Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

If there was any doubt in Gremlins over whether the movie was supposed to be a horror or a comedy (and while it seems to favor comedy, the balance is subtle enough that you could make an argument for the horror), Gremlins 2 starts off, inexplicably, with a Looney Tunes segment featuring Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Now, if this segment had gone dark at the end, like an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon opening up an episode of The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror, then that would be pretty creepy. But it doesn't. It's just a Looney Tunes sketch bridging the gap between the Warner Bros. logo and the movie's title screen, which zooms in on a bright and cheery New York City over uplifting, symphonic music. The message is clear. This movie isn't going to scare you. It's going to have a fun time. (If zany antics are your idea of fun).

Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates (yes, that Phoebe Cates) return as the main characters in Gremlins' sequel, giving it a clear link of progression from the first movie. Like Poltergeist III, Gremlins 2 takes the basic premise of the first movie and relocates it to an urban high-rise, replacing the quaint suburban atmosphere of the previous film. Gizmo looks less like a Furby in this movie and more like an ultra-cutesy puppet. The weird thing is, I'm not sure that's an improvement. It's obvious that the filmmakers are capitalizing on Gizmo's potential as the fan-favored mascot of the film, but it just goes in too whimsical a direction.

And he's not alone, either. In the first Gremlins, the behavioral difference between Gizmo - the gentle, friendly Mogwai - and "Stripe" - the mischievous, alpha male bully - had a logical and naturalistic feel to it. Here, the assorted Mogwai are like the seven dwarfs, as if diversified for the purpose of commercial exploitation. The leader of the pack sports a mohawk; the bucktoothed, dopey one makes a "hyuk hyuk" noise; and the hyperactive one behaves like a retarded infant, constantly giggling, with its eyes always spinning in opposite directions. They're not even transformed yet, and I already want to squash them under my boot. Not because they're threatening - but because they're just plain annoying!

Where the physical humor in the first Gremlins was largely limited to pranks and sight gags, the sequel ratchets up the slapstick to an almost Three Stooges-like level. Even in their transformed state, the gremlins' caricaturized appearance takes away from their scariness. They look more cartoonish, more like rubber puppets than they did before. Even the location of the movie - which doesn't so much take place in the city, but almost exclusively within this ridiculous arcology-esque microcosm of an authoritarian, technological society - undermines the atmosphere of the film and makes it much less creepy (and believable) than the Christmas-y small town of the first movie. It's almost surreal at times, but in a very dated, quintessentially turn-of-the-'90s sort of way.

One thing this movie does right is that, as a sequel, it ups the stakes by presenting a newly evolved set of gremlins ("the new batch", presumably). Unfortunately, as in everything else, it squanders the horror potential in favor of comedy - beginning with the ridiculous science lab where the gremlins power up, run by a stone-faced Christopher Lee. One gremlin drinks a brain serum and gets really smart. Another grows wings like a bat, and is also injected with a genetic sunblock (removing the gremlins' primary weakness). A third becomes pure electricity! (We won't talk about the one who turns female and begins acting like a drag queen in heat). Of course, the evillest gremlin of them all has to drink a spider serum.

This all could have been much scarier (and certainly, the spider gremlin is a terror just to see on screen) if it served some other purpose than to give the director an opportunity to crack a bunch of pop culture jokes. The most effective gag is a fourth-wall-breaking sequence in which the gremlins appear to interfere with the projector running the film (and, after making shadow puppets on the screen, replace it with a "nudie cutie" titled Volleyball Holiday, in a rare demonstration of good taste). But the sequence is resolved by Hulk Hogan threatening the gremlins to put the right movie back on. (The home video version of this sequence involves some TV static and channel-surfing, and is resolved instead by John Wayne).

