Category Archives: Horror

Wes Craven: Thanks For the Nightmares

cravenAs I mentioned here a long time ago, I was not a fan of horror movies growing up. My parents didn’t watch them and didn’t let me watch them either, which was probably for the best, as I was a child with a terribly overactive imagination and a recurring nightmare involving Sweetums from the Muppets. When a friend of mine finally got me to start watching horror movies with him in college, he didn’t start me off with a classic Universal monster, or the demons of The Exorcist, or even the slashers of our 80s childhood. He started me with what was, at the time, the hottest horror movie going. The first horror movie I ever watched all the way through was Wes Craven’s Scream

screamOne of the reasons I’d resisted horror, even after I was old enough to make my own movie choices, was because of the well-known, well-trod tropes of the genre. The idea of the girl running up the stairs when she should have been running for the back door, of the jump scares, the fact that committing certain sins was pretty much a death sentence, the fact that there was always a damned root for them to trip over when they finally did start to run… it was just so… stupid. And Scream, from what I could tell in the trailers, was just more of the same.

Then I saw it.

Yes, it was full of the same tropes as the movies I’d berated, but unlike those other movies, Scream actually recognized it. It used those tropes to its advantage, it reveled in them. Now this was 1996, people didn’t throw around the word “meta” like they do nowadays, but the Scream movies are, in large part, responsible for the popularity of self-aware fiction today. Much of the credit, of course, must go to screenwriter Kevin Williamson. But a lot of it must also be given over to the late Wes Craven, who died this weekend.

nightmare1Even in my embryonic movie awareness, I knew who Wes Craven was – the Nightmare on Elm Street guy, right? But that meant that, in Scream, he was making fun of many of the same movie tropes he helped to create.

Could he do that?

So I went back and started watching the classic slashers – Jason, Michael, and of course, Freddy, and I saw how much fun they could actually be. A Nightmare on Elm Street in particular was a great experience, because Freddy Krueger was not simply another horror slasher. You could, in theory, escape the likes of Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers – just don’t go to Crystal Lake, or turn around and run the hell out of Haddonfield. Those guys were slooooooow. But despite the title of his movie, Freddy’s realm wasn’t as locked in as those of his contemporaries. Freddy’s stomping ground was your dreams. The one place where you should be the most safe, the most secure… and where you are the most vulnerable… your own bed was where Freddy Krueger attacked you. How do you run from sleep?

I also started to notice how the tropes in the early slashers started to evolve and change – how those things I considered silly had once been terrifying, and only were less so due to years of use, overuse, deconstruction, and inversion. I started to understand how different stories could react and respond to one another, not just in horror, but in all genres. I saw Shakespeare in science fiction, Sherlock Holmes in superheroes, Oz and Wonderland in Ender’s Battle School, and I realized everything was connected to everything else, and I loved that. In a very real way, Wes Craven is responsible for everything I’ve written since that realization, whether it’s my own fiction or my analysis of somebody else’s.

Whether he should be thanked or condemned for that, I leave up to history to decide, but it meant a hell of a lot to me.

This is not to say he was a perfect filmmaker. The Last House on the Left, his debut, is a film whose intensity is hard to take, and made even harder when he tries to break it up with a goofy scene straight out of the Keystone Cops. And I know this is sacrilege in some circles, but I’ve always found The Serpent and the Rainbow to be kind of…well… dull. Still, it’s no coincidence that when I did my very first movie study, I counted not one, but three of his films among the most significant horror movies ever made, more than any other director.

He’s also responsible for what I consider one of the most underrated horror movies of all time, one that breathed new life into a franchise thought dead. So to cap off my little tribute, let me tell you what was so damn good about Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

A Nightmare on Elm Street was effectively dead. The first movie – written and directed by Craven – was great. The second one – which he had no involvement with – was terrible. They brought him back to write the third film and it was really good again. From there, the law of diminishing returns set in, and each installment was a little weaker than the last, until 1991’s mediocre Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare seemed to put a pin in the iconic boogeyman once and for all.

Nightmare7Then, in 1994, Craven hit us with New Nightmare, and he turned the entire legend of Freddy Kruger on its ear. Set in the “real world,” the world in which A Nightmare on Elm Street is a film franchise and Freddy Kruger its blade-wielding star – the movie reveals an ancient evil given its power and form through human dreams and imagination. The Nightmare movies trapped it in the form of Freddy Kruger and kept it from preying on the real world. But with the movies over, the demon was getting free, and a far nastier version of Freddy was being unleashed onto reality.

Like Scream two years later, New Nightmare was meta before meta was cool. But it tackled the idea of metafiction in a much more direct way than Scream, giving us a darker tale that not only reflected the line between fiction and reality, but blurred it entirely. Robert Englund plays Movie Freddy, “Real” Freddy, and himself in this film. Heather Langencamp, star of the original, came back one more time to show us why she was the greatest Final Girl this side of Jamie Lee Curtis. And Craven himself wrote, directed, and acted in the movie, all to create this odd sense that the division between truth and fantasy was not so clear.

It’s easy to scare someone for a moment. A loud noise, a flash of a blade when you aren’t expecting it, a well-placed musical sting… they all provide a visceral jolt of terror that can be fun. But that sort of terror fades, and quickly. To create something that clings to a person and haunts their very dreams is far more difficult. That’s what New Nightmare was about. It wasn’t just another slasher film, it was a meditation on fear and how we give our fears life. It is, in my opinion, Craven’s greatest movie… and when you consider how many great movies he made, that’s saying a lot.

The amazing thing about Wes Craven, appropriately, is how good he was at keeping you awake at night. I don’t think anyone who loves horror would want it any other way.

