Friday, October 29, 2021

In It For the Kills

Halloween Kills (2021)

I guess you could call it an epiphany. While I was watching Halloween Kills (2021, directed by David Gordon Green), I realized that the artfulness of a slasher movie doesn't matter to its audience. You could say I've been blind to what slasher movies actually are, and maybe I have been. I admit that I've never understood the appeal, except on the rare occasions when the filmmaking is sharp and the sensibility behind the camera has actual ambitions beyond the red meat of the sub-genre. It's purely an accident that the foundational film in the category is a genuine work of art, one that's informed as much by autumnal melancholy and cinematic legerdemain as it is by teenage sadism. It barely spills even a drop of blood. Maybe that's why its inheritors refuse to learn anything from it. Not enough Christians for the lions.

So now we have this film. It was inevitable that a sequel to the 2018 Halloween would be made once that movie raked in summer blockbuster money, and it was perhaps inevitable that the same talent would be attached. It's more of the same; it's more of more of the night HE came home, if you will. In truth, I like this film a little better than its predecessor. I thought that film completely immolated itself with one colossally dumb plot twist. This film has no comparable moment. I enjoyed some of the metacinematic touches in this one, too, which reach just beyond aping moments in John Carpenter's original, while connecting it to the broader roots of the horror genre. Mind you, there are a lot of things connecting this film to Carpenter's original and to the original film's first couple of sequels. This is as much an homage as it is a (not so new) new narrative. If cinema going forward is going to be a recursive echo chamber selling you the same experiences again and again, then this film is a state of the art example. If you want something new, like a story about a latter day druid killing a generation of kids with sinister masks, then you will be left wanting.

I admit that I am swayed a bit by the circumstances under which I saw the film--as the first half of a double feature at a drive-in theater as god intended. That counts for a bit. But the overall film? Well, maybe not so much.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Going Ape

I must have been in a bad mood when I saw Kong: Skull Island (2017, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts) when it was in theaters because I didn't like it very much at the time. I remember grousing about the distinct lack of dinosaurs in the film, and that's a rule I apply to any King Kong movie. There must be dinosaurs. It's one of the reasons I dislike the 1976 De Laurentis Kong so intensely. No dinosaurs. None. All we got was a giant snake and I think Carlo Rambaldi may have re-used that snake for Conan the Barbarian. Don't quote me on that. For what it's worth, the lack of dinosaurs is by no means the only reason I dislike that film. In any event, Kong: Skull Island at least has the courtesy to replace the dinosaurs with monsters, so that's some consolation. I probably let my prejudices blind me to the very real virtues the film surely does possess. Of the Monsterverse films, this is the one with the best cast of human actors, and it does the most with them. It also has an antic sense of metacinema that crops up in unexpected places. None of this should be dismissed just because I don't get my fill of ape on dino mayhem. It's not a bad film by any stretch. As corporate franchise product, it could be a lot worse.

Sunday, October 03, 2021

It's Not a Tumor!

Malignant (2021)

I wasn't expecting much of Malignant (2021, directed by James Wan). The film has received withering reviews from other quarters and my own experience with James Wan's other horror movies has been indifferent to actively hostile. So imagine my surprise when I found myself cackling like a maniac when the film turned its cards face up and let its freak flag fly. I wasn't expecting a movie that so gleefully followed its muse over the cliff, but by golly, when that moment arrived I was ride or die for the duration. Mind you, I don't want to suggest that Malignant is a "good" movie. It's not, really. James Wan is still who he is and the movie is still burdened with the family über alles moralizing Wan picked up in the Insidious and Conjuring and Fast and Furious movies, but the raw materials? Oh, mercy!

