Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Movies: Island getaway of the damned!

In a previous post I reviewed the excellent two-films-in-one-disc I Walked with a Zombie and The Body Snatcher package that was part of the Turner Entertainment 5 disc/10 movie Val Lewton retrospective. Those flicks were absolutely fabu, so I've been digging up the other discs in the series.

Next up, a Karloff double header that stars with Isle of the Dead and ends with Bedlam.

To recap, Val Lewton was head of RKO's horror unit for about a decade in the late 1940s. While there, Letwon connected talented directors with smart, dramatic scripts to create a signature style of horror: a moody, melodramatic, classy approach to a genre often too comfortable with mediocrity. The flicks on this disc showcase that approach, though I think it is debatable just how much of a horror film Bedlam is.

Let's start with Isle of the Dead. Set in 1912, during the opening year of the Balkan Wars and an outbreak of the plague brought on by the conditions of war, the film opens with Karloff, a brutal Greek general known as "the Watchdog," ordering one of his officers to commit suicide for the offense of failing to get his troops to the front fast enough. And this even thought the battle was won! Apparently, the Greek military operates on the same management principles as the Empire from the Star Wars flicks.

After establishing that Karloff's character is a thoroughly unpleasant jerk, we follow the general and an American reporter embedded, as it were, with the general's forces to a small island where the general's wife is buried. There the general finds his family tomb has been ransacked and his wife's body is missing. Searching for the looters leads the two to a small house were a group of random folks have hid themselves away from the conflict and the disease. We learn that one of them, a scholar of ancient Greece, has been collecting artifacts and, in hopes of making some money, his presence has spurred the locals to acts of plunder. This sort of explains the missing corpse of a wife (though who thought they could fob off the body of a twentieth century Greek woman as an ancient relic is beyond) and that subplot is rapidly dropped.

The movie begins in earnest when one of the members of the household, a traveling salesman, drops dead of the plague. A doctor from the general's camp comes and quarantines the house and all its inhabitants. The plague begins claiming the members of the household one by one. Cabin fever and the strain of not knowing who is next starts to fray the nerves of the trapped characters. Eventually, an old crone of a maid convinces the general that the ravages of the plague are not an accident of nature, but the act of an evil spirit from Greek mythology who has possessed the hottie of the group, a feisty young woman who is making goo-goo eyes with our reporter.

Isle of the Dead is a solid example of Lewton's gothic, dramatic brand of horror, though it doesn't measure up to I Walked with a Zombie. This is partly due to the fact that Mark Robson, who directed the film, is simply not as strong a director as Tourneur. His work is fine, but never great. The story is excellent and the cast, apart from Karloff, who takes his role and runs with it, works well enough to keep the viewer watching.

The second film on the disc, Bedlam, is a bit of a head-scratcher. Though it does star Boris Karloff and begins with a premise that might have tipped into horror, it ultimately becomes a kind of period piece message picture. The story involves a decadent minor aristocrat who, after being turned on by his mistress (though the character swears she is not his mistress, the relationship they are supposed to have in the flick makes no sense and I assume this was just a way for the filmmakers to get around the issue of having to discuss the fact that she's basically a kept whore), gets Karloff, head of therapeutic services at Bedlam asylum, to lock her up with the crazies. Once she's locked up, she goes through a conversion and begins to work to make the lives of the lunatics better. Meanwhile, a she and a friend attempt to win her freedom.

Bedlam is a fine bit of melodrama. It is competently directed, again by Robson, and features some real standout scenes. In particular, there's a wonderful scene where lunatics are forced to perform a series of dramatic presentations for the amusement of the aristocratic elite. Still, I don't think it was intended to be a horror flick and its inclusion here is a bit curious.

Using my controversial Topics Covered in VH1's "I Love the 80s – 1986 in 3D" Movie Rating System, I'm giving Isle of the Dead an enjoyable Not Necessarily the News rating. Good stuff, especially if you're a Karloff fans or have a particular interest in pop culture representations of the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 (and who doesn't?). I'm not going to rate Bedlam. Not because it is a crap film, which it isn't, but because I don't think it is a horror flick and horror is how we roll here at Screamin'.

