Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Halloween!

I'd like to take this moment to wish all of my readers a Happy Halloween! I hope you've had a spooktacular October - I certainly have. Please allow me to also announce, debuting tonight, Halloween night 2013, my very new website banner! Just look at the top of the page to see it! I've been needing one ever since I started this blog three years ago, and this October I made a point to put one together. I hope you like it! I've also put together an index of the movie reviews you'll find on this blog, for easier navigation. Enjoy!

Freddy vs. Jason (2003)

Freddy vs. Jason follows in the schlock tradition of classics like Dracula vs. Frankenstein and King Kong vs. Godzilla, pitting two movie monsters and pop culture icons against one another. The way it introduces the two villains is actually an effective and fascinatingly concise distillation of their basic natures (Freddy haunting kids' dreams, and Jason stalking vice-ridden campers). The intro for Freddy, in fact, is excellently creepy, and better captures his delicately perverse nature than any of the other Nightmare movies (with the possible exception of the remake).

The premise is actually pretty clever (at least confined within the rules of these series): Freddy and Jason both being sort of dead and/or "in hell", Freddy haunts Jason's dreams to trick him into returning to life (because he's just immortal that way), to travel to Elm Street, and strike fear into the hearts (and dreams) of the kids there - because it's fear that Freddy lives off of. And with the Springwood Slasher and the Crystal Lake Killer on the loose, you're not safe asleep or awake. But, of course, once the villains are both back to "life" and hunting the same kids, it's inevitable that a rivalry will develop.

The fundamental question is, who will win, and whose side are you on? Personally, I'm a Freddy guy. At least when he's taken seriously, he's the scarier figure, with the creepier back story - let's be honest, Freddy is actually an intelligent creature with twisted morals, whereas Jason is basically a brainless old testament avenger out to punish sinners. Plus, Freddy's got the whole dream thing going on, which is fantastically imaginative. And, simply put, the original A Nightmare on Elm Street is a much better movie than the original Friday the 13th. But that's not to say that I don't like Jason - I'm particularly fond of the summer camp atmosphere, and there is something about that mask of his - but if we're playing favorites, Freddy's got my vote.

Smartly (and could you really imagine it any other way?), the movie doesn't alienate either fanbase, and actually does a good job of emphasizing each character's strengths and advantages in different environments (namely, between dreams and the real world). Frankly, as cheesy as the very idea of it is, it's exciting to see two such iconic figures together in one movie. And the cross-pollination of the series' imagery and cliches (Friday the 13th's partying youngsters, and the dream-haunted youths of Elm Street) - the pinnacle of which involves a low-life feeling up a girl who's passed out at a party (brilliant!) - is, frankly, quite amusing (in the macabre sort of way). It's a tongue-in-cheek crowd-pleaser, but by those standards, it's pretty good fun. And, honestly, it's considerably better than the worst of either the Friday the 13th or the A Nightmare on Elm Street sequels. If you're a fan of either or (especially) both of these characters, this film can't be missed.

A Nightmare on Elm Street Marathon

Spoiler Warning: As each title in this series tends to build and expand upon the events and revelations contained in the previous title(s), each of the following reviews may contain spoilers from previous titles in the series.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

A Nightmare on Elm Street arrives late to the game, the last of the big slasher franchises to debut, starting up only after Halloween and Friday the 13th have both had a couple of sequels. But, rather than being derivative, Nightmare manages actually to be very clever. I think it is the most imaginative of the slashers, and I would easily rate it above Friday the 13th and probably also Halloween (and maybe even The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). (Fun fact: where Friday the 13th featured Kevin Bacon in a bit part, A Nightmare on Elm Street has Johnny Depp, in his very first film role). Nightmare's got not only the most charismatic of the slasher killers, Freddy Krueger - whose intimidation factor is surprisingly not dulled by his morbid sense of style and humor, that often finds him quipping one-liners, yet whose favorite haunt is a very creepy boiler room - but also features what I would rate as the strongest and most independent of the final girls, in Heather Langenkamp's portrayal of Nancy, a proactive girl who spends most of the movie trying to figure out how to stop Freddy, and not simply being his most elusive prey. One more thing that distinguishes A Nightmare on Elm Street above its progenitors is its fantastic usage of gore fx in some of the most imaginative kills in any slasher, ever. This is at least partly inspired by the fact that the killer attacks people in their dreams, where he isn't bound by the usual laws of physics - and the movie expertly blurs the lines between reality and the dream world. If there is one point where the film falters, it's in the conclusion, which suffers from an inability to decide whether to resolve the story or keep it open for sequels. You can guess which direction won out in the end.

A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)

Unfortunately, Freddy's Revenge isn't half as good as A Nightmare on Elm Street. It's horribly dated by far too heavy an '80s flavor, and the leads have a tendency to overact some of their emotional scenes (and, curiously, underact others). Plus, the story's just not that interesting, and Freddy's characterization suffers from the new motivation the writers have given him. In the first movie, Freddy's quest for revenge was intriguing enough that you didn't need to ask questions like how does he have these dream powers anyway? But here, in the sequel, you're left wondering, why exactly does he need to possess somebody else's body? Because if his greatest joy in life is torturing kids and killing them, then being a nightmare phantom would seem to suit him just fine. But answers aren't forthcoming. We do get a look at Freddy's real world boiler room in this movie, though, and there are some disturbing nightmare creatures towards the end. But aside from one or two, the dream sequences in this movie aren't as captivating, or as seamlessly integrated, and the story just kind of plods along, lacking the intrigue and pacing of the previous movie.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)

Heather Langenkamp returns as Nancy in the third installment of the Nightmare series. Having survived Freddy's nightmares once before, she's earned a degree in the field of sleep disorders, and is hired as an aide at the psychiatric hospital where this movie largely takes place (inevitably drawing parallels to Friday the 13th Part V - but fortunately, this is a much better movie than that was). Ignoring the misstep that was Freddy's Revenge, Freddy is back and tormenting the dreams of the remaining children of the parents who killed him, all of which are being driven to drastic measures to ward off sleep. Nancy's approach involving drug-induced dreamless sleep is only a temporary solution, but one of the girls has the unique power to pull other people into her dreams, so they band together to put up a united front against Freddy's nightmares. Meanwhile, we're finally given a [suitably macabre] origin story for Freddy Krueger, which suggests a possible source for his supernatural abilities, as well as a possible way to stop him for good. Dream Warriors has good characters, more imaginative and frightening dream sequences, and expands on the mythos of the series. It's everything you could want in a sequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)

In Part 4 of the Nightmare saga, the surviving Dream Warriors find themselves once again haunted by Freddy's nightmares - despite having located his remains and buried them in consecrated ground in the last installment, which should have laid the "bastard son of a hundred maniacs" to rest (at least according to the ghost of his mother). But Kristen's ability to pull other people into her dreams can't protect them from being killed, and Freddy learns to take advantage of that ability to reach out into the dreams of other kids, whose parents weren't involved in his murder, to find new victims. The Dream Master revives the suburban/schoolyard feel of the first Nightmare, with several kids banding together to figure out Freddy and fight off his nightmares. The dream sequences are lush and complex, and the characters are likable. The kills are not as memorably grotesque as in the first Nightmare (although some of them are pretty elaborate), but they are imaginative, with Freddy using the kids' own biggest fears against them. Part 4 is a good Nightmare sequel, well worth watching, and even the strong late '80s feel doesn't diminish its eerie atmosphere.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)