Saturday, October 02, 2021

Creature Stole My Twinkie

The Monster Squad

Fifty-two horror and mystery movies made before 1948 were licensed for television in 1957, including the Universal horror movies like Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Invisible Man. The famous "Shock Theater" package (Twenty more followed the next year). On television, they became a huge hit all over again and were part of the spark of the Gothic horror movie revival of the late 1950s. One of the side effects of this package was the creation of a subculture of horror fans, particularly among young people. The so-called "Monster Kids" were a phenomenon throughout the decade that followed, providing a reliable audience for the Hammer films and Corman Poe films and Italian horror movies that filled the drive-in movie circuit in the next decade. The phenomenon spilled over into broader pop culture, too, resulting in horror-themed television shows (The Addams Family and The Munsters and Dark Shadows), horror imagery in car culture (also in The Munsters), cereal festooned with cartoon versions of the classic Universal monsters, glow-in the dark model kits, and dedicated horror culture magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland and Castle of Frankenstein (and belatedly, Fangoria). Eventually, the monster kids began to be an element in horror media, in a kind of feedback loop. Stephen King was a monster kid and one of the protagonists in his novel, 'Salem's Lot, is a monster kid. Eventually, they started to show up in movies. You had entire generations of kids who knew the "rules" of horror movies, and you couldn't just ignore them if you made a monster movie. You see this in films like The Lost Boys and The Goonies, arguably The Blob, and (tangentially) Fright Night. The living end of this phenomenon is Wes Craven's Scream, which explicitly lays out the "rules" of slasher films in the text of the film, but that's a late mutation of the monster kids. The traditional monster kid phenomenon was largely spent by the late 1980s. Universal has been trying to revive interest in its traditional monster movies for the last couple of decades with indifferent results, but it seems that the world has moved on from that kind of horror movie. Even the monster kid movies in the 1980s seem like nostalgia pieces when they weren't actively trying to integrate with more contemporary horror movie imagery. Fred Dekker's The Monster Squad (1987) seems like a nostalgia piece. It certainly feels that way to this particular Gen X viewer.

Saturday, June 05, 2021

A Dragon and His Wrath

Jason Statham in Wrath of Man (2021)

Thou hadst been better have been born a dog
Than answer my waked wrath! 

--Williams Shakespeare, Othello, Act III, Scene III

Guy Ritchie's The Gentlemen was one of the last films I saw before the Covid pandemic closed the theaters. That film was pretty good, and on brand for Ritchie who has always been a deft hand at the achronological semi-comic crime thriller. The theaters are open again, finally, and I've been vaccinated against the virus, so I finally returned to in-person movies at a goddamn theater on Memorial Day, 2021, after the longest absence from moviegoing in my entire long life. As it so happens, the film I chose to see is another Guy Ritchie film: the doom-haunted Wrath of Man (2021), and it suggests that Ritchie could dispense with shit like live-action Disney remakes and King Arthur rehashes and spend the rest of his career playing variations on crime cinema. On the evidence, he would never exhaust the possibilities of the form. Wrath of Man is as different a film from The Gentlemen as you can imagine for being essentially the same damned thing. Like The Gentlemen, it pulls its central events apart and rewinds through multiple perspectives to view them from an almost cubistic perspective. Both of them are crime films. But where The Gentlemen is nimble and fairly light, with jokes aplenty, watching Wrath of Man is like watching a tornado approaching your house and you're in its path without a storm shelter. The gloom is only the precursor to the calamity. It's a stone-faced revenge tragedy that doesn't bother with niceties like humor or sympathetic characters. Its protagonist isn't a hero so much as he's an elemental force. He most reminds me of Clint Eastwood's revenant gunslinger in High Plains Drifter. But even that film cracked a smile once in a while.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Couple's Therapy

Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden in Jakob's Wife

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if Brian De Palma had cast Barbara Crampton as the lead in Body Double, rather than as Craig Wasson's faithless girlfriend. It was Crampton's first film role, and her one scene in the film only asked her to take her clothes off for the part. Crampton, for her part, has proven to be a more capable actress than either of that film's ostensible leading ladies. Deborah Shelton had her lines dubbed by another actress in the movie (perhaps as one of the film's metacinematic in-jokes), while Melanie Griffith was launched into the big time with indifferent results. One wonders what Crampton might have made of that kind of career launch. For her part, Crampton attained cult immortality in Chopping Mall, and in a trio of films for Stuart Gordon. I'll take her performance in From Beyond over any performance ever given by Melanie Griffith, thank you very much. She worked for years in soap operas after that and then vanished from the screen for a decade or so in order to raise a family. She could have slipped quietly into obscurity had Adam Wingard not cast her as one of the victims in You're Next. What followed was an unlikely career resurrection that has seen Crampton expand her cult immortality in a series of daring horror movies. The capstone for this resurrection is Jakob's Wife (2021, directed by Travis Stevens), which Crampton produced herself and which co-stars fellow horror luminary, Larry Fessenden.