Goodnight, Mr. Craven. Sweet dreams.

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Showcase Presents the Universal Dracula Legacy

It’s Halloween once again, and the Showcase crew assembles for their (mostly) annual monster movie marathon. This year the gang tackles the six films that make up the legacy of the king of the vampires: Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

 

Freaky Firsts Day 8: The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus (1962)

Wacky World of Dr Morgus 1963Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Roul Haig

Writers: Roul Haig, Noel Haig

Cast: Sid Noel, Dan Baron, Jeanne Teslof, David Kleinberger, Thomas George, John Ferdon

Plot: Momus Alexander Morgus (Sid Noel), a mad scientist living above the Old City Ice House in New Orleans, is working on his latest project: curing an ailing artist (John Ferdon) of his sniffles with a little old-fashioned brain surgery. As Morgus and his assistant, a mute hangman named Chopsley (Thomas George) attempt to work wonders on his newest patient, reporter Pencils McCane (Dan Barton) is drowning his sorrows in a dance club. Pencils recently turned in a story about Morgus and his “girlfriend,” Zelda, but nobody at the newspaper believed him. Morgus’s latest invention is a machine that can turn a person into dust, then restore them to life, and Pencils is determined to get the story.

Pencils persuades Morgus to take him back to see Zelda again – a beautiful young woman who has been kept in a hypnotic trance for years, preserving her youth eternally. (Because hypnosis does that, you see – stops the aging process. What, you didn’t know that? And you call yourself a scientist.) Morgus informs Pencils that he and Zelda will be married soon, and offers as proof the large diamond fused directly to her finger. Roaming the Ice House, Pencils uncovers Morgus’s new machine, and gets him to demonstrate its use on a cat. It seems to work, but the white cat Clyde comes out black and smaller on the other side.

Pencils submits Morgus’s machine to a United Nations Science Symposium, where a Microvanian national, Bruno (David Kleinberger) learns of it and sees the potential to use it to smuggle spies into the United States. They send a beautiful blond spy, Mona Speckla (Jeanne Teslof) to New Orleans to try to pry the secret from Morgus. Meanwhile, the Doctor is knee-deep in “wedding plans.” Mona convinces first Pencils, then Morgus to join her on the way to the “science symposium” – really a ploy by the Micorvanians. Really, you know they’re going to be evil from the outset based entirely on the ridiculous accent they speak in. Morgus cheerfully begins condensing a squad of Microvanians for them, dumping their powdered remains into a box. Mona, meanwhile, has fallen for Pencils, and wants to defect from Microvania.

Back in the Ice House, Zelda has escaped. What’s more, the crate of dust left from the transformed Microvanians is damaged in transit and the remains are given over to a concrete company. Morgus and Chopsley race to the docks (in a scene that’s particularly entertaining for me – a sort of low-speed “high speed chase” down New Orleans’s Canal Street in the 1960s), but they’re too late to stop them from being dumped into a concrete mixer and poured as part of the last yard of a roadway project: the aptly-named “People’s Avenue.”

Thoughts: Every city in America (or at least every city worth visiting) at one time or another had a late-night creepshow movie host: Vampira, Svengoolie, and Elvira are immortal names, and wherever you are, you can probably recall your own local celebrity of the night. In the New Orleans area, where I grew up, our late night host was Morgus the Magnificent, a mad scientist whose experiments served as the framing sequence for that week’s movie. Morgus ran from the 50s through the 80s, with reruns on the air as recently as 2011, and all horror-loving children of Nola have a deep affection for Morgus, and still consider ourselves members of the Higher Order. When a local company got the rights a few years ago to produce a DVD of Dr. Morgus’s feature film debut (also his final feature film), I had to snap it up. Finally, “Freaky Firsts” gave me the perfect excuse to finally watch it.

As one of those kids, this movie won me over almost immediately. Although it was interesting to see Morgus outside of his comfortable home in the Old City Ice House, seeing him traipsing about the city of New Orleans, taking him outside of the set where we’d watched him for such a long time, made the film a bit more special. Granted, much of the film (at least the parts where Morgus actually appears) feels like an extended episode of his TV show. The opening sequence, where he hopes to cure a painter’s stuffy nose by cutting into his brain, is straight out of the late night antics he got up to throughout my childhood. I’m really rather sorry that Erin was at work when I watched this, because it’s hard for me to tell if this movie would be genuinely entertaining to anybody who didn’t grow up watching Morgus, or if it’s mostly my affection for the character that made watching it so much fun.

As far as that invention goes, it’s an absolutely ludicrous idea, but the way it works and the fact that it’s actually used in conjunction with a United Nations science symposium can’t help but make me think of The 1966 Batman: The Movie, in which Batman’s foes use a nearly identical device for a similar purpose to that planned by the Microvanians in this movie. It’s almost too close to accept as mere coincidence, and one has to wonder if screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. ever spent any time in New Orleans.

The overall story, on the other hand, is truly scattershot. The subplot with Zelda, for example, is utterly extraneous, adding nothing to the film but time. (It is, to be fair, a pretty quick film – just 83 minutes.) The prologue sequence with the ailing artist and his stuffy nose is an interesting introduction to Morgus, but has nothing to do with the rest of the events of the film. Even the parts that are directly related to the plot, the Microvanian invasion and the powder machine, are loosely knit together at best. There’s no real logic behind Pencils having anything to do with the United Nation Science Symposium, for example, but there you are. Even though the film is branded as a horror/comedy, there’s really nothing horrific about it once you get past Morgus’s makeup and the particularly creepy relationship with Zelda. This is far more Munsters than The Frighteners.