FUN SCREAMIN' TRIVIA: The number of flicks inspired by books and plays is enormous. You get fewer flicks from poems. Even fewer, I'd wager, are inspired by pieces of visual art: paintings, etchings, sculpture, and so on. In fact, I can only think of two that I've seen. Bedlam is one. It is supposed inspired by one of the etchings in Hogarth's A Rake's Progress. The second is The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and Her Lover. Director Peter Greenaway has occasionally claimed that the inspiration for that flick came from the group portrait "The Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Militia of Haarlem" by Frans Hals.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Stuff: Even I, Lucas, have heard the legend of the Fish Man. And it totally ate my, Lucas's, quarter.

So, Screamin' regulars, I was in Atlantic City last weekend and I ran across a wonderful Creature From the Black Lagoon slot machine. From the site of IGT, the games maker:


Return to those hot summer nights at the drive-in with the Creature From the Black Lagoon™ game! Silly scenes of horror from this time-honored monster movie combine with wisecracking backseat banter to thrill you whle you play this fun 5-reel, 15-line theme. This game is drenched with ways to win!

Claw™ Bonus

When three or more claw symbols line up left to right, there's no need for those 3-D glasses as the clawing Creature reaches out and shreds the screen to reveal bonus credits.

Snack Lagoon™ Bonus

Four or five scattered snack symbols lead to the concession stand touch-scream bonus. Who knows - there may be a lurking chance to double the tasty total and receive a bonus treat!

Enjoy breathtaking animation and enhanced stereo sound as winning line credits accumulate. For example, quirky comments accompany classic clips when three or more Creature symbols swim just above the screen's surface.

OH NO! The Gill Man has a grip on unsuspecting Kay! Not to worry. When three or more of these symbols line up left to right, the Gill Man releases her and dives back to his lair revealing screaming bonus credits and entertaining clips from the movie.

I didn't play it, so I don't know if they've added their own "wisecracking backseat banter," MTS3K-style. I hope not.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Movies: 28 Weaks Later

There's something telling about the fact that 28 Weeks Later is the second flick this season to feature a scene in which zombie hordes are dispatched via the rotors of a flying helicopter. The "whirly bird as undead Cuisinart" meme first popped up in the Planet Terror portion of Grindhouse as a joke. In 28 Weeks Later, a very similar scene is played totally straight-faced. I don't think this is, necessarily, an indication of how little creativity there is in the modern mainstream horror flick. Instead, it points to only real weakness in what is otherwise an excellent film: 28 Weeks Later suffers from being just one more solid zombie flick in a era of countless zombie flicks.

In many ways, 28 Days Later, the superior predecessor to Weeks, benefited from being in exactly the opposite position. Days would have been a notable flick under any circumstances. It is a truly brilliant addition to the zombie cannon. It is well-written, beautifully shot, filled with characters you actually cared about, and is genuinely frightening. It even contains the occasional art-house flourish (the impressionistic field of flowers digitally painted into the flick, for example) to let you know that the folks behind the cameras didn't feel they were slumming. But what ultimately put 28 Days into great category was that it was a fresh look at a sub-genre that had been dormant and free of any major hits for several years. It didn't have to compete with dozens of other zombie films, most bad, some great, and all taking up the same cognitive space.

Now, a couple years after Days and seemingly hundreds of zombie flicks later, Weeks, with a solid script, good acting, and excellent camera works, seems like just another generic zombie movie. The chronological distance between Days and its sources made the film seem like an homage. Some of the films Weeks seems to reference are less than a year old. Is that an homage? Or just lazy filmmaking?

In a way, this is a shame. Weeks is a solid film. The flick follows a handful of different characters: a man haunted by the fact that he abandoned his wife during a zombie attack, two children returning to post-zombie London, and several members of the US-led UN force attempting to re-colonize the UK. We have a larger cast of characters, but the scope of the story demands it and I don't think the film lost anything for being able to spend less time developing the roles of our protagonists. There are several exciting scenes, though they are often more thrilling and action-packed than frightening. The film is less visually striking, but not in any incompetent way. The sequel eschews (sorry, I've been trying to think of a way to work eschew into more reviews) the original's indie-influenced aesthetic for something closer to the rapidly edited, big screen bang of a major action blowout. There's more gore and chewy bits, though the MTV-style editing means it goes by in a flash.