In Part 4, The Dream Master defeated Freddy on his own turf - in the dream world - and released the souls of all the children he'd killed. But because the lure of profit is stronger than logical consistency, Freddy has found some esoteric way to be reborn anew, while also inexplicably blurring the lines between dreams and reality - not just in perception, but apparently in actuality. It's one thing if a movie doesn't dovetail logically with the others, but it's problematic when its own internal logic doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The Dream Child has some interesting ideas - among them, further exploration of Freddy's birth, and the character of his mother - but unfortunately it just doesn't come together well. It's hard to even enjoy the special effects, which are unforgivably hokey. The film's strongest beat is the hint of eroticism in the opening scenes - an element with endless potential in this series, but one that has never been properly addressed (probably for fear of its mixture with the dark themes prevalent in these stories) - but it doesn't last long. This is one of those movies where I feel like they were going in the right direction, but they took the wrong route to get there, and I just feel creatively frustrated as a result of watching it.

Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)

Freddy's Dead starts right out the gate with an ambitious premise - ten years into the future, all of the children (and teenagers) have been killed off in Freddy's hometown of Springwood (presumably by Freddy, with no explanation for his return after his defeat in the last movie), except one. And Freddy's using him to secure a link to the outside world (and its children). The movie opens with a dream that rips off The Wizard of Oz, to rather silly (not so much scary) effect, set to the tune of Night on Bald Mountain. A lot of people complain about how the character of Freddy Krueger devolved into a rather un-scary comedian in the Nightmare sequels. I've never had a problem with Freddy quipping one-liners as he offs teenagers - the fact that he takes such glee in killing, and can treat such a serious issue with light-hearted humor just reinforces his sadistic nature. But here, it finally crosses the line for me. Also, the special effects, which have been getting increasingly tacky, take the dreams from eerie sequences to just plain embarrassing to watch (even Freddy's face doesn't look right in this movie). Roseanne actually makes an appearance. Roseanne. It's too bad this isn't a better movie (with better effects), because it finally addresses the source of Freddy's dream powers, gives the audience a peek into certain parts of his life that had never been seen before, and, of course, kills him off once and for all (until Freddy vs. Jason, I guess...).

Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)

Wes Craven (who wrote/directed the original A Nightmare on Elm Street)'s New Nightmare is unique among the slasher sequels, and is without a doubt the most original take on any one of these slasher franchises (while also being a clever criticism of those sequels' degrading quality). New Nightmare goes meta, taking us behind the scenes on the production of a new Nightmare movie, developed from Wes' script about an ancient demon that can only be captured by storytellers, when Freddy seems to start haunting the dreams of the cast members in real life. Heather Langenkamp is illuminating as always, and it's fascinating to see Robert Englund as an actor, a person, a regular human being - the man behind the grease paint, as Wes says.

The difference in quality and realism between this movie and the rest of the slasher sequels is like night and day. All of those other movies feel like movies (and many of them, not very good movies), but this movie feels eerily real. Which makes it all that much creepier when Freddy moves not from the dream world to the waking world, but from the dreams of fictional characters to the dreams of real people. It also works as an excellent exploration of the real world effects that horror movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street have on people, giving them nightmares and whatnot - while at the same time suggesting that scary stories like this one serve an integral purpose in keeping even realer horrors at bay. It's an extremely intelligent movie, almost like it has no business being a slasher sequel - except that I think all slashers (and even their sequels) should aspire to this level, and not content themselves with being cheap entertainment.

Conclusion: A Nightmare on Elm Street distinguishes itself from the average slasher by introducing one of the most imaginative premises: a killer that haunts you in your dreams. And while Freddy Krueger - with his ultra-creative glove with finger knives and his scarred flesh - is among the darkest of slasher villains, he possesses a macabre sense of humor and a distinct style and personality. Here are my picks for the entries in the Nightmare series that I think are most worth your time:

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)
Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)

Friday the 13th Marathon

Spoiler Warning: As each title in this series tends to build and expand upon the events and revelations contained in the previous title(s), each of the following reviews may contain spoilers from previous titles in the series.

Friday the 13th (1980)

Friday the 13th follows on the heels of Halloween, further defining what was fast becoming the formula for slasher pics, refining it to the familiar "rowdy teens get offed in the woods one by one" format we all know by heart. Unfortunately, it's also the most over-exposed and easily-parodied of the slasher franchises, and doesn't manage to be as effective as either The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Halloween, despite creating an eerie atmosphere around the iconic setting of Camp Crystal Lake. One thing Friday the 13th does (arguably) have going for it is an actually plausible explanation for the trope that would be brainlessly imitated (and later subverted) ad nauseam by countless slashers to come - namely, that teens who engage in illicit behaviors (drinking, drugs, and especially premarital sex) will be the first to go. That being a crucial part of the premise, it's no surprise that Friday the 13th - more than any other slasher to come before it - built a reputation for itself as an audience-pleasing title that would promise scenes of teenage mischief (including lots of nudity - or at least partial nudity) in addition to more and more imaginative (and eventually ridiculous) kills, for the purpose of dazzling viewers, as much as scaring them, for years to come.

Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)

The fact that the killer in the first Friday the 13th wasn't Jason, but his mother - an older woman - almost seems subversive in hindsight, but there's a reason Pamela Voorhees isn't the figurehead of the franchise. And Jason's shocking appearance at the end of the first movie not only sets up his rise to prominence in the sequel, but serves as one of the most memorable "final scares" (another trope that's since been done to death) in all of horror. If anything, Friday the 13th Part 2 is even better than the first part, with more interesting characters, a better-developed summer camp atmosphere, and the writer's good judgment to frame Jason as the focus of a campfire legend. Here, Jason is less the supernatural force of nature that he would become, and more a simple-minded freak (haunted by memories of his mother) with a penchant for killing, distinguished by the almost comical sack he wears over his head, to protect his vanity. If you only wanted to watch one Friday the 13th movie, this one would not be a bad choice.

Friday the 13th Part III (1982)

What Friday the 13th lacks in quality, it makes up for in quantity, with more and faster sequels than its leading competitors. Which may have been for the best, considering that it's not until the third movie that Jason finally picks up the hockey mask that will come to define his image. And compared to other slasher franchises that seem determined to cash in on former glory with every new sequel, Friday the 13th (or maybe just Jason as a character) is a story that almost seems designed to be developed over multiple titles. That having been said, the series sees a dip in quality with Part III, which at times feels like a self-parody. The expendables are pretty much interchangeable, and their absorption into drugs, sex (take your pick), and/or biker gangs (no kidding) is over-exaggerated. And by this point, Jason's constant skulking around is beginning to get tiresome. Still, it's a thrill to see him finally donning that hockey mask.

Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)

Friday the 13th is fond of lengthy recap scenes, to bring the audience up to date with each new installment, and The Final Chapter begins with one of the more effective openings, recycling the campfire story from Part 2. Having endured being hanged and an axe chop to the forehead in the previous installment, Jason's lifeless body is finally taken into custody. But apparently two lechers making out on a stretcher in the morgue is enough to bring his interminable sense of old testament justice back to life. Thankfully, The Final Chapter is a good deal better than Part III, even nearing the level of Part 2 - and with the advantage that Jason's got his iconic mask. In fact, the killer is at his behind-the-scenes best here, only stepping out of the shadows when he's ready to strike. The Final Chapter also stars a chubby-cheeked, preteen Corey Feldman, along with the usual cast of teenagers, who I might add, provide this movie with enough nudity to make it one of the best slashers in terms of the balance between sex and violence. This is easily one of the best Friday the 13th sequels, so enjoy it before the series takes a dive.

Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985)

In the conclusion to The Final Chapter, little Tommy Jarvis survived by diving a little too far into Jason's headspace. In A New Beginning, he's grown a few years, and that experience has unhinged him. And when he transfers to an out-of-the-way "youth development center", the killings begin again. Has Jason returned from the grave? Like Part III, this film has more of a farm than a lake atmosphere - and, also like Part III, it's not one of the better Friday the 13th sequels. You've got your usual gang of teenagers, except this time they are all "troubled" youth - and the caricatures of mental illness on display aren't all that sensitive. Too many of the actors (oddly, sometimes the non-crazies more than the crazies) oversell their characters, acting as if they're trying to be funny. Even if they succeeded, it wouldn't be the right tone for a Friday the 13th movie, but they don't, and that just hurts the film all the more.

Perhaps the only thing this movie does well is set up the slasher as a mystery. There's enough ambiguity about Jason's death (was Tommy's vision of Jason rising from his grave a memory or just a nightmare? Was Jason really cremated, or is that just a rumor? What exactly was the extent of Jason's off-screen damages at the end of the last movie, and what kind of healing powers does he have anyway?) and plenty of characters built up as red herrings to genuinely leave you guessing (that is, if you're naive enough to think that they'd make a Friday the 13th movie where the killer is NOT Jason). Unfortunately, the movie's just not good enough to make the mystery worth solving. It relies far too heavily on cliches, which comes off as extremely lazy writing. For a movie subtitled "A New Beginning", it doesn't inspire much hope for the future of the franchise.

Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

The internal logic that "connects" the Friday the 13th movies was never very strong (in fact, even Jason being a killer in the first place was something of a retcon of the first movie). Here, it's worse than ever, probably on account of the filmmakers disagreeing about where to take the series. Rumor has it that A New Beginning was supposed to usher in the era of a copycat killer posing as Jason, and the real Jason was really supposed to be done in at the end of The Final Chapter. But, as the subtitle to Part VI suggests, Jason's popularity was too great for him to stay dead for very long. And, considering the would-be fatal treatment he endured in Part IV, he's made a remarkable recovery, though he's looking more ghoulish and zombified than ever before. Of course, his indifference to the natural process of death makes him all the more intimidating - woe be to any rebellious teenagers that cross his path. Excitingly, the series is back to the summer camp environment in Part VI - with kids (and not just counselors) for the first time! Plus, Tommy is running around in the background, serving as Jason's primary adversary. Part VI, like Parts 2 and IV before it, understands much of what makes Friday the 13th tick, and knows how to position Jason as the iconic, fan-favored figure he is, although it suffers a little from a conspicuous lack of nudity. It's not the best Friday sequel, but it isn't the worst, either.

Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)

Thinking that Jason could be stopped for good by returning him to the lake he originally drowned in was a creative idea, but not a particularly smart one. After all, he was resting pretty soundly in his grave, until Tommy had to come along and dig him up, allowing for a fortuitous lightning strike to reanimate his body. Of course, that begs the question of why somebody doesn't just destroy the body altogether - like, by cremation, as was rumored in Part V, and as Tommy failed at doing in Part VI. But at this point in the series (which was never intelligent cinema to begin with), all that matters is ending each movie with Jason's climactic death, and then bringing him back anyway, in the very next installment.

The New Blood ditches the Tommy character altogether (which is just as well), and ramps up the supernatural element with a new character who possesses latent psychic abilities (comparisons with Carrie are not out of place). But her trauma from seeing her father drown as a child (and likely being the cause of his death), and the conflict with her self-serving therapist comes off very soap-opera-y at times. And the flock of teenagers in the cabin next door aren't very interesting. The New Blood isn't terrible, but it's an extremely mediocre entry in the series. The most it has going for it is a few imaginative kills (Jason really starts getting creative with his killing implements here), and the final showdown between Jason and the psychic girl, which is admittedly as exciting as it is cheesy. But it's not enough to save this movie from mediocrity.

Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)

Jason Takes Manhattan is a strange animal. It's actually not a bad movie - the writing and characters are better than average for a slasher movie (although the harbinger's presence in this case is completely inexplicable). And I don't want to be the kind of person who says, "you can't be innovative and take Jason new places," especially after - what, 7 iterations of more or less the same thing? But Jason Takes Manhattan (which could just as well be called Jason Takes A Cruise) doesn't really have the feeling of a Friday the 13th movie. And I guess you could take that as a plus or a minus. Personally, I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing, but I don't see why the killer has to be Jason at all. It could have been any serial killer or movie monster. I almost want to say that this movie exists right on that cusp between the classic slashers (of which Friday the 13th was obviously one of the front-runners), and the newer era that the '90s would usher in, which eventually led to the Screams and the I Know What You Did Last Summers and their ilk. In any case, Jason Takes Manhattan gets pretty ridiculous towards the end, but if you don't take it too seriously, it's actually a lot of fun.

Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993)

So Part VIII of Friday the 13th had what was probably the most imaginative and convincingly final death of Jason yet - with him dissolving in a torrent of toxic waste in the sewers underneath Manhattan. And yet, he still comes back for Part IX (although ostensibly The Final Friday, we all remember how The Final Chapter worked out - five movies ago). Jason Goes to Hell opens with an extremely clever ruse, that borders on self-aware parody (of the good, smart kind). And it would have made a fine denouement for the series (and final conclusion for the character of Jason Voorhees), except that it lasts less than ten minutes, and this movie has another hour and twenty minutes to tell a ridiculous story about how the "curse" of Jason spreads from one body to another.

I said it the last time I watched this movie - this late in the series, with Jason's iconic look so well-established, it just loses its impact when the killer is some random guy (especially when it's several random guys throughout the course of the movie). If Jason Takes Manhattan didn't have the atmosphere of a Friday the 13th movie, at least the killer was still Jason. Here, it's some slimy worm that transfers orally from body to body. I mean, the freaking Necronomicon makes an appearance! Don't get me wrong, I love to see the Necronomicon show up in movies, but since when does it have anything to do with Jason Voorhees?

What this is, is a fairly run-of-the-mill supernatural slasher-of-the-'90s, superficially dressed up as a Friday the 13th movie. Although it is fun to watch Steven Williams (who played the informant X on The X-Files) in the role of a mysterious bounty hunter, his presence and very existence is inexplicable, except as a convenient avatar for the writer to explain to the audience the otherwise baseless rules of Jason's "curse". I guess, all told, this movie is not quite as bad as I remembered it, but given the deterioration of the series (also apparent in A Nightmare on Elm Street's parallel entry, The Final Nightmare), maybe it's a good thing that they were wrapping it up. It would have been nice if they'd ended on a stronger note, although it's not exactly like it actually stopped them from making more movies later on. I mean, even this one, as final as it's supposed to be, ends with an explicit teaser for the Freddy vs. Jason match-up that was still ten years in coming.