Monday, February 01, 2021

Hammer Time

Mortal (2020)

In the mostly silent opening of André Øvredal's latest film, Mortal (2020), there is a huge sense of landscape. Even once the film moves out of its initial wilderness about ten minutes in, the landscape is ever-present. Filmed on location near a couple of Norway's more scenic fjords, it acts as a tourist promo to a point that I said to my long-suffering partner--who was folding laundry in the other room at the time--"What do you think about moving to Norway?" "What's in Norway?" she asked. "Fjords! This movie is gorgeous!" She waited two beats before answering: "So you're pining for the fjords?" She has excellent timing.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

End of the World Blues

Starfish (2018)

The thing about doomsday is that it's always the end of somebody's world. "Eschatology" is a big word for a commonplace experience that comes for everyone eventually. As I write this in the dwindling months of 2020, huddled away in my house like I'm taking refuge from a zombie apocalypse during a plague year that is this generation's great calamity, I've been feeling that old millennial unease settle into my bones. The world really does feel like it's winding down, like the people I know are the last generations of humankind before pestilence and climate change wipe the world clean with fire and hurricanes and Covid-19, to say nothing of the other man-made ills that afflict the planet and the body politic. As always, the horror movies of the present moment reflect and interpret this reality, presenting apocalypses both small and personal and cosmic, with a range of flavors in between.

One such film is Starfish (2018, directed by A. T. White). It plays like an indie drama gone slumming in genre-ville, but it circles around the end of the world throughout its running time, embracing the end in terms that are personal, cosmic, and meta-cinematic by turns. It provides red meat and monsters for the horror crowd, but it's wrapped its narrative in layers of grief, regret, and redemption. It's an ambitious film for a production of such modest means, so it can be forgiven if it loses its way in the end.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Cuts Like a Knife

Knife + Heart (2018)

Knife + Heart (2018, directed by Yann Gonzalez) begins with one of the horror genre's better visual jokes. The slasher film and the giallo mystery before it are notorious for their use of knives as the weapon of choice for their mad killers, presumably for their phallic symbolism. Knife + Heart takes this out of the subtext and makes it literal by hiding a stiletto in a dildo. It's right up front, too, at the start of the movie. It would be pretty funny if the murder involved wasn't so nasty. Knife + Heart is a movie that connects the fetishy nature of the giallo mystery with their black-gloved killers and posh bougie chic fashions with the equally fetishy world of gay porn, all while taking the "bury your gays" trope to such a height that it collapses on itself in the end. It works surprisingly well, mostly because satirizing and deconstructing the slasher/giallo movie isn't all that it has on its mind.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Doing the Islands

Sweetheart (2019)

Sweetheart (2019, directed by J. D. Dillard) is a model contemporary low budget genre film. It's efficient, it provides all the genre thrills a horror movie requires, and it even makes a stab at psychological depth, all inside a compact eighty two minute running time. Its first act is laconic. There's barely any dialogue. Its storytelling is conveyed entirely through the actions of its heroine, who must carry the weight of the narrative for the duration of the film. Depending on the actor, this kind of gamble can fail spectacularly. The filmmakers have chosen wisely in Kiersey Clemons who is more than up to the challenge, but anyone who has seen her in other films knows that already.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

An Unwanted Heirloom

Relic (2020)

There's an old interview with director David Cronenberg that has stayed with me in which the interviewer asked Cronenberg what scared him. Cronenberg said, "When I go to pick up my kids at school and they're not there waiting for me." That something so mundane would scare a man whose business was scaring people is telling. Most of the things people fear are in the everyday of their lives, not big sweeping things like zombie apocalypses or robot uprisings or mutagenic television signals. Most really good horror movies connect with something that real people actually fear from day to day. Sometimes, they do it in abstract ways. Sometimes they do it pointedly and on the nose. The challenge is in finding something that enough people fear to pull it off and in making that fear real for an audience. A surprising number of horror movies fail at this, either from a failure to face that fear head on or by burying it too deeply under the tropes of genre. This isn't a problem for Relic (2020, directed by Natalie Erika James). It puts its finger on a set of existential terrors that real people face every day that are close to universal, then follows them to their logical conclusion. It's an unsettling movie.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

I Could a Tale Unfold...

The Mortuary Collection (2020)

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:

--William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene V.

I wish I could have seen The Mortuary Collection (2019, directed by Ryan Spindell) in a movie theater with a big crowd of teenagers. Alas, the Covid-19 pandemic put the kibosh on that even if the realities of contemporary distribution wouldn't have accomplished the same thing. I am green with envy for the Fantastic Fest audience that saw the film in September of 2019, but that seems like another world from this distance. In any event, The Mortuary Collection is an audience film if ever there was one, and I feel like the world is all the poorer for having to view it on Shudder in the solitude of our living rooms, however nice our home systems might be. It's a fun film, with set pieces designed to goose an audience but good.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Departmental Politics

Weird Woman (1944)