Sid Noel as Dr. Morgus is frankly the only standout in a particularly bland cast. Oh, Bruno has a little bombast in him, but nothing that will stay with you for any period of time. Noel, however, has his usual bizarre allure as Morgus. He’s weird, even a little hideous, but for all his buck teeth and bug eyes, something about him remains absolutely delightful.

I don’t often spend a lot of time talking about the quality of a particular film print here, because I’m mostly about digging out the story and the characters, and frankly, the quality might vary from one print or one transfer to another. But in the case of The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus, I’m going to make an exception. The film was restored as much as possible, but there are still plenty of lines and artifacts on the screen, and somehow, that just makes it all the more charming. It helps with the time capsule quality of the whole experience. It really does bring back the feeling of sitting back late at night and watching an old Universal Monster picture, or some 50s Roger Corman cheesefest.

I had a lot of fun watching this film, but like I said, I can’t be sure if that’s because it’s actually good, or merely because I love the good Doctor. But in truth, does it really matter? Granted, I can’t transfer my experience over to you, but one of the things I set out to examine when I began my first Reel to Reel project was the way our experiences influence the way we take in story. For the brief 83 minutes of this project’s run time, my experiences helped make me very happy, and that’s never a bad thing.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Freaky Firsts Day 7-Leprechaun (1993)

Leprechaun 1993Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Mark Jones

Writer: Mark Jones

Cast: Warwick Davis, Jennifer Aniston, Ken Olandt, Mark Holton, Robert Gorman, Shay Duffin, John Sanderford, Pamela Mant, John Volstad

Plot: In a delightful drunken stupor, Dan O’Grady (Shay Duffin) comes home to North Dakota from a trip to Ireland, and informs his wife (Pamela Mant) he took a Leprechaun’s pot of gold. That night, the Leprechaun itself (Warwick Davis) springs from Dan’s suitcase and shoves Mrs. O’Grady down the basement stairs. When Dan returns from hiding the gold, he holds up a four-leaf clover – which evidently has the same effect on Leprechauns as crosses to vampires or Kryptonite to Superman – and shoots it. He crates the Leprechaun and is about to torch it, but collapses, seemingly dead.

Ten years later – conveniently explained to us by a title card on the screen – Tory Reding (Jennifer Aniston and her original nose) and her father J.D. (John Sanderford) move into the old O’Grady house, Tory complaining as much as a spoiled debutante who ran away from her dentist fiancé at the altar and just can’t get the hang of life in the big city on her own. She runs into handyman Nathan (Ken Olandt), whose rampant sexism pretty much guarantees they’ll hook up before the end of the movie. In an effort to prove how tough she is, she elects to stay. She also attempts to ply Nathan with Kool-Aid in the basement and finds the crate, waking up the Leprechaun, which means the fact that there are at least seven movies in this franchise is entirely her fault.

The Leprechaun uses a child’s voice to trick Nathan’s evidently mentally-handicapped assistant, Ozzie (Mark Holton) into freeing him from the crate. Ozzie escapes to warn everyone, none of whom believe a word, because even the 12-year-old (Alex, played by Robert Gorman) thinks he’s an idiot. Still, when an unbelievably clear rainbow appears in the sky, Ozzie and Alex follow it to a rusted pickup truck with a gold piece on the front seat. At the house, the Leprechaun scratches Tory’s leg while hiding under the car, then hides in a tree so he can bite J.D., who will apparently stick his hand in any hole that he thinks has a cat in it.

The Leprechaun follows them to town, where J.D. is seeking medical help and Ozzie and Alex look to get their gold appraised. The Leprechaun kills the coin dealer (John Volstad), then rushes off in a toy car – really – until he gets pulled over and kills a cop, too. While he’s doing this, Tory proclaims her vegetarianism, setting up the image of them as being obnoxious and pushy that would last for at least 20 years. The house painting trio take her home and Nathan announces his intention to stay in the house overnight, as all paid house painters do. The Leprechaun finally attacks, catching Nathan in a bear trap and fighting with the whole group.

This happens a little more than halfway through the movie and is followed by a series of set pieces in which he attacks them, sets traps, and tries to get his gold back, because apparently this will make him more powerful. He reclaims the treasure, but has to return and attack again because there’s a single piece missing (which Ozzie swallowed earlier). This is followed by another series of set piece battles, each more humiliating than the last for the good name of the House of Davis.

Ozzie then remembers O’Grady, in a rest home since the stroke he had the night he brought the Leprechaun home, and they decide to seek him out and ask him how to kill it. This, of course, begs the question: If O’Grady knew there was a Leprechaun in the basement of the damned house, why was he selling it in the first place? And furthermore, isn’t that the sort of thing a realtor is required by law to disclose to the new owners? “Spider infestation, leprechaun in basement, total number of murders: 12?” Something like that.

Tory finds O’Grady mangled in the nursing home elevator. Bleeding and dying, he tells her the only way to kill a leprechaun is to put a freshly-plucked four-leaf clover on its body, rendering it vulnerable to more conventional means of killing things. She rushes back to the house, where there’s a clover patch (glowing green, as it turns out), and begins searching for a bit o’ luck. Nathan shows up to save her from the Leprechaun’s latest attack, and the adults continue looking for clover, leaving the child, Alex, to play with a bear trap in an empty barn while there’s a murderous pixie on the loose. He nearly kills the kid, but Ozzie lures him away by revealing the location of the last coin. Tory produces a clover – literally by saying “I believe” – and Alex shoots it down the Leprechaun’s throat with a slingshot. He disintegrates into slime and falls into a well, because at this point Mark Jones said, “what, you mean we need an ending?” But the Leprechaun climbs up once more, so Nathan knocks him back down, fills the well with gasoline, and blows it up in a fashion that would make the Mythbusters cringe.