This is a great example of both the movie's strengths and weaknesses. Gremlins 2 has no shortage of good ideas. In fact, it works pretty well as a self-effacing parody (although its sense of humor doesn't really match my own). But where it falters is in its unflinching commitment to humor over horror. For some people, this is not a problem, but rather what makes this movie so great (though a lot of the jokes are dated, which limits its effective audience). But as far as I'm concerned, it took the tenuous balance of the first movie - which was already leaning dangerously towards the comedy edge - and pushed it right over the cliff.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Gremlins (1984)

Gremlins is one of those movies, man. I haven't seen it since I was a little kid, and let me tell you, it gave me nightmares. Yet I hear people talk about it like it's a comedy. So I guess it's just one of those things. It also has the distinction of being a horror film set on Christmas. Essentially, it's a movie about a bunch of critters wreaking havoc on a small town. If they were, like, cute little bunnies or something (like the Mogwai pre-transformation), it would just be funny.

But no, they had to be these demonic monstrosities, with reptilian skin, and those evil, red eyes. Now if they just went around town attacking people, then it would be plain scary. But because gremlins are supposed to be mischievous, director Joe Dante has these little nightmares giggling as much as snarling, and engaging in physical humor that borders on the slapstick. As a result, it's a potential mixture of both - scary and funny - depending on your perspective. Certainly more scary for little kids, who have wilder imaginations, and less experience to inform them that gremlins are a complete fantasy. (Right?)

In any case, it's a pretty clever premise, though I think people in their adultocentric perspective tend to undersell the horror part of it in favor of the comedy. If you swapped the score for something less whimsical, it would serve the horror better - though that goes to show that the creators were aiming for something tongue-in-cheek. And there's plenty of room for black humor. But the fact of the matter is, Mogwai are creepy in a fundamental way - and that includes their cute and fuzzy pre-transformation state, which comes just shy of this side of the uncanny valley.

I'm convinced these creatures are a primary reason why I was so paranoid and distrusting of Furbies when they came out on the market in the late '90s. Gizmo is basically a living Furby. Dare to feed it after midnight, and you'll come upon the cocoon state, which is just downright gross, in a straight body horror kind of way. I mean, they're even more disgusting than the eggs that the facehuggers came out of in Alien. And then they emerge, infinitely more horrifying than they were before. That scene where the eggs have hatched, and you know the gremlins are out there somewhere, is terribly foreboding, and one of the scariest I remember from when I was a kid.

The creature effects in this movie are really great - good enough that no amount of exposure significantly dulls the effect of seeing the gremlins. However, after the first few glimpses, they settle into their slapstick phase, and begin to act all goofy, and that takes the edge off to a considerable extent. Still, I wouldn't want to have one as a pet, and even though your first instinct is not to take someone seriously when they're engaged in wacky hijinks, when that someone is a grotesque spawn of hell, your aesthetic sense of evil kinda takes over. Gremlins may not be as viscerally scary to me now as it was when I was a kid, but I can still recognize its great potential for scariness.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Birds (1963)

The great thing about an Alfred Hitchcock movie is that you can really get lost in its story. That's a function of good writing - intriguing characters and clever dialogue. Unlike a lot of cheap horror films (especially creature features), The Birds is not simply a one trick pony. I was concerned that the movie's novelty - killer birds - wouldn't be able to carry the whole film, but it doesn't have to. And that's good, because its runtime is a robust two hours. But already fifteen minutes in, there hasn't been any threat from the birds yet, and I'm engrossed in the romantic mystery unfolding between a San Francisco socialite (Tippi Hedren) and a coy lawyer (Rod Taylor) who lives in a nearby bay town.

Therefore, when the birds do finally start to attack, we actually care about the characters - they're not just nameless victims caught up in the storm. But making the audience sympathize with the characters in a movie isn't as simple as giving them a back story, or watching them emote (actually, there isn't a lot of either here). It's an art, really, and I'm sure there's a lot of subjectivity involved, but the key, I think, is creating people that are relatable, and putting them in intriguing situations, so that the audience will be invested, and want to find out what happens. In a poorly written movie, you won't care that this woman gets these love birds to the strange man she doesn't know, because the story doesn't engage you. But one thing Hitchcock is a master of is creating mystery and suspense - he leaves out just enough information to keep you wondering, and wanting to find out more.

On the other hand, the argument could be made that all the non-bird related story development takes away from the horror premise of the movie. This could be seen as another example of Hitchcock's bait-and-switch technique - which was evident in Vertigo, and especially in Psycho - but here it doesn't feel so much like clever misdirection as padding to fill out the time. Maybe it's because going into The Birds, you pretty much already know exactly what to expect.

