealousy, bitterness, and selfishness that sometimes even drive these roles. Some may find the ideas misogynistic, and perhaps there's a case for that. This is Cronenberg's side of the story. I wonder what his ex's take would look like?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Gone Girl

NOTE: While the film profiled here may not be technically classified as "horror" in any traditional sense, anyone who has seen it may rightly take issue.  I feel it most certainly has a place in this month's series.

I'm likely forgetting many titles but not since 1989's WAR OF THE ROSES have I witnessed such a bitter, cynical, despairing view of marriage in a film. GONE GIRL, an adaptation of the bestselling novel by the author herself, Gilian Flynn, is a brutal, fascinating, engrossing, and sometimes acidly funny analysis of matrimony that is most certainly not recommended for engaged couples or anyone considering this holiest of unions. I did not read the book, but it's hard to imagine a darker examination of the dynamics of man and wife than what David Fincher's newest film displays.

Following what may be the most rapidly fading opening credits I've seen, GONE GIRL plunges into its "missing person" tale, nominally the kind seen in the news or true crime docs. To wit, as Jimmy Fallon interviewed lead actor Ben Affleck recently, he described this movie as "like the coolest episode of Dateline you've ever seen." Detailing the plot may lead you to agree, though the film also takes television to task as it eviscerates the way the media portrays and shapes the public's perception of those guilty or otherwise unfortunate souls who are accused of some crime.

Affleck plays Nick Dunne, a regular guy who had successfully wooed an upper crust Manhattanite named Amy (Rosamund Pike) into marriage and seeming bliss. On the afternoon of their fifth anniversary, Nick returns home to find a shattered coffee table and a missing wife. Detectives Boney and Gilpin (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) arrive to note more subtle evidence around the house, possibly suggesting a violent struggle and bloodletting that had been somewhat carelessly managed.  Nick is not arrested but hounded for his suspected involvement. A press conference and soon nationwide coverage cast an ever shifting light on Nick, abetted by the relentless coverage by a Nancy Grace-type talk show host, Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle, in a precise performance). Also, Sela Ward (and nice to see her in a feature!) plays an Oprah-like cable host who interviews Nick, an expected hatchet job that goes quite differently.

In flashback we quickly learn how deceiving the Dunnes' facade was. Early, playful honeymoon teasing soon gives way not only to financial difficulties and family problems but also festering resentment and emotional abuse.  Possibly physical as well. How is it that Nick was so clueless about his wife? Her friends? The fact that she was pregnant?  But each flashback is from Amy's point of view, an important consideration.  These scenes paint some bleak, perhaps uncomfortably real moments as when after husband subjects wife to quick, joyless sex and then flippantly inquires, "How about Outback tonight?".

Eventually, there will be a scene that reveals how and why Amy went missing. What we learn is as revealing as it is depressing. And no, invisible audience, I am not revealing any more. To spoil this movie's secrets will truly subtract from the experience.

And thus it is difficult to discuss GONE GIRL without analyzing those later scenes, its labyrinthine plotting and scathing indictments of a relationship turned sour. But soon, even more disturbingly, you learn that despite all of the negative, harsh observations this is still a love story, albeit an alarmingly twisted one. Perhaps, sadly, characteristic of many contemporary couplings. The discussions of how one transforms him or herself into what they think their mate wants is especially trenchant.  There were moments when the film's (particularly one character's) cynicism was so concentrated I almost gasped. I kept wondering what happened to Flynn to prompt her to create such a downbeat story. How can we get such a clear, internal gape into the mind of unspeakable hurt and pain and calculated evil unless the author had experienced something akin to this herself? I have not read any interviews, so maybe you can tell me?

The film's ultimate cynicism about both Federal and local law enforcement is also quite disheartening. As you ponder that, you may start finding flaws in the patchwork. GONE GIRL is not an airtight thriller, rather more of painful social treatise.

Fincher, one of the few mainstream directors who can be called an artist, surprised me this time with unusually subdued direction, despite reports that again he subjected actors to as many as fifty takes of one scene. Aside from a few stunning shots - the emergence of a character drenched in blood from a car and a sex scene shot overhead that makes the female appear as like a spider devouring her prey - there is little of the sort of fluid style the director has employed so many times before in films such as FIGHT CLUB and ZODIAC.  Even THE SOCIAL NETWORK is flashier. I think I will appreciate Fincher's restraint with GONE GIRL more when I see it again. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross again provide a perfect score, also almost minimalist, and eerier than ever.