Thoughts: Isn’t it amazing to think that there was once a time when Warwick Davis could get top billing in a movie over Jennifer Aniston? Even this one? My, what a world we live in.

Despite the fact that this is considered, in some circles, the gold standard of horror movie cheese, I’ve actually never seen it before. And boy, was the cheese factor evident. Warwick Davis wears a costume that’s basically Irish blackface for the entire movie, prancing around like a clown and engaging in antics that would make a circus clown blush. At about the time he rushes off behind Nathan’s pickup truck on a tricycle, Erin turned to me and said, “Do you think he ever regrets doing this?” I replied, “Well, he made five more of them, so if he did, the regret was outweighed by the paycheck.”

This is, in essence, a slasher movie, a kind of last gasp of the great 80s onslaught of brutal killers, and as such, it makes use of the tropes of the genre, including nasty traps and over-the-top set pieces. Unlike the Michaels or Freddies of the world, though, the Leprechaun has a bizarre predilection towards tiny automobiles, which of course makes perfect sense given his origin as a creature of Irish folklore and the fact that he’s 600 years old.

Due to his size, the closest real equivalent to the character in Who’s Who Among Movie Killing Machines would be Chucky, but that’s a comparison that only makes the Leprechaun pale. The first Child’s Play movie, back before they gave up on trying to be frightening and went straight for black comedy, at least had some genuinely creepy moments of a doll coming to life. It’s an image that freaks out a lot of people anyway, and the movie rolled with that, and as a result the battles between Chucky and his larger co-stars never looked nearly as silly as those between the Leprechaun and his. The first “fight scene,” such as it is, shows him clawing at Nathan’s ankle while Jennifer Aniston beats him over the head with a sick. And while this movie is, of course, pre-Friends, Aniston put for them same sort of performance she did every time that series wanted to show her being out of her element – flailing wildly and ineffectually, and frankly, comically.

This movie is trying to be darkly comedic, but fails on every level, primarily on the level that it’s just not funny. The gags are stale, the performances are weak, the characters are awful, and as much as I despise the cult of political correctness, even I start to feel uncomfortable every time Warwick Davis starts singing anything that includes the phrase “fiddle-dee-dee.” By the time he crashes through a fence and leaves a leprechaun-shaped hole behind, you’ve simply got to surrender the entire movie on the grounds that this bit can be wildly funny, but exclusively in old Looney Tunes shorts and that one scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Considering his Academy-award winning performance in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, it’s almost sad to see Mark Holton slumming it in this movie. To think that the man who played the chilling master villain Francis Buxton rolled into this film a mere eight years later, doing his worst impression of Lennie from Of Mice and Men and swallowing a gold doubloon because he utterly misunderstood the idea of “biting” when he thinks that will tell him if the gold is real… well, it’s just kind of pathetic.

I know this may draw fire from certain circles of horror fans, but this movie was simply awful. It’s easy to mock, at least, and could potentially be some fun as part of a bad movie marathon while your friends sit around and try to pull out their best Mystery Science Theater 3000 riffs on it, but that’s pretty much where the appeal begins and ends.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Freaky Firsts Day 6: Screamtime (1983)

Screamtime (1986)Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Directors: Michael Armstrong, Stanley A. Long

Writer: Michael Armstrong

Cast: Vincent Russo, Michael Gordon, Marie Scinto, Robin Bailey, Ann Lynn, Jonathon Morris, Dione Inman, John Styles, Bosco Hogan, Ian Saynor, Yvonne Nicholson, Veronica Doran, David Van Day, Dora Bryan, Jean Anderson, Gary Linley, Matthew Peters

Plot: Ed and Bruce (Vincent Russo and Michael Gordon) are in for a fun night of shoplifting VHS tapes and invading his “friend” Marie (Marie Scinto)’s apartment to watch them. This loose framing sequence brings us into a trilogy of horror shorts.

In the first film, “That’s The Way We Do It,” a penniless puppeteer named Jack (Robin Bailey) is told by his wife Lena (Ann Lynn) she’s taking her son Damien (Jonathon Morris) and moving to Canada. Damien, Jack’s stepson, begins to torment the old man, asking to set fire to his Punch and Judy dolls before they leave and saying Jack isn’t the man his father was. Damien attacks Jack during a show and sets fire to his puppet stage. His Punch puppet survives the blaze, seemingly comes to life, and delivers a savage beating to Damien. When her son doesn’t come home that night, a frustrated Lena finally gives Jack an ultimatum: her or the puppets. Naturally, that night, Punch takes care of her, too. Jack calls a doctor to tend to her, and confesses that he’s afraid of the puppet, who is now acting out his brutal puppet shows for real, and soon, the Doctor dies. The next day, Damien’s girlfriend (Dione Inman) comes to investigate, only to find Jack gone mad, acting out the Punch role. He chases her, falling into a garbage truck, and is crushed.

“Dreamhouse” is next. Newlyweds Tony and Susan (Ian Saynor and Yvonne Nicholson) move into a new house, where Susan begins seeing a boy circling their yard on a bicycle. The house, meanwhile, is a mess – electrical problems and a strange red substance that comes out in the water. Whenever she tries to confront the boy, he vanishes, and blood appears on a kitchen knife she was using to cut vegetables. Instead of running away like a sane person, Susan just keeps waking up Tony in the middle of the night to investigate the strange noises she’s hearing on top of everything else. As he’s gone, she sees a man with a knife prancing through the halls (literally prancing – he dashes past her bedroom door like a ballerina). She sees blood everywhere, a corpse in her bed, a bloody child on the bannister and – most horrific of all – a house painter. She finally calls a medium, Miss Burns (Veronica Doran) to investigate the house, but even she thinks Susan is nuts. Left alone in the house, Susan’s visions converse, and she’s forced to watch one of her ghosts as it slays some of the others. Tony is forced to commit his wife and sell the house. As he comes by to get something he left, he sees the new family, including a boy on a bicycle, a teenager painting a room… and he’s slain by a the killer in the back of his car.