In 1943, Universal Pictures teamed up with the then-popular Inner Sanctum radio show to brand a series of modest low-budget thrillers. There were six of these films in all, all of them starring Lon Chaney, Jr. Chaney was Universal's bell-cow horror star in the 1940s--or, at least, he's who Universal wanted to be their bell-cow star after showing Lugosi and Karloff the door. Chaney had made his horror debut in The Wolf Man in 1941, and in short order had played the Monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein and Dracula in Son of Dracula and Prince Kharis, the Mummy, in The Mummy's Tomb, in addition to his more lycanthropic duties in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, et al. Prior to his career in horror movies, he had been a bit player in Westerns, and had played perhaps the role of his career as Lenny in Of Mice and Men. Chaney was not a natural fit for horror movies, and after the horror boom had ebbed in the late 1940s, capped off by Abbott and Costello, Chaney went back to Westerns both on the big screen and the small. Even so, horror would follow him for the rest of his career. That's what comes of being the son of Lon Chaney.

The Inner Sanctum mysteries are clearly influenced by the Val Lewton films at RKO. Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie had been a gigantic hits on minuscule budgets, and Universal must have reasoned that they could do that, too. They were the home of horror movies, after all. It was their bread and butter. In Weird Woman (1944, directed by Reginald de Borg), the second of the Inner Sanctum mysteries and today's topic, even borrowed one of Lewton's stock player in Elizabeth Russell, who memorably played the woman who approached Irina in the cafe and asked "Moya sestra?" in Cat People. Weird Woman takes its source material from Fritz Leiber's novel, Conjure Wife, a story that is tailor made for the epistemological ambiguity and mounting terror in which Lewton and his directors specialized. Without Lewton's guiding hand, the results are less than satisfactory.

Monday, October 05, 2020

Burning Down The House

House of Usher (1960)

According to his autobiography and many many interviews over the years, Roger Corman made the first of the Poe films, House of Usher (1960), out of a sense of exhaustion. He had been making three and five day wonders like Little Shop of Horrors, The Creature from the Haunted Sea, and Bucket of Blood for a couple of years at that point and he was tired of the go go go nature of that kind of filmmaking. He wanted to slow down. More, he wanted to make something that was aesthetically a cut above the films he was making. Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson, Corman's nominal bosses at AIP were amenable. The kinds of films Corman had been making were starting to play out to diminishing box office and they were keen on the next big thing for the drive-in theaters that were their primary market. To hear Corman tell it, they weren't keen on Poe, but Corman was persuasive. They gave him a shooting budget of $200,000--a fortune compared to their usual budgets, but modest compared to the industry--and let him have his head. That's the official story, anyway. I think what actually happened was somewhat different. I think Corman, Arkoff, and Nicholson looked covetously at the box office returns of Hammer's Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula and decided that the Gothic horror movie on the Hammer model was the next wave and acted accordingly. They weren't alone in this, either. Filmmakers in Europe and America were already eyeing a Gothic revival and Gothics came to dominate the horror marketplace during the first half of the 1960s. Don't think Corman wasn't aware of this. He was quick to poach Barbara Steele for his second Poe movie. Whatever the actual origins of the Poe movies, Corman started work on House of Usher in late 1959. It took him fifteen days to shoot it in January of the next year for a summer release. It was a huge hit.

Friday, October 02, 2020

The Saw is Family

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986, directed by Tobe Hooper) was always likely to be a fiasco over and above the inevitable comparisons to the unrepeatable original film. It was a troubled, unstable production, one whose budget ebbed and flowed depending on the box office of whatever films the feckless Cannon Films had in theaters at the time. Tobe Hooper was a reluctant director who originally intended only to produce the film before landing in the director's chair when no suitable director could be found for the money producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were willing to pay. Golan and Globus wanted a very different film from what Hooper wanted to make, too, and were horrified when he delivered not the intense bloodbath they expected, but rather a pitch black comedy. Even so, Hooper leaned into the original film's unearned reputation for extreme violence, resulting in a film that had to either accept an X-rating from the MPAA or go out unrated. Cutting the film wasn't even in the discussion. The film's problems with censors were a worldwide mountain to climb. Cannon was stuck with marketing a film it did not like or understand, but even so the teaser trailer was killer ("After ten years of silence, the buzz is back!") and the one-sheet was hilarious. Critics, like the producers, expected something else and excoriated the film for it.

And yet...somehow, the film managed to make a profit in its original theatrical run and slowly developed a cult following on home video. Rob Zombie has been trying to reverse engineer the film for years with indifferent results. For myself? The first time I saw it I knew it had more on its mind than its sick jokes and elaborate gore gags--though the sick jokes and elaborate gore gags were occasionally inspired. To quote another cult film from the 80s: it had a philosophy