In any case, once all hell breaks loose, the movie switches focus nearly completely. However, it has some issues with pacing, and it still begins to drag as we move from one bird-escaping scene to the next. Individually, though, they're pretty remarkable for their time - Hitchcock must have had an exceptional bird wrangler. The attic scene is particularly horrifying, and must surely have been groundbreaking in its brutality at the time.

The bird attacks are suitably frenzied, but the quiet moments between are chilling in a different sort of way. My favorite scene is the one at the school, as the crows slowly gather on the jungle gym behind the unsuspecting lead (a textbook example of Hitchcock's approach to suspense), until the playground is just swarming with them, waiting to attack. You could cut the tension in that scene with a knife! Not even children are spared in this film.

Towards the end of the movie, the main protagonists hole themselves up in their house, after boarding up the bars and windows, in a sequence that seems eerily foreshadowing of Night of the Living Dead. But despite all the effort that must have gone in to making the birds seem intimidating, there's a limit to how scary you can make a flock of seagulls look, and the effects in some of the scenes are still not entirely convincing. Atmospherically, it's creepy, but it just doesn't have the visceral impact of walking, flesh-eating corpses.

And then we come to the ending, which is pretty open. There's no explanation for the bird attacks, no great resolution. You can argue whether this is an effective approach or not - personally, it left me kind of wanting - but it's certainly in line with Hitchcock's tendency toward abrupt, not entirely satisfying endings. He's a master of developing suspense, not resolving story lines. Which, in a way, kind of reflects my overall impression of the famed director.

Alfred Hitchcock was highly talented, no doubt, and deserves his reputation. But his films are not flawless, nor without peer. They are good enough to be appreciated by cinema buffs even today, but they are rather dated to their era. For all their influence and innovation, filmmaking has advanced by leaps and bounds since Hitchcock's time. And much like how Citizen Kane is revered as a cinematic masterpiece, but is hard for modern audiences to relate to, Alfred Hitchcock's greatest adversary is the unrelenting passage of time (for which we can hardly hold him responsible). So I will gladly rate him as one of the greatest and defining directors in history (particularly in the suspense/thriller/mystery/horror genres), even though his films are not likely to list among my top favorites.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Catching up on The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead picks up with the second half of season five this weekend, and it occurs to me that I haven't mentioned it since all the way back at the mid-season break of season two (episode reviews: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). There's a good reason for that - or, at least, a decent reason. I moved that following February, to a house that didn't have cable TV, and so I got behind on The Walking Dead until I could convince my roommate to start watching it with me on Amazon (she's as obsessed with it as I am now). I also started reading up on the comics, so that marked the significant point after which I was no longer a completely blind show-watcher, and was instead informed of the show's overarching trajectory via the original material it's (more or less) based on.

Spoiler Warning: The rest of this post contains information from both the TV show and the comic, so if you only partake of one (e.g., you only watch the TV show and don't read the comic) and don't want spoilers, then I suggest you skip the rest of this post.

Spoilers: Seasons 1, 2 (TV) / Chapters 1-2 (Comic)

The second half of season two was good, and comparable to the first half, though the climax was slightly less devastating than the Sophia-barn scene (which I still rate as the most devastating moment in the whole series). Some viewers have said that the show drags a bit in spending a whole season at the farm, but it's not too bad, and it's even less noticeable if you binge-watch the episodes.

As far as the first two seasons of the show go, I think they did a great job of adapting the comic, both with the comic material and the original stuff (like the season one finale at the CDC, which was very good). I like that they kept Shane around longer in the TV show, because even though he wasn't the most sympathetic character, he added some good drama and conflict to the group. The season two finale with the herd and the fire was also a great way to end the season on a bombastic climax that upped the stakes (considerably) from what happened in the comic.