Finally, there’s “Do You Believe in Fairies?” Gavin (David Van Day) is a motorcycle rider desperate for money. He winds up taking a handyman job for a pair of old women named Emma and Mildred (Dora Bryan and Jean Anderson), whose yard is awash in ceramic gnomes. As they interview him for the job, they ask an interesting question – if he believes in fairies. When he notices the large wad of cash Emma pulls his pay from, Gavin plans to rob the women. With his friend Frank (Gary Lindey) and his brother Tim (Matthew Peters), he sneaks into the house. Then the gnomes appear – dozens of the ceramic figures, all inside and giggling at them. When one of them, now full-sized, jumps on Tim’s back… well…, the tension isn’t exactly broken. In the yard, figures wrapped in white crawl from the ground to attack Frank (I don’t know what the hell those are supposed to be, Mummies maybe), while Gavin is faced with the horror of a beautiful girl in period costume who apparently can throw knickknacks with her mind. She winds up stripping his shirt off and making out with him, because why not?, before using her powers to stab him with lots of pointy things. Later, we see the old women hiring a new gardener, where they add the interesting tidbit that the girl who kissed Gavin is their ancestor, and she made a contract with the fairies that they could have the souls of her lovers as slaves.

As the framing sequence ends, a hand pops out of the TV and kills Ed, while Bruce is beaten to death by the Punch puppet. What the hell.

Thoughts: It’s sad that there isn’t really that much to say about what is, essentially, four movies. Michael Armstrong took three of his own unrelated short films and created a fourth to act as a way to piece them together. Unfortunately, none of them is particularly interesting, memorable, or well-made.

The first short, with the puppeteer, feels really by-the-book – you’ve got your poor, put-upon protagonist who is saddled with a miserable family and has to deal with their cruelty and indifference towards his own life. And what’s more, considering that Damian is an older teenager, one has to wonder at what stage of life Jack and Lena even got married. If the whole Punch and Judy thing was so reprehensible for her, why did she marry this guy in the first place? It doesn’t make sense from any sort of character standpoint.

Perhaps the best selling point of this short is the reveal that it’s Jack himself who is murdering people, and not the puppet. Although Anderson is anything but a competent director (more on that later), he does a fairly effective job of angling the camera so as to make it appear that Punch is supposed to be moving on his own. When the girlfriend sees that Jack has been manipulating the puppet all along, you remember suddenly that all of the shots concealed where Jack’s puppeteer would be, in the best Muppet fashion. You’re simply so ready for the movie to be a crappy supernatural horror film that it’s actually sort of refreshing that it turns out to be a crappy slasher film instead.

Then there’s “Dreamtime,” a short with a reveal that really forces you to scratch your head. Again, it’s a twist – instead of visions of the house’s horrific past, Susan was having visions of its horrific future. It’s an interesting idea that helps keep this from being just a standard haunted house story. That said, many of Anderson’s directing choices are so poor that it totally negates any chance for the short to build real momentum. The pacing is intolerably sluggish, and there are plenty of slow, interstitial shots that really add nothing to the story, the mood, the characters… anything. Plus, I know it was the early 80s, but Susan’s glasses… man. Lenses that would overwhelm the most doe-eyed Anime girl set in chintzy plastic frames that belong not in a classy British suburb, but in any of America’s finest trailer parks.

“Do You Believe in Fairies?” is set up like a morality tale – Gavin and his crew are pretty reprehensible, and you’re ready for just about any nasty thing to happen to them. But any hope you have of some sort of satisfying karmic retribution evaporates when Tim is attacked by the gnome. A diminutive actor in the stupidest, most stereotypical costume you could possibly imagine is not the way to jolt your audience into compliance with the acceptable social norms of your civilization. Frankly, the whole thing could have boiled down to our three crooks versus the Lollipop Guild from The Wizard of Oz and it would have been just as – if not more – frightening.

As if Anderson hadn’t worked hard enough to convince us he didn’t belong in a director’s chair, the short ends with Emma asking the new gardener, “Do you believe in fairies?” and then looking directly at the camera. All it was missing to achieve maximum cheesiness was a literal wink at the screen. It didn’t help that, cutting back to the framing sequence, Ed answers her before he’s strangled by a disembodied hand that has nothing to do with anything.

The framing sequence, the piss-poor attempt to tie all of this together into something cohesive, is perhaps the biggest mess of all. Starting with a shower scene that pretty much defines the word “gratuitous,” we then see Maria seduce Bruce for no apparent reason, then everyone dies for even less of a reason.