Jason X (2001)

With seemingly no explanation as to the continuity between this movie and its predecessors (Jason seems to have become more of an archetype than simply a recurring character by this point), Jason X jumps ahead into the future (giving this installment of the franchise a very unusual and alien feeling), with a research facility rightfully treating Jason as a scientific anomaly, whose remarkable regenerative properties promise the hope of groundbreaking technological breakthroughs. That is, if Jason can be contained long enough for anyone to figure out his secrets.

Jason X follows Jason Takes Manhattan and Jason Goes To Hell in further diluting the original concept of a summer camp killer (remember that?) and taking Jason to another setting far removed from Crystal Lake. But when he gets cryogenically frozen and eventually discovered 455 years later by a recon team that subsequently takes him up into space, Jason X shows its colors as a ridiculous 21st century "b" quality SyFy channel movie-of-the-week cheesefest, that relies too heavily on CG fx. I suppose that if you don't take it seriously, and if you have the right sense of humor (some of the self-referential jabs were funny, in a very unscary way), you might be able to enjoy it, but frankly, it's pretty dumb - even for a Friday the 13th movie - and too silly for my tastes.

Conclusion: The fun of the Friday the 13th movies relies on its adherence to what has become the typical slasher formula that mixes sex, drugs, and other expressions of youthful rebellion with the violence that the guilt complex in our collective unconscious fears is the primitive repercussion for those acts. Though only standing in for this retributive force, Jason Voorhees, eventually with his hockey mask and machete (among other implements of doom), manages to stand out as an icon of fear that stalks the woods beside the archetypal lake where you go to summer camp. Here are my picks for the entries in the Friday the 13th series that I think are most worth your time:

Friday the 13th (1980)
Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)
Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

Halloween Marathon

Spoiler Warning: As each title in this series tends to build and expand upon the events and revelations contained in the previous title(s), each of the following reviews may contain spoilers from previous titles in the series.

Halloween (1978)

Halloween is not quite as fast-paced as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that came before it, but that's fine, because it takes its time conjuring a compelling atmosphere of autumn festivities in a quiet, suburban town that could be just like your own (to contrast all the better with the terror that's about to befall). To my knowledge, Halloween also pioneers the popular slasher trope of the killer who just keeps getting up and coming at you, no matter what you throw at him. Jamie Lee Curtis is fantastic as Laurie Strode, Donald Pleasence plays a captivating Dr. Loomis - the only man who truly knows how dangerous Michael Myers is - and John Carpenter's score is simple but hauntingly memorable.

Halloween II (1981)

The first Halloween ends abruptly, without resolution, but it suits the atmosphere of the film, as if to spook the audience one last time by saying "and he's still out there". It also sets up the sequel perfectly, which picks up immediately where the first film left off, in order to give the audience another hour and a half of scares, as Michael Myers continues his rampage through the night. As such, the tone of the second film is very much in line with the first one, minus the big buildup to the inevitable confrontation (although there are pockets of down time, to give the audience a breather), and with the mayhem eventually transposed from the suburban streets to the nearby hospital where final girl Laurie Strode ends up after the events of the last film. Despite the couple of years separating their releases, Halloween and Halloween II make for a really good double feature.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

Halloween III is an anomaly among the slasher sequels, in that it exists entirely outside the narrative of the other Halloween movies. It doesn't feature Michael Myers or any of the other characters we've been introduced to. It's not even really a slasher. It's a movie about some evil corporation's plot to kill the world's children (because modern Halloweens don't have enough human sacrifice), and the pair of amateur detectives who must stop them before their plan goes into action on Halloween night. But don't despair, it's actually pretty good - if you can get past the fact that it's not Halloween III: Michael Myers Kills Some More. It's got a pretty ridiculous premise, but it makes for a fun and creepy story that blends elements of horror and science-fiction. Rumor has it that the original concept for Halloween was to be an anthology series of stand-alone horror stories focused around the holiday, but Michael Myers proved to be so popular, that instead, the series turned into a flagship for the crowd-pleasing villain (for better or worse). It's almost too bad, because I would have relished the opportunity to see more variations on horror movies that focus on Halloween.

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

Not to be outdone by Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, both of which were rapidly churning out sequels, and after that failed attempt at turning Halloween into an anthology series, Michael Myers returns to the screen. Compared to the wide open ending of the first Halloween, Halloween II seemed determined to finish the saga, with Dr. Loomis and Michael Myers both burning up in a blazing explosion. But here they have both miraculously survived to spar again, and the movie pretty closely follows the formula set out in the first Halloween - with Michael Myers once again breaking out of confinement on the eve of Halloween, ten years after his first rampage, and Dr. Loomis tracking him back to his home town of Haddonfield. But, with Jamie Lee Curtis absent as Myers' primary target, Laurie Strode (who it was revealed, in retcon fashion in Halloween II, is his long lost sister), we have in her place her allegedly orphaned (and adopted by a foster family) 7-year-old daughter Jamie, played by the adorable Danielle Harris. Although there's no explanation as to why she has nightmares about Michael Myers, who has been locked up her entire life, or why she would imagine him in his Halloween mask, when she wasn't even alive during his previous rampage. Still, Halloween 4's adherence to formula brings a welcome familiarity, like visiting old friends, with enough new faces to keep it interesting. The movie is actually pretty good, and builds to an exciting climax, with a haunting, if somewhat incredulous, ending. I may have even enjoyed it a little more than Halloween II.

Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989)

Halloween 4's shocking ending seemed poised to put Jamie in the position of following in the footsteps of Michael Myers (much like Tommy following Jason in the ending to Friday the 13th Part V - an idea that was also scrapped). But here, it's established that she has some kind of psychic link with the killer (providing a much-needed explanation for her telepathic visions in the last movie). She's also somehow lost her voice - thankfully only temporarily, because she made for an excellent scream queen (scream princess?) in the last movie. In fact, Danielle Harris is fantastic here; I think I like her even better than Jamie Lee Curtis. Dr. Loomis, on the other hand - I've always liked his bristly personality. It demonstrates the effect looking after Michael Myers has had on him, and reflects the singular urgency he possesses as the only one who truly understands just how dangerous Michael is. But in this movie he does begin to become obnoxious, mostly due to his inability to deal with children properly. Halloween 5 has a long running time, and drags a bit in the middle, but it starts out strong, and finishes with a bang, featuring what I consider to be the most gripping (if unexplained) ending in any of these slasher movies. It's not the best Halloween sequel, but I feel it's worth sitting through.

Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)

All the way back in Halloween II, there was a scene where the ancient name for Halloween - Samhain - was invoked, alluding to ancient pagan rituals, and suggesting a possible cause for the evil behind Michael Myers' murderous rampage. But back then, it was more of a symbolic element, that even the philosophizing Dr. Loomis brushed off as superstition. But lurking in the background of Halloween 5 was an element that comes to the forefront in The Curse of Michael Myers. Namely, that there is a secret druidic cult pulling the strings. After countless rehashings of the same basic formula, it's fitting that we should get some more insight into the force that drives Michael to hunt those of his own blood on Halloween, killing anyone who gets in the way, but recasting Michael Myers as a demon on a leash and not an independent agent ultimately hampers his image.