If fact, as far as the actual making of the film itself, I've only one major beef. Much is made in the flick of assumed parallels between the re-colonizing forces in the flick and the current situation in Iraq. Mainly, the theory is, that US soldiers show up claiming to help, but turn out to be willing to oppress and even destroy the locals in order to maintain order and suppress the spread of the rage virus (which, in a bit of retro-continuity, we're told never jumped species – though, as I recall, we got it from monkeys). The allusions aren't subtle – US forces, for example, operate out of the "Green Zone" – so even if your primary source of news is Jon Stewart, you won't miss the topical references. There are two problems with this. First, the metaphor doesn't hold water. In terms of the filmic world of Weeks, the threat from rage is real and the consequences of an uncontrolled outbreak could be globally devastating. The fictionalized US didn't invent a cause to go occupy London nor are they under-estimating and understating the threat. The idea that military forces shouldn't react swiftly and definitively to control the spread of the disease is questionable at best. Worse it leads to a situation where the filmmakers seem to have characters reacting not to the situation described in the flick, but to the situation the film is alluding to. This means our heroes do things that would be heroic if they were in a real desert war somewhere, but are just incredibly dumb given the story of the film. I give the filmmakers credit for not portraying the US army as a bunch of evil yahoos – they are conflicted folks with unique personalities, each deciding whether they will or will not go along with the occupational authorities. But, ultimately, the situations just aren't morally comparable and the whole thing seems distracting.

Second problem is that we've already seen this particular analogy done better. In fact, we've seen it twice recently: in Land of the Dead and 28 Days Later. Which brings us back to the zombie saturation issue. It is time to give zombies a freakin' rest. 28 Weeks Later marks an interesting point in the latest zombie trend: as of the release of this film, it is now possible to make a really good zombie film and still not escape the general fatigue of the sub-genre as a whole. Even a great zombie flick will now just be another zombie flick. Because of this, using the Defunct Hindu Political Parties Movie Rating System, I'm giving 28 Weeks Later a middling Bharatiya Jana Sangh. If this was still 2003, 28 Weeks Later would have rocked the living daylights out of me. Now it is a case of too little, too late.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Movies: An intelligent carrot? The mind boggles.

The Freakmaker (it also skulks around the dollar-bin under the name The Mutations) was the last directorial effort of Academy Award winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Cardiff deserves some sort of lifetime achievement award just for sticking around. He worked on his first film as an actor in 1918. It was a British silent melodrama called My Son, My Son. The last film he was on was the 2005 Pinewood Studios short Lights2. During this heroically long lived career, he worked behind the camera on everything from Hitchcock's Under Capricon and the classic The African Queen to Conan the Destroyer and Rambo: First Blood Part II. From 1953 to 1974, Cardiff directed about twenty flicks. Most notably, he helmed the Oscar winning adaptation of Sons and Lovers. This, however, strikes me as a bit of an outlier. Most of his flicks were genre cheapies or pseudo-exploitation swinging 60s flicks like Girl on a Motorcycle (aka Naked Under Leather) and, the subject of this review, The Freakmaker.

As far as cheese horror goes, I actually enjoyed The Freakmaker. The plot is wonderfully goofy. Donald "Loomis" Pleasance plays a mad scientist who is convinced that he can induce mutations that will produce a new race of man that will combine the best qualities of the plants and human. "A plant that can move and think," he says, describing his vision to his obligatory malformed lab assistant (Tom Baker, the 1980s Dr. Who). "And a human that can put down roots." Now, to me, this sounds like a formula for a carrot man who walks around in circles. But that's why he's the mad scientist and I'm just some guy who blogs about horror stuff.

As you might guess, making human plants (humants or plamen, depending on you point of view) is a real trick proposition. It requires human subject – healthy and good looking, the doctor is always careful to specify – and you're going to get a lot of duds before hitting on just the right mix of human and Venus flytrap. But where will Dr. Greenjeans get his subjects and how will he dispose of the failed hybrids? That's where his faithful, horribly mutilated lab assistant comes in. The doctor employs a deformed heavy from a local carnival to kidnap his victims. Those subjects who don't make the cut get deposited in the carnival's freakshow.