Is this film hopeless? I honestly don’t know. I watched this one alone, while Erin was at work, so it’s possible that I lost out on part of the experience of communally enjoying a crappy movie. The film does have some of the elements that make a really good bad movie too, including bad acting and terrible costumes. The problem is, I don’t know if it has enough of any of those things to make it worth watching. And frankly, having seen it once already, I don’t really feel compelled to test the theory. I won’t be revisiting this one, but if you choose to do so, I recommend getting some friends together before you start, and let me know if it’s more fun to watch it with them than I had watching this stinker by myself.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Freaky Firsts Day 4: Devil’s Pass (2013)

Devils Pass 2013Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Renny Harlin

Writer: Vikram Weet

Cast: Holly Goss, Matt Stokoe, Luke Albright, Ryan Hawley, Gemma Atkinson, Richard Reid, Jane Perry, Boris Stepanov, Nikolay Butenin, Nelly Nielsen, Valeriy Fedorovich

Plot: Based on the real-life Dytalov Pass incident, this movie features a film crew venturing into Russia to solve the 50-year-old mystery of a group of lost backpackers. Holly King (Holly Goss) believes the victims fell prey to real and documented symptoms of hypothermia, whereas her film partner Jensen Day (Matt Stokoe) refuses to believe such expert hikers would have died so easily. With their sound operator Denise (Gemma Atkinson) and a pair of climbers (Luke Albright as JP Hauser and Ryan Hawley as Andy Thatcher), the crew trains and heads to Russia…

Then vanish.

Their disappearance becomes international news, and theories as to their disappearance grow as wild as that of the original Dyatlov hikers: magic, aliens, or a thin membrane in the fabric of time and space that leads to another world. Their footage is found (making this one of the few “found footage” movies to take the name of its subgenre quite so literally), and although the Russian government attempts to suppress it, a hacker group steals it and releases it.

Arriving in Russia, Holly’s crew interviews Alya, one of the searchers who found the bodies in 1959, who describes the scene with such lovely terms as “a trail of organs.” The most disturbing part of her description, though, is that the rescuers found 11 bodies, not the nine that have always been reported.

As they march into the mountains, they begin finding unusual phenomenon, such as a trail of enormous footprints made by what look like human feet in far colder temperatures than anyone could stand being barefoot for more than a few minutes. They start to hear things, then find an old weather station with a human tongue. Jensen breaks down, and as Holly tries to comfort him, a pair of creatures run past in the distance, unseen by the crew, but captured on camera.

Arriving at Dyatlov Pass, the crew marks the spots where the bodies were found and Holly describes their deaths for the camera – all dead of hypothermia, but all suffering assorted injuries as well. Exploring the area, Holly and Jensen find a metal door buried in the snow. In the night an avalanche destroys the camp, killing Denise and breaking Andy’s leg. Jensen is convinced that someone set the avalanche on purpose to dispose of them. They think they’re saved when a pair of hikers arrive, but they shoot JP. Forced to leave Andy behind, the others make it into the door.

They follow a long tunnel underground, ending in a lab (Of course it ends in a lab) which has been utterly trashed, although the light bulbs still seem to work. They find photos of the old Philadelphia Experiment, an American teleportation project that went terribly wrong. JP is attacked and consumed by a pair of the creatures – ugly, emaciated, twisted people who contort in weird shapes and seem to blink in and out of existence. They find a tunnel that looks like some sort of hole in time (it actually looks really cool, I can’t think of a better way to describe it), and Jensen speculates it’s where the creatures originated from, that similar portals could be responsible for unexplained phenomenon around the world. Trapped, he convinces Holly to try to use the portal to teleport to safety. They wind up on the side of the mountain, but in 1959, where their bodies are collected by the Russian military and brought down into the lab (along with Holly’s camera). They hang Holly and Jensen’s bodies on hooks below ground, and we see them mutating, becoming two of the creatures that stalk Dyatlov Pass.

Thoughts: A lot of people have an irate, visceral hatred of “found footage” movies, as if there’s nothing good that can be done with the genre. This is pretty short-sighted to me. Sure, there have been tons of crappy found footage movies, films that try to use shaky cameras to cover up bad special effects and cheap budgets, but then you get something like the magnificent Chronicle, and the form pretty much justifies itself.

For the most part, Devil’s Pass is much more entertaining than the average found footage fare. Unlike the bulk of such movies (set in the woods or caves or similarly dark places), this movie is set in a snow-covered mountain range. It gives it a very distinct visual appeal, much clearer and cleaner than most found footage films, and the stark white vista is far less forgiving of cheesy camera stunts. When there are camera tricks – at several moments the picture bounces and glitches – it’s almost always done to signify that the crew is near the otherworldly creatures, even though they’re unaware of it.

The big night scenes, such as the avalanche, are actually really effective, as the slow crumble of the snow down the mountain turns into a wave. Denise’s death is even cool – she slides directly into the camera, which in this movie is literal, her head cracks the lens when she crashes into it. The movie even addresses the usual “why the hell are you still filming this?” question that found footage falls prey to – Holly explicitly says that she wants a record of what happened, no matter what, so that they don’t wind up as another Dyatlov mystery.

It’s by no means perfect, though. The movie definitely falls prey to what TV Tropes refers to as “Awesome McCoolname.” When you hear about characters with monikers like “Jensen Day” and “JP Hauser,” you get pulled out of the movie any time they call each other by name. But Devil’s Pass’s biggest weakness probably comes in with the reveal of the creatures. Although the design is good, they’re heavily CGI, and it looks like Holly and Jensen are trying to fight creatures from a video game. I know that’s a standard complaint to make about an effects movie, but damn it, sometimes there’s simply no other way to explain what you’re looking at on screen. My wife, who had been enjoying the film up to this point, simply said, “And that’s where it lost me.”