The sixth installment of Halloween opens on a chilling note, with Jamie (disappointingly not reprised by Danielle Harris) grown up (to the ripe, old age of 15) and giving birth, in the custody of the cult that controls Michael (to the extent that he can be controlled), who are most likely breeding her for infant human sacrifices (if not some other nefarious purpose - ironically, explanations in this movie that tries to explain things are often not very clear). But she manages to escape, and so the typical hunt begins. Here we find little Tommy Doyle from the first Halloween all grown up, and Dr. Loomis can't resist returning from retirement when news of Michael Myers' return to Haddonfield reaches him. This movie also debuts the "cult of Michael Myers" in a very different sense, with his previous rampages entering the public consciousness, and certain obsessed fans fawning over his "mystique". A radio station schedules a live broadcast in Haddonfield which is having its first Halloween in 6 years. Guess who shows up for the party. The Curse of Michael Myers has some jumbled ideas, a confusing ending, and I think this is a case of "curiosity killed the cat" - Michael Myers was simply more interesting as a mystery - but it's not a terrible movie, and it has its fair share of thrills and kills. It just kind of misses the mark in trying to make sense of some of the unanswered questions in the franchise.

Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998)

Sadly, Donald Pleasence passed away during the later stages of production on The Curse of Michael Myers, and the absence of his character Dr. Loomis is felt here. I wonder how much the loss of his name being attached to the next Halloween movie inspired the idea to bring Jamie Lee Curtis back to the series. After the deviations in the fourth, fifth, and sixth parts of the Halloween saga, H20 wipes the slate clean (largely ignoring the events of those movies), and returns to familiar ground, picking up the story of Laurie Strode (whose alleged death in a car crash was faked so she could go into hiding) all grown up with a teenage son. Going by the new name of Keri Tate, she is headmistress of a "very posh, secluded private school". But she is haunted by memories of the trauma she endured twenty years ago, and by the thought that Michael Myers may still be out there, and that one day he might find her. Well, you can guess what happens come Halloween night. Although there is a side story involving Keri's son and his friends that plays out in typical slasher fashion, this movie is really about Keri's redemption, and not Michael's rampage. Indeed, she picks up the slack felt by Dr. Loomis' absence, as the tortured soul who can never rest until she's faced Michael Myers and beaten him. H20 is a good movie, and a good Halloween sequel, though it stops short of being as thrilling, captivating, or original as the original. But as a movie that explores the long term fate of the first Halloween's leading protagonist, it can't be missed.

Halloween: Resurrection (2002)

Perhaps not surprisingly, Michael Myers' ostensibly definitive demise-by-decapitation at the end of H20 was not as final as it seemed, as he is resurrected once again by a rather unsatisfying retcon of that ending. It's hard to fault Jamie Lee Curtis for demanding that her character be unambiguously finished off within the first fifteen minutes of Halloween: Resurrection, but it doesn't bode well for the rest of the film. Indeed, this is the first film since the first one (before Laurie Strode became Michael's sister) that doesn't have Michael hunting anyone in particular (i.e., surviving members of his family), but rather defending the sanctity of his home. And without Dr. Loomis' superstitious pontifications about evil, either (instead we get a university professor briefly lecturing about Jungian archetypes - in particular, the shadow), he may just as well be any old serial killer - that is, beside the resurrection of his status as a sort of macabre pop culture icon like we saw in Halloween 6. So instead of Jamie Lee Curtis or Donald Pleasence, the lead actor in this movie is Busta Rhymes (alongside Tyra Banks), and that pretty much tells you all you need to know. Busta plays the host of a webshow titled "Dangertainment", whose brilliant idea it is to lock several volunteering university students in the old Michael Myers house on Halloween night. And like all reality shows, the host has some tricks up his sleeve to guarantee an exciting program. What he doesn't count on is Michael Myers coming home.

The surveillance footage and first person perspective cameras give the film, in sporadic bursts, the vaguest semblance of a found footage film, but the footage is too grainy and lo-fi (and not even in a mood-enhancing way) to add much in the way of intrigue to the story. It comes off more as an attempt to be all "this is the 21st century", than to instill the film with an in-the-middle-of-the-action sense of urgency. However, what it does accomplish is to successfully blur the line between fiction and reality, when we see a subset of the internet audience - watching the events in the house as we are - cheer on what they imagine to be a Halloween prank but we know is actually Michael Myers going on a killing spree. And while to us it's still only fiction, to the fictional audience this is real violence that they are unwittingly enjoying. Which is a chilling thought, and could be the setup for some great commentary on the nature of violence as entertainment, especially as ubiquitous and easy to access as it is on the internet. Unfortunately, Halloween: Resurrection simply leaves it at that without making a statement, because otherwise, it's a pretty run-of-the-mill slasher with mediocre characters, and doesn't even particularly have the feeling of a Halloween movie. I actually didn't hate it as much as the first time I watched it (maybe my standards are being eroded by this point in my slasher mega-marathon, with all the Freddy's Deads and the Jason Xs...), but it's still not that good.

Conclusion: My favorite aspect of the Halloween movies is the way they conjure the suburban atmosphere of the holiday, whether it's teens going to costume parties or kids trick 'r treating. Yet, Michael Myers embodies a faceless evil - the bogeyman that can't be killed - and reminds us that the roots of Halloween go deeper than pranks and candy. Here are my picks for the entries in the Halloween series that I think are most worth your time:

Halloween (1978)
Halloween II (1981)
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989)
Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998)

(I also recommend Halloween III, but you should watch it as a stand-alone film, and not consider it part of the Halloween series).

Texas Chainsaw Massacre Marathon

Spoiler Warning: As each title in this series tends to build and expand upon the events and revelations contained in the previous title(s), each of the following reviews may contain spoilers from previous titles in the series.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

I think the greatest success of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is how effective it remains all these decades after it was released, and after horror audiences have been bombarded and desensitized to movies of its kind. Yet it effects a raw brutality that has so rarely been achieved since; and, amazingly, it does so with a relative scarcity of explicit gore. Watching it, it's surprisingly easy to imagine what it must have been like seeing it in 1974, when audiences were probably a lot more naive than they are today. The title alone evokes a brutal kind of horror, and the movie delivers on its promise. It presents itself as if it were a true story, and the starkness of its filming lends credence to the suggestion. It ultimately builds up to an extremely intense climax that I dare say has not been rivaled by any of the other titles in slasher canon. This is not tongue-in-cheek, root for the killer, Saturday night slasher fun, this is running through the woods, screaming at the top of your lungs, with a 250 pound chainsaw on your ass.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the least commodified of the big slasher franchises. Though it came out first, it was the last to receive a sequel. Where the first Texas Chain Saw Massacre was breaking new ground, the second one finds itself treading a crowded market. You'd think that since this is only the second title in the series, it would maintain a purity that the other slasher franchises (in particular, Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street) had diluted by the year 1986. But within the first ten minutes you've got what appears to be Leatherface inexplicably decked out in a Halloween ghoul costume (oh wait, was that supposed to be a corpse?) truck-surfing at 90 miles an hour as he dispatches a couple of unlikable young hooligans. Meanwhile, his daddy who cooks a mean barbecue (the secret's in the meat) is winning trophies at chili cook-offs. It just gets worse when the brother shows up. Talk about jumping the shark in record time. In the first Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Leatherface's family was a terrifying portrait of simple-minded backwoods cannibals. Here, they're like a homicidal vaudeville troupe on tour in the city. Not even a chainsaw dual can save this movie from stinking. I had high hopes for the Chainsaw sequels, but this movie dashed them against the rocks.

Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)

Much to my relief, TCM III brings back the serious tone of the first movie. It starts out with a bit of a desert-y, The Hills Have Eyes kind of atmosphere, prefacing the story with a note that, after the events of the first massacre (and presumably ignoring the second movie), the elusive figure known as "Leatherface" is still at large. A young couple is traveling through Texas on a cross country road trip, right through an area where police have lately been finding disgusting pits of putrefied human remains. Viggo Mortensen appears as a mysterious drifter the couple meet at a disturbing gas station in the middle of nowhere. TCM III borrows a lot from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but it doesn't have the raw, gritty feeling of the original, and comes off feeling like an inauthentic imitation. Leatherface hasn't looked right - or been quite as intimidating - since the first movie, and neither is the house as creepy-looking, in spite of the multitude of bones piled up. I think the movie puts a little too much effort into piecing together "a portrait of a happy, cannibal family", and (except for the little girl) it doesn't come off as disturbing as I think it wants to be. Plus, the chases and the final climax are just not as thrilling as the original. Ultimately, it's not nearly as off-putting as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was, but neither does it stand out from the pack, or approach the quality of the first one.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)

The fourth installment occurs about twenty years after the first Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and (shockingly) stars Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey (either they weren't huge yet, or this is a demonstration of the new wave of slashers that were able to somehow swing big stars). The Next Generation starts out with a lot more promise than the last two sequels, introducing characters that are actually pretty interesting, who are about to ditch their senior prom. Unfortunately for them, they end up lost in backwoods Texas. Truth be told, this movie borrows a lot of important elements from the first massacre, but they're integrated effectively, and, in my opinion, it passes well as homage rather than imitation. Leatherface does look a little silly with a mullet (I actually wasn't that bothered by his crossdressing - cross-skinning? - phase), but he's the most intimidating he's been since the original TCM. The final act does curiously devolve into near absurdity, but it's strangely effective, and the movie reaches a thrilling, frenetic pace that hasn't been accomplished since the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre. At one point, when two mysterious suits show up (I think it has something to do with a big conspiracy), one of them seems almost to be making a knowing statement about the misstep that the first Chainsaw sequel took, when he says, "I want these people to know the meaning of horror. You don't want to be a silly boy." The Next Generation is easily the best Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel, at least until the remake.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

For better or worse, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequels have relied a lot on repetition of the basic formula utilized in the first film (and failed when trying to deviate from that formula), so perhaps it's a good thing that this version of the story is able to commit itself to retelling the events we've seen before, with a modern sensibility, without feeling compelled to avoid sticking too closely to the script. Fact is, the first Texas Chain Saw Massacre was a groundbreaking cinematic spectacle (in horror), and filmmakers have had a hard time trying to continue the story or the characters beyond it (in traditional sequel fashion). Happily, the TCM remake revives the gritty feeling of the original, staying true to its source, and adhering strictly to the faux documentary approach of the original, while allowing for the flourishes that modern cinema provides (and modern audiences demand). The cinematography is excellent (and the women very pleasing to look at). Ironically, the film does such an excellent job of setting up this backwoods Texas town and its backwards inhabitants, that when the carnage does jump out at you, it's not as starkly surprising as it was in the original TCM. But what it lacks in sheer shock value, it makes up for in intensity, with plenty of gore, and some truly sadistic characters (one imagines that Eli Roth must have been inspired by this movie). Jessica Biel is amazing as the terrified heroine, and R. Lee Ermey conjures a thoroughly disturbing sadism that makes Leatherface's animal brutality seem almost gentle by comparison. This is a true edge-of-your-seat kind of movie, that captures the rhythm and intensity of the original without copying it scene for scene, striking a fine balance between homage and originality. It's just too bad that few if any of the remakes created during the craze that this movie probably started turned out nearly this well. But, if you're cynical, you might say the same thing about the slashers that followed in the wake of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This series is nothing if not a trendsetter.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)

Despite the open ending of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, the followup chose to go the prequel rather than the sequel route. Which is interesting, because it's the first time a TCM movie has gone back to take a look at the history behind our favorite chainsaw-wielding cannibal family. Yet, for better or worse, except for a captivating open credits sequence that glosses over Leatherface's birth and childhood, the movie opts to construct a typical slasher format that simply takes four years before (instead of anytime after) the events of the last movie. Which may be good, considering that what audiences probably want is another massacre, but I can't help feeling it missed the opportunity to tell a bit of a different kind of story (no less disturbing). It does, however, do a good job of establishing the state of things as we see them in the TCM remake, with the same location, and the same actors portraying the various members of the family (R. Lee Ermey, in particular, returns as the sadistic patriarch). Things are not quite so shot to hell yet, but the closing of the local slaughterhouse sets off a chain reaction that sends the Hewitt family into the depths we've seen them at a few short years later. Leatherface's transition, especially, from deformed outcast to chainsaw-wielding maniac, is especially exciting to witness. It may not be as strong or as harrowing as the TCM remake was, and some of the scenes really stretch the audience's credulity, but it's basically more of the same, and it has its share of great moments. So if you liked the last one, you'll probably enjoy this one. It's what I've been looking for in a Chainsaw sequel all along - a story connected to but independent of the first, that captures the mood of the first one. I don't know why it doesn't have a better reputation.

Conclusion: What I like best about the Texas Chainsaw Massacre is that, among the slasher franchises, it is the most brutal and unforgiving. This is reflected in Leatherface's choice of weapon - the chainsaw - and the fact that his killing instinct is animalistic, and involves cannibalism and wearing the skins of his victims. Here are my picks for the entries in the Chainsaw series that I think are most worth your time:

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Carrie (2013)

Watching Carrie (2013), it hit me that this is a very female story. From the horrors of childbirth, and the mother's mortal fear of sex, to the daughter's first period, and romantic dreams of a perfect prom. It's hard to imagine anyone not at this point being familiar with the story behind Carrie, but I suppose they must be out there. For the rest of us, it's pretty much inevitable that we're going to compare this new Carrie remake to the previous adaptation of this high school revenge fantasy turned supernatural penned by ubiquitous horror author Stephen King that was released all the way back in 1976.

However, comparisons are apt. I believe that the new director, Kimberly Peirce, may have added some unexpected flairs here or there, but altogether, Carrie (2013) doesn't have very many surprises. It's pretty much exactly the story you're expecting (and wanting to see). Therefore, its appeal must rely on how these mostly familiar scenes are shot, and how well the new actors do in their iconic roles. And from that perspective, I must say that it feels like a carefully constructed, expertly performed rendition of the story. If I may be perfectly frank, as great as the story is (it's every unpopular high school kid's ultimate revenge fantasy, with a dark twist), the original 1976 version can drag a bit.

