Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Innocent Blood

1992's INNOCENT BLOOD is really the only film directed by John Landis from that decade worth watching. What with OSCAR, THE STUPIDS, SUSAN'S PLAN and the abortive sequels BEVERLY HILLS COP 3 and BLUES BROTHERS 2000, things were pretty grim for the guy who'd overseen the anarchic classics ANIMAL HOUSE and THE BLUES BROTHERS years earlier. In '81, Landis filmed one of his old scripts, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, and turned it into an exemplary exercise in the fusion of full throttle terror and humour, with some hair raising makeup effects to boot.  The director displayed real skill in keeping his audience on edge and making them guffaw at key moments.  Does INNOCENT BLOOD repeat this sort of success?

Not really, but it's a game attempt. The premise is promising. An alluring French vampire named Marie (Anne Parrilaud) hovers around Pittsburgh seeking fresh necks on which to feed. Unlike other cinematic bloodsuckers, she discriminates by targeting only those she feels are deserving: criminals and the like.  As she concentrates around the "Little Italy" section of town, she finds more than enough mobsters ("Italian food", one of the film's running gags) to sustain her. 

When Marie gets her fangs on the Boss, Sal "The Shark" Macelli (Robert Loggia), what was to be a sort of main course for our undead heroine goes seriously awry when she is interrupted, leaving Sal rather to becoming infected, to become a vampire himself. Soon, he spreads the wealth to his henchmen, some of whom are played by actors seen in GOODFELLAS and would later star in HBO's The Sopranos.  The wonderfully named Tony Lip in fact also had roles in THE GODFATHER and RAGING BULL. Marie eventually meets and teams up with an undercover cop (Anthony LaPaglia) to stop the wave of carnage.  Unsurprisingly, the two also become lovers.

Michael Wolk's screenplay is pure B-movie, filled with violence and gore, truckloads of profanity, and sex scenes.  All of which are right up Landis' alley, and these elements are stylishly employed in what amounts to little more than a programmer, a mildly entertaining time waster.  Landis still knows how to create an atmosphere of dread, to milk a scare (he also directed some horror for TV). There are a few unique ideas here and there, but if you want a mystical, thoughtful take on vampire lore, watch INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE or NOSFERATU instead. INNOCENT BLOOD exists only to amuse. While a major studio film, it still plays like a midrange exploitation pic, albeit with  great special effects and cinematography. Landis buffs will find his usual trademarks: walk-ons by film directors (such as, appropriately, Dario Argento), characters watching old movies on TV, and even an auto wreck or two.

The cast is well chosen. Parrilaud was hot off LA FEMME NIKITA and displays remarkable physicality in action scenes, and uh, during other moments. LaPaglia seems to be sleepwalking and apathetic but the solid supporting cast adds zest, especially Loggia, born to play the vicious Sal, a brutal killer who becomes superhumanly brutal. Character actor Luis Guzman and none other than Don Rickles have funny scenes.  B-queen Linnea Quigley plays a nurse, and those scenes in the hospital are a hoot.

Comparisons to AMERICAN WEREWOLF are inevitable, but INNOCENT BLOOD does not have that film's timing, pacing, savviness, or dare I say, heart? You grew to care for those characters, and the movie's tragic ending stung a bit.  BLOOD is an in the moment thriller that evaporates very soon after its conclusion.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Silent Rage

1982's SILENT RAGE, while being yet another in a cycle of Chuck Norris vehicles where the former kickboxing champion gets to beat the hell out of people, is actually a horror movie. The only one in Chuck's oeuvre, I think. Therefore, I am including it in this month's series.

It was also the first R-rated film I ever saw in a movie theater. On my 13th birthday, in fact. My friend and his mother took me. They had already seen it and were eager to gauge my reaction. I was wide-eyed and a little nervous. I think I was worried my parents or youth minister or even Jesus would bust in and drag me out by my ear. SILENT RAGE was filled with violence, but more scandalously, there was some nudity and sex. Things that the people in my world repeatedly stated were the really sinful elements in entertainment. Syringes plunged into necks and repeated roundhouse kicks to the skull? No problem!

The story: psycho John Kirby (Brian Libby) kills his family and is later shot down by Sheriff Dan Stevens (Norris) and his tubby partner Charlie (Stephen Furst, "Flounder" from ANIMAL HOUSE). Hovering near death, Kirby is taken an institute where a psychiatrist named Halman (Ron Silver) and two medical doctors/geneticists work. Seems they've been experimenting with some mysterious serum. After some bickering about ethics, one of the docs decides to try it on Kirby, who soon revives and becomes an unstoppable killing machine. What follows is your typical killer on the loose scenario, with gory deaths, unintentional laughs, and gratuitous love scenes.

But this is also a Chuck Norris movie, so we also get a scene in a dive bar where an entire motorcycle gang is beaten to a pulp by our hero. Well, not until after one of the biker chicks flashes her tattooed breasts to Charlie, who races outside and excitedly calls his friend while Stevens does his business. The climax of the scene is of a chopper crashing through a window in slow motion after its rider is knocked off.  Pretty dramatic, I'll say.

I re-watched SILENT RAGE not long ago and of course I found it ridiculous and indefensible. Low grade trash. Entertaining and atmospheric, though. Director Michael Miller even does a decent job of making the film creepy. All descriptors I could use for any slasher film of the early '80s. You might expect this film to be a strange mix of blood and martial arts, but it blends more successfully than you might think. Probably even moreso after you've broken the seals of several bottles of Olde English 808. Fans of Chuck and horror should have a decent time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

John Dies at the End

Spoilers!!

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

Spoilers

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

Christine

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.