It didn’t lose me, not as badly at least. Bad computer graphics aside, I think Devil’s Pass has a lot going for it. It avoids a lot of the tropes that damn bad found footage movies, and at the same time has a fairly clever storyline that pokes a hole into actual history and mixes it with a very healthy formula of science fiction and horror. While it isn’t going to be remembered as one of the all-time greats, and it’s not a movie I picture myself watching over and over again, it’s an enjoyable way to spend 100 minutes and worth taking a little time on.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Freaky Firsts Day 3: The Frighteners (1996)

Frighteners 1996Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Peter Jackson

Writer: Peter Jackson & Frank Walsh

Cast: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Jake Busey, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, Troy Evans, Julianna McCarthy, R. Lee Ermey, Elizabeth Hawthorne, Danny Elfman

Plot: Paranormal investigator Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) has a good racket going. His ghostly assistants Stuart (Jim Fyfe), Cyrus (Chi McBride) and the Judge (John Astin) “haunt” a house, and he goes in to “exterminate” them for a healthy fee. After the mysterious death of a recent client, Ray, (Peter Dobson), Frank learns of a rash of sudden deaths that appear to be heart attacks, but whose victims were in perfect health. Ray’s wife, Lucy (Trini Alvarado) turns to Frank for comfort, made a bit awkward by the fact that Ray’s ghost is right there. Frank witnesses a shrouded figure (a “Grim Reaper,” according to the Judge) murdering a man, whose spirit takes the light-filled corridor to the afterlife – a choice Ray and Frank’s ghosts failed to make when given the opportunity.

FBI agent Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs) is brought in to investigate Frank, now a suspect in the strange deaths. Dammers has suspected Frank for some time, ever since the mysterious death of Frank’s wife. She was found with the number 13 carved into her forehead – something that resonates with Frank, who saw 37 and 38 on the two most recent victims. When 39 is killed in the museum, Frank rushes in to investigate, and the Reaper cuts the Judge’s spirit in two. Frank tries to protect #40 – newspaper editor Magda (Elizabeth Hawthorne), but the Reaper gets her as well, and Frank is arrested.

Lucy’s investigation of the situation leads her to Patricia Bradley (Dee Wallace), who as a teenager was accused of being an accomplice of executed serial killer Johnny Charles Bartlett (Jake Busey). When she visits Frank in jail, “41” appears on Lucy’s forehead. Frank and the ghosts narrowly save her from the Reaper, but Stuart and Cyrus are “killed” as they escape. Frank believes he can stop the Reaper by killing himself, but Lucy instead places him in a hypothermic coma, freeing his spirit to roam. Dammers, meanwhile, abducts Lucy and takes her to a cemetery. Frank saves her from the Reaper, who turns out to be the ghost of Johnny Bartlett. He’s been collaborating with Patricia, trying to top the high scores of history’s worst serial killers.

Frank awakens and, with Lucy, finds Barlett’s ashes, hoping to use them in the hospital where he committed his murders to condemn his soul to Hell. Dammers is in the hospital too, still obsessed with Frank, and Patricia is running through the halls with a shotgun. She kills Dammers and chokes Frank to death. As the corridor to the afterlife appears, Frank rips Patricia’s soul from her body, and Bartlett chases the two of them. He and Patricia are taken to Hell as Cyrus and Stuart reappear to reunite Frank with his wife. It’s a brief reunion, though, as his friends tell him it’s not his time yet, and send him back to Earth and Lucy… who now can see the ghosts too.

Thoughts: Early in his career, Peter Jackson made gooey gorefests like Dead Alive. Today he’s known for the visual effects and epic scale of Lord of the Rings. This film, made in-between those two eras, actually serves very nicely as a bridge between them. The sensibility of the movie feels similar to his early work: funny, while still carrying a sense of the macabre, like Ghostbusters with a more cynical edge. However, here he’s beginning to step aside from the practical effects of his earlier films towards the more high-tech visuals of today. This was 1996, of course, before it was virtually a requirement that every element of a film be soaked in CGI, back when actors had to literally appear on a set together, and Jackson at this early stage actually strikes a very nice balance between the two.

The plot isn’t particularly original – the serial killer coming back as an agent of death has been done before, and since, and better, and worse. And in fact, I think the stuff with the numbers is even a bit of a cheat. If Bartlett cared numbers into victims’ foreheads when he was alive, it seems to me that people would remember that little tidbit. Frank clearly knows who Barlett is the moment he sees his face, but he didn’t know enough about his killings to know about the numbers? I call foul on that one.

That said, the execution of the story is good. Michael J. Fox isn’t quite the slick wisecracker he is in a lot of his performances. He’s wounded and somewhat cold, still struggling with his wife’s death and trying to keep Lucy at a distance despite his attraction to her. His snark is mostly kept to a minimum, and even though he’s technically a con man, he doesn’t put forth the air of a snake oil salesman one would usually associate with that kind of a role. It’s always fun to see John Astin, but it’s kind of a shame that – of the three main ghosts – he was almost completely hidden under makeup. Without his distinctive voice, it’s unlikely that anyone would have recognized him.

The final confrontation, more than any other part of the movie, really shows the filmmaker Peter Jackson was going to become. The fight in the Bradley house, with Barlett leaping through walls and paintings, has a lot of real style to it. It’s CGI, yes, and you know it’s CGI, but it’s not such blatant CGI that it rips you out of the movie, like a lot of movies come across today. Once the action moves to the hospital, the tension is ratcheted up less by the ghosts and more by the two still-living antagonists, who seem in some ways to be even more dangerous. Maybe it’s because he’s a ghost or maybe it’s because he’s Jake Busey, but somehow Barlett’s deranged behavior isn’t nearly as disturbing as that of Dammers or Patricia.

On the sliding scale of horror and comedy, this film definitely leans more heavily on the horror side than Ghostbusters, and even more than Jackson’s own Dead Alive (although it is considerably less grotesque than the earlier movie). The ghosts feel like they came from a less wacky version of Beetlejuice. Combs, meanwhile, is impossible to separate from his character in the Re-Animator series, hamming it up similarly while playing a very different role in this film than those others.