What that version did have was Sissy Spacek in the titular role of Carrie White, the meek victim of her mother Margaret (played then by Piper Laurie)'s ultra-conservative, religiously-based psychological and physical abuse. Both actresses did a fine job in their roles, and I can say the same about this year's remake, which features Julianne Moore as the terminally sex-phobic mother, and rising starlet Chloe Grace Moretz as the eternally put-upon teenager who discovers that she has a unique and frightening power. I'll admit, it was a little hard to see Chloe in a role that demands hunched shoulders and a constantly averted gaze, when she's done so well as a person of confidence, in roles like Hit-Girl from the recent Kick-Ass 2 (and the earlier movie it sequels). But her acting chops are amazing, and she has a captivating presence on the screen.

Plus, she does eventually get her revenge. But this is a very sensitive story (probably more so than Brian De Palma's 1976 adaptation), that provides even the villains with their motivations (even if they are broken and/or unsympathetic people). Of particular note is the guilt-ridden bully-turned-would-be-savior, Sue Snell, played by the enchantingly pretty Gabriella Wilde, who adds another touching element to the story, unknowingly sending Carrie into the jaws of her more bitter rival, in an otherwise noble gesture of self-sacrificing pity. Chloe's handle on Carrie's telekinetic powers are fun to watch, and when the shit finally hits the fan, the movie provides an exciting climax that does not forget the human heart at the center of the piece.

Carrie is a story with a lot of symbolic potential. There is the battle between the religiously devout mother and her daughter with pagan powers. The conflict between the sexual aspect of human nature, and the religious directive to uphold to a rigid standard of modesty. There is the presentation of natural processes - like menstruation and childbirth - as the horrifying experiences they can be if one is not properly mentally prepared. Following on that, there's the issue of responsibility a parent, teacher, or society has for preparing a child for the changes that come with puberty, and the danger of trying prevent a child from growing up (something that far too many parents are guilty of doing). And of course, there's the symbolism made literal in Carrie, of puberty as a transformation through which a girl acquires a certain power and confidence, and how that facilitates her rebellion from (but not necessarily rejection of) her mother.

With all these concepts hanging in the air, I feel like maybe this story could be a little more than it is. To make a stronger statement. But in the end, the interpretations you make are left up to you. What it is, instead, is a pretty typical coming of age story, with plenty of drama, albeit with the fantastic addition of overbearing religious themes and supernatural powers, to provide a more imaginative and exciting movie-going experience. One that hinges on that iconic image of Carrie at the prom, target of a prank that the whole town would soon come to regret. I think that would be an awesome costume to wear on Halloween. I would totally love anybody who either went trick or treating or attended a Halloween costume party dressed as Carrie, in her prom dress, drenched in blood.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Re-Animator (1985)

You know something's gone horribly wrong when an adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story is described as a "campy send-up". Or, in the opinion of some, horribly right. Stuart Gordon, who also directed that other, somewhat better H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, From Beyond, recycled some of the cast there that he directed in this piece - in particular, Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton. And the Re-Animator's tongue-in-cheek approach is inspired in no small part by the former's over-the-top acting style. It was forgivable in From Beyond, since his character had been driven mad, but here as the mad scientist Herbert West, it's a little more conspicuous.

Granted, there is no shortage of gallows humor to be derived from the premise, which involves a scientist's success at re-animating dead tissue (in a way that is more Frankenstein than Night of the Living Dead). And I can't say that the Re-Animator is a bad movie. It's actually a lot of fun, with some great gore effects and an exciting climax. There's definitely room for movies like this one among the horror genre. Certainly, it's garnered an enthusiastic cult following. It's just that, the tone is all wrong for an H.P. Lovecraft story. Not to say that I think it's blasphemy, per se, but you'd think they'd at least try to downplay the fact that it's based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, not put his name right in front of the title...

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Ode to the Slasher

Slasher flicks are a much-maligned, yet perennially-popular subgenre of horror. But while they've been done inside and out in this day and age, I've found that going back to the classics enables me to appreciate when the formula was still fresh, ideas were clever, and artistry was still in evidence. And there's no denying that four franchises in particular defined the subgenre, and introduced a series of cultural icons to the public mindset.

It starts with 1974's Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which introduced the apron-wearing, chainsaw-wielding, inbred hick dubbed Leatherface. Then it continues with John Carpenter's Halloween in 1978, featuring the escaped mental patient and bogeyman without a conscience who embodies soulless evil, Michael Myers, with his mask and kitchen knife. Following that was 1978's Friday the 13th, which eventually formed an icon out of the hockey mask-wearing, machete-wielding, waterlogged, decaying avenger-from-beyond-the-grave, Jason Voorhees. Finally, 1984 brought A Nightmare on Elm Street, poisoning kids' dreams with Freddy Krueger's burned scars, clicking, screeching finger-knives, and characteristic hat and striped sweater.

Growing up in the '80s and the '90s, after these horror icons had settled in to the public consciousness, you didn't even have to be a horror buff to know who Freddy and Jason was, or the guy with the chainsaw (Michael Myers was somewhat less iconic, I think, due to his utter lack of personality), and that you should be scared of them. I knew, and I hadn't watched any of these movies until later in my life.

The scores of sequels that these movies inspired were a mixed blessing, solidifying each of the individual franchises' popularity, but also running each series more or less into the ground with rehashed tellings of the same basic story. Meanwhile, the slew of imitators they inspired only served to reinforce the formulaic and cliched nature of the subgenre, and despite eventually evolving through new stages of awareness and self-referential parody, it remains difficult to create a slasher that is truly fresh and original.

Nevertheless, I still find it exciting to return to those classics that filled all of our hearts with dread and our heads with frightening images. Be it the frank and raw brutality of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the haunting atmosphere of Halloween, Friday the 13th's promise that adolescent abandon will not go unpunished, or A Nightmare on Elm Street's threat that it is not safe to go to sleep. As a horror fan, I've seen all of these titles, and many of their sequels, but I've never sat down to watch them in order before, to chart the inevitably declining progress of each series, and their ups and downs. That is something I'd like to do this October; so stay tuned for a series of slasher marathons!

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Friday the 13th
A Nightmare on Elm Street

Edit: Here are some bonus links!

Freddy vs. Jason (2003)
Rob Zombie's Halloween (2007) and Halloween II (2009)
Friday the 13th (2009)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
Texas Chainsaw (2013)

Plus, a Hellraiser marathon, for good measure!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Hole (2001)

Not to be confused with The Hole (2009), The Hole (2001) (no relation) is one of those rare films that is such a brilliant spectacle, that you're left with very little to say about it, because it really speaks for itself, and you just gotta go and see it. All that I can say is a little bit about how good it is, and describe to you just what kind of a movie it is. Of course, I don't want to reveal too much, because it is a bit of a mystery, and the discovery is a crucial part of the experience. However, it's curious that so often you'll go into a movie, not really knowing what to expect from it. Sometimes (as in this case), the synopsis you read before turning the movie on doesn't even help you particularly much. And then of course there's the question of whether you're better off going in blind and being surprised, or whether having a better idea of what the movie is like helps to put you in the right mindset to enjoy it (and of course, decide which movies you want to watch in the first place).