The movie actually unfolds as two interconnected parallel plots. First, we get the mad doctor's experiments and their effects. This is a pretty standard, B-grade plot with slight nods to the post-60s context with lectures about how we're all mutants, man. The other, and more interesting plot, is an extended homage to the Tod Browning's superlative Freaks. This second story centers on the deformed lab assistant's self-loathing as a freak. He was, we find out, once a freakshow attraction. On finding the doctor could cure him of his deformity, he agreed to do to the doctor's dirty work. But the other freaks, all played by genuine sideshow performers, resent the brutal behavior of the assistant. He hates them because they remind him of his own freakish existence. Not only do we get real human oddities (including the fascinating "pretzel man," who suffers from a condition in which the bones grow in twisted, melted-wax like formations), we get a freak party scene, a toast to "one of us," and a final scene that involves freaks tossing knives at their enemy. As a huge fan f the Browning flick, I have a special fondness for this sort of thing.

Is the movie worth it for viewers not pitifully over-enamored of Freaks? That's going to depend on your cinema cheese threshold. With it less than special effects, clunky acting, and goofy plot, I suspect the cinematically lactose intolerant will find little to like here. But, it midnight movie absurdity is your cup of tea, then this might deserve a spot on your queue. Using the internationally recognized Communes of the Canton of Thorigny-sur-Marne Film Rating System, I'm giving The Freakmaker a fine Dampmart rating. But then I might just be some sort of Freaks freak.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Comics: Templesmith on sentient maggots, squid-heads, and whether he hates the Irish or not.

Comic Book Resource is featuring an amusing interview with comic illustrator Ben Templesmith, the influential co-creator of 30 Days of Night (which helped rejuvenate the horror comic) and creator of Wormwood, a funny, sleazy, horror-tinged dark comedy about a sentient maggot who can enter corpses and pilot them sort of like the way big-eyed anime characters drive around mechs (only, instead of fighting giant robots, the titular worm tends to take his re-animated corpses to demonic nuddie bars and underground leprechaun knife-fighting pits and the like).

The comic art of Ben Templesmith seems to be a bit of a love/hate proposition. His lavish, mixed-media work tends toward the phantasmagoric. It has a fluid, highly stylized, dream-like quality to it. The anatomy of his characters is unstable and empathic, rather than rigorous and objective. When 30 Days of Night came out, many detractors argued that his art was a distraction. Critics felts that the plot, a clever, but fairly straight forward, vampire rampage tale, was diminished by the overly-strange, almost aggressively abstract art. Famed comic writer Warren Ellis, in discussing his own horror series Black Gas, even mentioned taking deliberate efforts to bring horror art back to a sort of high-res, detail-heavy gore look and pull it away from the hallucinatory aesthetic of Templesmith (this is, in my opinion, a bit of an overreaction – most horror comics still resemble the traditional, comfortably representational style of Ellis's book and not Templesmith's work).

While I understand 30DoN's critics, I thought that Templesmith's work on that title was not only effective, but necessary. The book was a bold re-insertion of the horror genre into the comics mainstream and it needed art that would immediately stand-out and provide artistic weight to the project. If you're planning a grand return, you can't risk being ignored. Templesmith's art helped make sure that didn't happen. If the art seems too quirky and perhaps too fussy now, it may be because it was suited to a very specific moment, answering the needs of a very specific context. I still think it is boss, but the head scratching of non-fans is somewhat understandable.

Templesmith's solo series, the more light-hearted and humorously nasty Wormwood, is, I think, a better showcase for his art. The bizarre stories he tells – described by some as a sit-com version of Hellboy - are more surrealistic and trippy, meaning his art style reinforces the central mood rather than working as a counterpoint. I think even people dubious about 30DoN might want to give Templesmith's solo stuff a look.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Movies: I don't think little big girls should go out walking in these great big woods alone.

In the special features of the DVD of the thriller Hard Candy, the film's producer mentions that viewers have told him that his flick – a tight, commercially-suave suspense film that is part Rope, part torture porn, part cloying issue pic, spiced heavily with the "girls kick ass" meme that flavors so many current chick-friendly action and horror flicks – will be shown in feminist studies classes of the future.