Spoilers: Seasons 3, 4A (TV) / Chapters 3-8 (Comic)

But then we get to the prison. In the comic, there are two chapters leading up to the prison, and then a whopping six chapters spent there, the first two of which don't even feature Woodbury and the Governor yet. So the prison is a big deal. Unfortunately, I feel like the TV show just wasn't as good during the prison section. Here are some reasons why:

1) They completely watered down the Governor. I understand why they did this - they wanted to have the drama of showing the Governor turn bad, but it just killed the allure of his character. Particularly the scene where he *almost* rapes Maggie. In the comic, he *actually* rapes Michonne - repeatedly. Removing that kind of hurts Michonne's character, because it gives her less of a motivation to attack the Governor when she gets the chance. And where is the twisted innuendo about Penny maybe being the Gov's sex slave? From the start, The Walking Dead has prided itself on being more extreme than other television shows dare to go, but this is one (and not the only) place where it fails to have the courage that the comic has, to its detriment.

2) They completely destroyed Andrea's character, by making her sympathetic to the Governor (and not because she's evil, but just because she's naive), and then ultimately killing her off. Andrea is one of the best characters in the comic. But they ruined her in the TV show. They aged her up to start with, and completely pissed on her inter-generational relationship with Dale (as it is in the comic). I mean, on the TV show, she shags Shane, for fuck's sake! And then along comes the Governor. R.I.P. Andrea.

3) They also pretty much destroyed Tyreese. Tyreese is also supposed to be badass - kind of like how Daryl (an original TV character) is in the TV show. In the comic, Tyreese is an ex-pro football player, who single-handedly hacks his way out of a gymnasium filled with walkers, and is pretty much Rick's right-hand man. In the TV show, Tyreese is a pushover, a glorified babysitter, who's afraid to do what needs to be done, for fear of losing his humanity.

4) Although it could be considered a relief that Lori dies earlier in the TV show than she does in the comic (I don't know anyone who particularly liked her character), the result is this period in which Rick totally loses his mind, wandering outside the prison, seeing ghosts. Now, conceptually, this isn't entirely off base, as in the comic Rick also goes through a crazy phase (though it's supposed to follow the devastating prison escape), but it's more annoying in the TV show. Also, that period when Rick abdicates leadership over the group contains one of my favorite scenes in the whole comic - his speech which gives the series its name - which I was very sad to find was nowhere to be seen in the TV show. Sad face.

Don't get me wrong, the show during the prison episodes was still fun to watch. There were some good parts - like the whole thing with the flu outbreak. The show did some things right, in their own way - like handling the surviving prisoners that are there when the group first gets to the prison (although, on the other hand, the missing serial killer again takes out some of the bite of the story). And killing Hershel off in the same way that Tyreese died in the comic (since in the TV show, Hershel was a much more beloved character, making the scene pretty much as devastating as it's supposed to be). But overall, it just didn't feel as good as the corresponding chapters in the comic.

Spoilers: Seasons 4B, 5A (TV) / Chapters 9-12ish (Comic)

The final straw was the TV show not killing off Judith at the climax of the prison section. They even did the whole thing with Rick mourning Judith, only to later find out she's still alive, so there's not really any dramatic potential left in killing her off, which means they'll probably keep her around. Is this another case of the TV writers wussing out - not wanting to kill a baby on television? I don't know. But it's one more nail in the coffin of the prison episodes.

Seeing as the comic went a whole six chapters at the prison, and the TV show had been milking about one chapter per season thus far, the TV show could have easily done two whole seasons at the prison, if not more. However, the way those episodes were going, it was a relief when the show bailed out of the prison only halfway through the fourth season (only the second season at the prison), instead of continuing at least to the end of that season. And the second half of that season was actually very good. A dramatic improvement over the prison episodes.

The whole thing with Carol and the girls, in particular, was dramatic and memorable (probably the second most emotional scene in the show, for me, after the Sophia-barn scene), and really redeemed Carol in my eyes (who has been an annoying hanger-on ever since she lost Sophia). On the Daryl front, I enjoyed his interactions with Beth, although I think the show totally copped out when they didn't consummate their affection for one another at the end of that one episode. (I know, I know, Daryl's a virgin and an abuse survivor - gotta milk his soft, vulnerable side for all the female viewers! And keep him available to every middle-aged female viewer's surrogate on the show, Carol...). The introduction of Abraham and Eugene (and Rosita - not my fault she isn't a more important character; I actually like her) was exciting, also.