Knowing, for example, that The Hole is about four students exploring an underground bunker when they're supposed to be on a field trip, doesn't quite prepare you for the "not everything is as it seems" crime drama that unfolds (think: a much darker Wild Things). For all I knew, I thought the students would encounter some kind of monster in that bunker. Well, in a sense, they did, but that's a whole different kind of monster. I'm left with the difficulty of succinctly describing the general essence of this film without giving away too much of its secrets. Let's try this: in the aftermath of a tragedy, authorities try to piece together exactly what happened to four students locked inside an underground bunker for several days at the hands of a sociopath. Ah, see, it sounds like I've given a spoiler away, but I've merely described the plot in broad strokes - it's the details that make a world of difference.

Anyway, The Hole is a cleverly-constructed, excellently-acted mystery/drama that paints a chilling portrait of the darkness that exists within some people's hearts - a darkness that less resembles an evil force of malice than total self-absorption and a callous disregard for other people's suffering, but the results of which are no less devastating. And now you better just go off and watch it, because if I go on, I'm bound to reveal too much (if I haven't already).

Saturday, October 12, 2013

From Beyond (1986)

I've finally begun reading through H.P. Lovecraft's collected works this October, and when I came upon the short story From Beyond, I recalled that it had been adapted into a movie. So after reading the story - which has a great premise - I watched the movie. And the movie does take some liberties in adapting the short story to a feature-length film, but I think it's still a pretty good demonstration of Lovecraftian horror - particularly in the emphasis on the idea that there is much out there that humans don't understand, and that it is so horrible, that experiencing it leads inevitably to madness.

Lovecraft's original story is a bit subtler than the movie. The premise is that a brilliant scientist has built a machine that stimulates the pineal gland of the brain, enabling man to begin to sense the existence of creatures that exist all around us, in alternate dimensions. Some of these monsters are so horrible that simply perceiving them can drive one mad. The original story recounts the narrator's close encounter with this machine and the horrors it reveals to him, but the movie delves further.

As a result, it is less subtle, but it better satisfies the morbid curiosity one can't help but develop when presented with this premise. The narrator in Lovecraft's story survives by not looking at whatever monster is stalking him; at the same time, you want to see what it is. The movie shows you much more, and though the fx are wildly over the top and have an '80s movie quality to them, they are the greatest and most imaginative creature effects I've seen in a movie since John Carpenter's The Thing.

If anything, the movie suffers most from the need to tell a conventional narrative (this is where the succinctness and philosophical prose of Lovecraft's original prevails), but I cannot fault the movie for focusing on the human condition - how this ability to see beyond entices us, and how it transforms us (not for the better). I also appreciated the inclusion of a sexual element (for what is sex if not a sensual experience?), from a sadomasochistic "ultimate pain and pleasure" perspective that echoes Hellraiser in a good way.

From Beyond is not a perfect distillation of H.P. Lovecraft's style, but it is a good adaptation of one of his stories, and a prime example of the dark imagination that fuels his stories, and the influence and inspiration he's had on other artists in the realm of horror. Few movies boast the intelligence and spectacle that From Beyond demonstrates, and if in the end it is not quite a masterpiece of horror, it is wild enough to warrant remembering, and disturbed enough to cultivate nightmares.

The ABCs of Death (2012)

I love a good concept piece, and The ABCs of Death is nothing if not ambitious. It's also got a fantastically creepy intro featuring letter blocks (the kind you give babies to play with) and torrents of gushing blood. The idea is that 26 directors were given a letter of the alphabet, and asked to come up with a word that begins with that letter, then direct a short piece based on that word that touches on the theme of death. Because each director has only a few minutes to tell their story, these segments pretty much cut out most of the filler and get right to the point. There is some virtue in being succinct. Unfortunately, there is also an absence of depth, and the temptation to go for easy shock appeal. Couple that with the fact that the directors were given complete creative control, with no limitations on content, and instead of intelligent ruminations that push the boundaries of good taste, what you have is a series of shorts of wildly varying quality that, taken as a whole, were much more successful at causing me to lose my appetite than marvel at the imagination and the skills of the directors on offer.

The exceptional pieces are rare, but do warrant mentioning. Take Dogfight, for example, which has a brilliantly choreographed boxing match between a man and a dog - an actual dog. It sounds ridiculous - and it is - but it looks and feels fantastic when you watch it. Then there is XXL, which is pretty straightforward, but takes a brutal look at the effects of the psychological abuse frequently levied against the overweight. And Quack, which is a refreshingly lucid piece wherein the director brings the audience behind the fourth wall, and utilizes some morbid humor. There are other pieces that contain promising elements, like the revelation in Apocalypse, the bedtime story framework of Bigfoot, the drug abuse metaphor in Speed, the first person perspective of a hunted vampire in Unearthed, or the epic sci-fi premise of Vagitus. And while most of these pieces are pretty direct, some of them are more subtle, like Gravity, which initially flew over my head.

Unfortunately, though, too many of these segments rely on gross-out - like Miscarriage, which was done in really poor taste, and Fart, an inexplicable fart fetishist's fantasy. In fact, a disturbing percentage of segments rely on toilet horror (the claymation toilet monster in Toilet is awesome, but is the sole exception to the rule), which I'm not even sure has that firm a connection to the subject of death. The sexuality did not bother me whatsoever - although the disjointed piece Orgasm left me cold, and while I appreciated the frank depictions of anatomy in Zetsumetsu, it (in the classic tradition of Japanese commercials) didn't make any sense at all. Libido was an interesting piece that conjectured an underground ring of masturbatory death races to increasingly disturbing stimuli. Unlike some others, it was not the taboo subjects (like crushing, and pedophilia) that disturbed me (both topics were directly implied, but not depicted explicitly) - on the contrary, I respect a directors' courage to confront taboos - but rather the sheer (and unrelenting) lack of restraint in depicting gore. I can appreciate a good gore effect in a horror movie, but when it's thrown at you again and again, you start envisioning people as sacks of bloody meat and flesh, and frankly, it turns my stomach.

As for the rest of the segments, if not overindulging in gore, they can often be found approaching the level of absurdity. WTF! does so with full intention, as does the aforementioned Zetsumetsu. And while some of these pieces take their subject seriously (Ingrown, though it left me confused, was very stark), many appeal to humor (and not frequently successfully) - like Jidai-geki, which may have been a parody of samurai films, and attempted to make light of Japanese ritual suicide. The talking parrot in Nuptials may have been good for a quick chuckle, but the piece hardly demonstrates a master horror director at work. And I honestly don't know what was going on in Hydro-Electric Diffusion, except that it involved Nazi furries. Yes, Nazi furries.

The ABCs of Death was a pretty clever idea, and I can't say I really find any fault with the format, but I'm less than totally impressed with a lot of what these 26 directors came up with. There's just simply too much emphasis on gore and gross-out (and toilet horror), that leaves me feeling quite queasy. I'm not even sure it's worth sitting through for the good bits, although if you have a strong constitution, absurdist aesthetic, and/or broad sense of humor, you might want to give it the ol' college try. But the ending credits threaten a sequel in the works, and, frankly, I'm not sure I'll watch it.