I suggest, instead, that it be shown in filmmaking classes as a sort of "indie flick success for dummies" primer. The visual look of the flick alone is a master class on doing more with less. In an era were "indie" has become nearly synonymous with a shaking, digital hand-cam post-Blair Witch aesthetic, Hard Candy represents something like a lavish riot of technique and polish. Shot for less than a million dollars, mostly on a single set, Hard Candy has a slick, ruthlessly stylish, pro-perfect sheen that could easily be mistaken for the work of Tony Scott of Michael Mann. It is a real testament to the progress to filmmaking tech, and the technical laziness of many indie filmmakers, that something so visually competent can be made on such a tiny budget. It is somewhat like a garage band vanishing into their basement with an unfinished room full of off-the-shelf equipment and emerging with something like Pet Sounds.

Not to beat this dead horse – but this is a blog, so the point is to obsessively flog my particular deceased hobby horses, right? – but digital filmmaking and the ever dropping cost of widely available post-production equipment were, we were told, supposed to democratize filmmaking. For the most part, this was a wishful thinking. A short of shaky-cam pseudo-realist look became the common vernacular of independent filmmaking. This visual vocab and syntax was easily aped by mainstream studios – I site Joel Schumacher's Dogme-style Tigerland (when the dude behind Batman and Robin is lifting from dude who made Breaking the Waves, the concept of aesthetic integrity needs to be put to pasture) – but the traffic was all one way. The big guys could rip off the little guys, but the little guys couldn't rip off the major players. Hard Candy, whatever its flaws and problems might be, should be remembered as a sort of turning point. This flicks represents the democratization of filmmaking. If you can buy a car, you can afford the tools to make a polished, pro-grade film.

Still, the master class doesn't end there. It seems the plot of the film was approached with the same meticulous, commercial-hook care. Inspired, the producer claims, by news stories about gangs of Japanese girls who would lure cyber-molesters into muggings, the plot of Hard Candy involves an online pedophile who brings home a fourteen year old girl that turns the tables on him and assumes the role of predator. It is "controversial" in concept alone. The plot summary hits a ton of media-friendly hot buttons, from childhood sexuality to Internet perversion; but the film knows that the book office buck is in the threat and not the actual delivery. The pedo-sleaze is played with squirm inducing queasiness from the first scene and the avenging teen shows less flesh than one sees in the music videos of any of a dozen or so interchangeable post-Brittany underage blue-eyed R&B lolitas. Furthermore, the plot, once it gets underway in earnest, is a relentless thrashing of the evil kiddie molester – ensuring that even the densest audience members couldn't mistake the viewpoint of the filmmakers. If there's any exploitation going on in the flick, it is a clever and perhaps cynical manipulation of a media that can be relied upon to freak out over anything hinting at teenage female sexuality and drive up your ticket sales.

Speaking of teenagers, the female lead is amazingly well-played by Ellen Page, who popped up in the third X-Man flick as Kitty Pryde. Ellen, who probably had a blast playing her scene-stealing role, does such a great job that it makes you completely forget how essentially absurd her character is. Like some Buffy-by-way-of-Hostel, her brutally clever character is less a human than a giant plot device created to punish the chat room child stalker. She seems to have planned for every contingency, is always one-step ahead of her adult victim, cracks safes, performs surgeries, and so on. Basically, the filmmakers so want her to win the central conflict that it is as if she and her victim live in a world where the gods are clearly and actively on her side. In the hands of a less interesting and capable actress, the role would be unconvincing and laughable. She pulls it of with real skill. Weirdly, she ends up the abused in the upcoming An American Crime where she'll be playing Silva Likens. Guess she's Hollywood's go to girl whenever they need an under-aged chick for their torture themed flicks. (Sweetie, talk to your agent. Is this really what you want?)

Hard Candy is a sheep in wolf's clothing. It is a solid, remarkably efficient thriller, accented with hints of buzz-inducing controversy. Ultimately, though, these controversial themes are just window dressing. The film is skilled rather than thoughtful, exciting rather than introspective, and entertaining rather than disturbing. Candy's a nice little treat for fans of quirky thrillers, but its workman-like professionalism prevents it from treading more dangerous territory. Using the infamously unpredictable Irish State and Public Buildings Movie Rating System, I'm giving Hard Candy the Under Secretary's Lodge. It isn't the Chief Secretary's Lodge, but it didn't really didn't ever really intend to be.