The performances are across the board fine, including (surprisingly) Tyler Perry as an attorney who specializes in accused husbands and Carrie Coon as Nick's twin sister. Neil Patrick Harris is the right sort of creepy for his part as Amy's childhood ex. Affleck is perfectly cast in an Everyman role, far from innocent though not necessarily guilty. As for Pike - well, her knockout turn is undeniably strong, and will haunt you long afterward. "They'll" be talking about it for years to come.

Thursday, October 9, 2014


I remember tearing through the pages of Stephen King's novel Christine during the summer of 1983.  It was compulsively readable and highly suspenseful. I devoured King's books in those days. Christine had the novelty of shifting points of view: the first and third sections were narrated by the main character's best friend while the middle was icily omniscient. It made for interesting comparative takes on this spine tingling tale of obsession. Both portals clearly observed a high school nerd named Arnie, your garden variety loser who was crater faced, bad at sports, inept with girls, etc. Until he buys a junked out old 1958 Plymouth Fury from a hayseed named George Lebay.

The book goes to great length over its many pages to explain why this rust bucket has a life of its own, how it can suddenly gleam with beauty as if right out of the showroom and repair itself after accidents. The automobile is possessed by the spirit of its original owner, George's deceased brother Roland Lebay, a real old cuss, a jackal. 1983's CHRISTINE jettisons this idea by making the vehicle, named "Christine", inherently evil, right down to its spark plugs. That's it, no further explanation. In the opening scene, set to George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone" (a song so overused in early '80s movies it deserved a moratorium), the car injures one guy and kills another while still on the assembly line.

Arnie (Keith Gordon) is given a serious confidence boost by his new ride. He wins a cheerleader girlfriend Leigh (Alexandra Paul) but also gains considerable arrogance. The sweet kid becomes a real cocky SOB, even cussing out his poor parents. And soon, those punks at school who bullied him end up under Christine's grill. Was Arnie at the wheel? Can Leigh and Arnie's best friend Dennis (John Stockwell) save him from the deep end, the evil (and possession) emanated by Christine?

King wrote a few stories like this, of inanimate objects taking on a murderous lives of their own. If you want a real trash classic, watch MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, a film King directed himself (none too well).

CHRISTINE has John Carpenter, in what feels like a "director for hire" gig, ably steering this movie for a satisfying couple of hours. As King adaptations go, it's pretty good. Certainly better than the awful CUJO or the so-so FIRESTARTER, though not as good as THE DEAD ZONE or CARRIE or STAND BY ME. Carpenter again sports a strong visual sense, aided by Donald M. Morgan's crisp cinematography and excellent special effects. Bill Phillip's screenplay of course has to pare down miles of exposition and backstory but the pains of high school life are effectively evoked in the early scenes, before the spectacle overwhelms the picture. What is lost is the dynamic of Arnie's shift from pimply loner to near psycho. It happens too quickly in this movie. The book allowed us to see the sad metamorphoses with uncommon insight.  But there were a lot of pages in which to do it.

So we're left with a slick, good looking Hollywood entertainment that remains watchable after 30 years. Splendidly spooky.  And way better another other thriller involving a homicidal vehicle, 1977's THE CAR, though not as compelling as 1971's DUEL, an early Spielberg picture. I'm a bit curious to see how well King's novel reads these days.

Monday, October 6, 2014


1981's SCANNERS boasts one of the most iconic images in cinema history: that exploding head. You've probably seen it. You can easily Google the still or play a video file. Many forum posters have used it as their avatar. It has been played so many times its gruesome surprise has long since dulled. Inexplicably, even one of the film's trailers - included as an extra on the recent Criterion package - revealed the spectacle. But I can imagine the shock for first time viewers, a moment so unexpected and brutal that disbelief and queasiness may have quickly turned to nervous laughter.

A behind-the-scenes doc on the disc describes how director David Cronenberg's crew had tried several methods to achieve a realistic scene, but it wasn't until someone angled a shotgun loaded with rock salt behind the head prosthesis (packed with junk food) to get the dramatic splatter that made the final cut.

                          NOTE:  Tedious plot summary ahead

SCANNERS uses the familiar theme of telepathy to propel its story of a drifter named Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) who is discovered to be a "scanner" - not merely someone who can read minds and hear thoughts but also to have control over the functions of their organs. Think cardiac.  The ConSec organization is working with scanners and even has one on staff (Louis Del Grande) who, during an attempted demonstration of the process, loses his head in that disgusting way after he learns way too late that his volunteer is a powerful scanner called Daryl Revok (Michael Ironside).

Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) is ConSec's head research scientist who recruits Vale to find Revok, believed to be the leader of an underground group of scanners. Vale connects with others of his kind, most of whom are violently dispatched by Revok's unwitting, otherwise innocent scanned victims who brandish firearms.

Kim Obrist (Jennifer O'Neill) is the anti-Revok, the leader of a group of "good" scanners. She and Vale learn of Revok's ties to a pharamaceutical company called Biocarbon Amalgamate, producer of Ephemrol, an injectable that can quiet those multiple voices in a scanner's brain. They also learn how Dr. Ruth (stop laughing) is connected to all this. A gory showdown between Vale and Revok closes the movie - a bravura meltdown (in every possible sense of the word) with impressive makeup work by Dick Smith.

Like most Cronenberg films, SCANNERS maintains a chilly tone throughout, a straight faced narrative filled with scientific jargon and a fascination with anatomy and physiology. There is a reason why his early films (aside from FAST COMANY, a race car drama) are termed "body horror". Many of the director's other features have sexual preoccupations, but SCANNERS sports no phallic or invaginated portals or discomforting gynecology. Rather, the neurological bases are most essential to this plot, and how the nervous system can be controlled.  Computer science too, as one sequence has Vale attempting to "scan" a computer's CNS.

SCANNERS plays like standard chase thriller most of the time, with corporate espionage sprinkled throughout. There is nothing especially remarkable about Cronenberg's screenplay, which was still being written as he was filming due to a very rushed schedule, but his tone is so patented, so fascinating, a real piece with his other work. Serious, anti-establishment themes bubble underneath the lurid imagery. The performances range from barely passable to impressive, with Ironside the latter, though we don't see enough of him. The actor gives an interesting look back in the Criterion supplements. 

And Criterion did another fine job with this release; never has this low budgeter ever looked so good. They did what they could with the monoaural soundtrack.  And those menu graphics! So perfect! Also, observe the cover and insert art....


Thursday, October 2, 2014

Berberian Sound Studio

It is quite appropriate that 2013's BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO is one scary sounding movie.  One of the most discomforting, eerie soundtracks I can remember. I listened to it on headphones (so as not to disturb my wife) and the sound mix was amazing; it allowed far more than would've been audible otherwise. The film's plot involves a sound engineer hired to work on an Italian horror flick, or giallo. It is sometime in the 1970s, when effects were sometimes achieved by snapping twigs, stabbing cabbages, and splattering fruit in the studio. The filmmakers, a pair of obnoxiously Alpha male Italianos, are trying unsuccessfully to get that perfect scream from their actresses, astonishingly beautiful women described by one of the lotharios as "being able to give even a dog a hard on."

Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a Brit who is selected by the filmmakers for his expertise in the foley arts. Likely also because he seems like a nebbish, weak, and easily intimidated. He flies to Italy under the impression he is to work on an art film about horses called THE EQUESTRIAN VORTEX. Within minutes he learns otherwise. That he is to provide his skills to a gory quickie filled with torture scenes. But the director, Santini (Antonio Mancino), gets very offended when Gilderoy refers to his masterpiece as a "horror film", following with a rather defensive lecture to the befuddled man.

Gilderoy is mistreated, questioned for his choices, condescended to. The promised reimbursement for his flight is repeatedly delayed. When he's had enough and finds some courage to stand up to the company, strange things begin to occur. The airline can find no record that he made the flight.  Weird visions abound. He will become as cruel as his producers, torturing an actress in a sound booth with screechingly high frequency noise as she tries to perfect those screams. Gilderoy eventually begins to find or imagine the film he is working on is actually starring himself.  Things get pretty off-the-wall in the last half hour. The final scene will be maddeningly inconclusive to some viewers, but it made perfect sense to me.

Writer/director Peter Strickland's BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO is quite successful as an ode to the giallos of the '70s. Or at least to the process behind the making of one. The sort of pictures Dario Argento and Mario Bava created. Film buffs should eat it up, with its peek behind the curtain of low budget post-production. Multiple shots of reels and cue cards. Those familiar with Italian cinema of this ilk will yield the most enjoyment, but the many nods to David Lynch, existential '70s movies like TWO LANE BLACKTOP and the obvious similarities to Brian DePalma's BLOW OUT will sustain others.

This is a rare contemporary suspense movie that never resorts to gimmicky violence or cheap thrills, the kind you would see in a giallo, in fact. We never see a frame of EQUESTRIAN VORTEX.  But we do hear it. It's enough.