I really liked what the show did with Terminus, and it marks another successful TV original season finale, even if the real excitement would come in the season five premiere that resolves the cliffhanger. It was also an inspired way to get the gang back together after the prison, since the farm (where they meet up in the comic) was already destroyed. I was really excited about the following episode(s) introducing Father Gabriel, and featuring the (remnant) cannibals, which played out pretty much exactly like the comic (with some of the characters shuffled around). Although the TV show axed my first favorite quote from the comic, I was glad to see the inclusion of the line, "tainted meat!" here. The TV original parts explaining Beth's disappearance were a little shaky, though (hard to follow all these new characters all of a sudden) - and I'm annoyed that they killed her off (but especially in such a moronic way) - but they weren't too bad.

Spoilers: Vague speculations only, judging from Chapters 12+ (Comic)

I'm very excited to see what happens next in the show, and to see some of the stuff coming later in the comics brought to life. Post-prison, the TV show has once again done an excellent job of covering the comic material (if often in its own way), while mixing in some original stuff. Having just reread the comics last month, I noticed that the TV show has pretty much already milked everything leading up to the next big settlement the group arrives at (even including the revelation of Eugene's lie, which isn't supposed to happen until they're much closer to D.C.). So I'm wondering if we'll see that in the second half of this season, or if we'll have to wait until next season for that.

Either way, there's some great stuff coming up, and I can't wait to see how the TV show handles it - even though I have a little trepidation, after what happened with the prison episodes, and the series' last big villain (the Governor). So far, the show has been consistently better when the group is out on the road, but we'll see what happens in the future. This has been a good enough show, and has redeemed itself well enough after the prison episodes, that I'll be a dedicated viewer. And I'll be hungrily devouring the comics in the meantime.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Psycho (1960)

"We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven't you?"

For a long time, having seen little of the rest of his filmography, Psycho was, to me, the typical Alfred Hitchcock picture. Now, viewing it after three of his other, less directly horror-related movies, it has a unique personality. The relatable male lead is replaced with a psychotic villain (Anthony Perkins), and the usual love interest (Janet Leigh) here is a renegade thief who (spoiler, if you've spent the last 50+ years living under a rock) ultimately serves as sheep for the slaughter, at a point that stands barely halfway through the movie.

It's hard to view a movie so innovative and inspirational as Psycho was with fresh eyes. Its beats are hard-coded into popular culture, and what I can imagine must have been terribly shocking in its time, has become trail-worn horror cliché. Not that it doesn't still feel original in Hitchcock's hands - when a thing is done for the first time, it tends to have an authenticity that is lacking long after it's become rote.

I don't know if Psycho was the singular precursor to the slasher trend that exploded out of the '70s and '80s, but I have no doubt that it was a preeminent landmark in the evolution of horror cinema from the days of antiquity to more modern times. It even seems to preempt the exploitation genre with its unflinching depiction of murder from the almost sympathetic perspective of the killer - not as an anonymous, masked figure, but a flawed human being.

And that, I think, is the real innovation behind Psycho. It's not a movie about poor, unlucky innocents who fall afoul of a deranged killer. It's about the deranged killer, and that one poor, unlucky innocent who unexpectedly leads to the killer's downfall. And Anthony Perkins does a fantastic job of inhabiting Norman Bates, the attractive yet awkward, creepy but charismatic taxidermist who runs the family motel, and has serious mommy issues.

But even so, the MacGuffin that gets us to Bates Motel is not a single-minded plot vehicle with one-dimensional characters - as in so many dime-a-dozen slashers to come - but is as intriguingly fleshed out as any situation or set of characters in any one of Hitchcock's films, with genuine mystery and suspense. A lot of slashers have been made over the years by some very forgettable talents; in essence, Psycho is an example of what a slasher can be if it's done by a serious and talented filmmaker.

It's unfortunate, then, that it is no less aged than any of Hitchcock's other films. Its secrets have been uncovered a long time ago, and its shocks pale in comparison to what we've grown accustomed to in the decades since its initial release. However, I can admit that I have a newfound appreciation for it, both as a standalone movie (which is still very watchable), and also as a critical landmark in the history of horror cinema. Plus, it has, by far, the most satisfying ending in a Hitchcock film that I've seen yet.