This is a movie that’s been on my “to-watch” list for a very long time, a product of my appreciation for Peter Jackson and my love for Michael J. Fox. This month, I suspect, is going to be great for scratching movies like that off my list. It didn’t disappoint me at all.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Freaky Firsts Day 2: Detention (2012)

Detention 2011Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Joseph Kahn

Writers: Joseph Kahn & Mark Palermo

Cast: Alison Woods, Julie Dolan, Shanley Caswell, Josh Hutcherson, Joe Keane, Parker Bagley, Marque Richardson, Aaron David Johnson, Spencer Locke, Travis Fleetwood, Carrie Wiita, Tiffany Boone, Erica Shaffer, Walter Perez, Dane Cook

Plot: Head cheerleader Taylor (Alison Woods) doesn’t show up for school, as she’s been inconveniently murdered by a movie slasher named Cinderhella. Since she’s unavailable, the film instead focuses on Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell), a depressed young vegetarian whose suicidal tendencies start to flare up. She’s actually saved from an attempted hanging when Cinderhella attacks her, prompting her to fight her way loose. Unfortunately, nobody believes her, even though a fellow student was butchered just that morning.

Cinderhella turns up again at Riley’s house that night, but she again manages to escape as he (she? I think it might actually supposed to be a she) gets caught up in the neighbor’s swing set, then leaves her in a pool. She tries to convince hipster heartthrob Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson) that she’s not crazy, but instead somehow winds up on a double-date with him and her ex-best friend Ione (Spencer Locke), while she’s stuck with nerd-with-a-crush Sander (Aaron David Johnson).

There are several irrelevant scenes after this, including a football game in which the star player has flashbacks to his own conception (his father was a fly monster), and a fight at a party that wasn’t a costume party after all. That party ends with lunatic jock Billy (Parker Bagley) getting killed by Cinderhella, making us all hope she’s just getting started. Finally, three hours and 27 minutes into this 93-minute film, Riley and several of her friends are given Saturday detention. At night. During the Prom. For the crime of being at a party off-campus when one of their fellow students was killed. Then again, the principal is Dane Cook, so maybe that makes sense in his brain.

Oh yes, there’s also some time-travel, body-swapping, and a kid who has been in detention for 19 years. It’s… it doesn’t even make sense in context. But eventually, it leads us to our cast barricading the school library while Cinderhella tries to break in and kill them and a weird kid (Walter Perez) warns them that the world is going to end in 9 minutes 19 years ago and I think I just got a nosebleed writing that sentence. Riley uses a stuffed bear to go back in time and stop the apocalypse, which is evidently being caused by Clapton, or maybe Sander, or maybe Poppa Freaking Smurf for all I can tell at this point. (As they’re in 1992, my wife commented that the high school must be how “old people feel when they watch a movie about when they grew up and it’s all wrong.” “Baby,” I replied, “I think we’re the old people now.”) And they fix the timestream and… the principal is cool now… and… and… oh, and Cinderhella turns out to be Sander, who fights Clapton in a Mortal Kombat-esque sequence that leads into a Breakfast Club ending, and now I want to go somewhere and cry.

Thoughts: Detention’s inclusion in this list is the result of what I like to call “NetFlix Roulette.” My wife scrolled through the available horror movies with the intention of watching whatever it landed on, then did it again when the first winner was in black and white. I think she regretted this almost immediately.

Detention takes an interesting approach by starting with a character – Alison Woods’s Taylor – who is so thoroughly repulsive as a human being that you’re actually quite happy when the killer “Cinderhella” pops in and slaughters her after only a few minutes of her railing to the camera about how to be as pathetically shallow as possible. It’s actually a nice little bit with a decoy protagonist, although director Joseph Kahn takes it a little farther than is wise – two more minutes of Taylor and I may have turned it off and looked for another film to review.

After the admittedly satisfying death scene at the beginning, the movie then goes through a seemingly interminable sequence introducing our cast – a series of teenagers who are all miserable in different ways that are allegedly entertaining to watch, but in fact, just make them all seem pretentious as hell. Josh Hutcherson, for example, seems poised to be our hero, and therefore distinguishes himself by promising to start a blog where he dismisses any music popular enough for anybody else to have heard of and then argues the relative merits of Patrick Swayze as an action hero versus Steven Segal. Shortly thereafter, my wife started to announce, “Isn’t this supposed to be dying people? I want these people to die and nobody is dying.”

The film cuts around to assorted Family Guy-style aside scenes, frequently punctuated by title cards and weird on-screen commentary, such as assuring us that the movie Detention takes a firm stance against drunk driving, which is probably a relief to all the parents who were waiting for this particular movie to teach their children that valuable lesson. I’m all for metafiction – movies and TV shows that are, in fact, about movies and TV shows can be highly entertaining. But whereas something like Scream was both an interesting commentary on horror movies and an entertaining slasher film in its own right, Detention seems to have been generated by scrawling a bunch of pop culture references onto blank Cards Against Humanity cards, playing a few rounds, and then calling that a script. (I include casting Dane Cook as the principal in this category.)

This movie has many, many faults, but I think most of them can be summed up by comparing it to a shotgun. Joseph Kahn and Mark Palermo clearly intended to parody a dozen different things, but rather than figuring out what point they wanted to make and focusing in on it, they stuffed as many different things down the barrel as they could and shot at the wall, hoping something – anything – would hit the intended target. What they got instead of a hodgepodge of unfocused, uncoordinated scenes that don’t actually seem to mean anything. They aren’t funny enough to work as sketch comedy, and they’re certainly not cohesive enough to make for an effective scary movie.

In the end, Detention is probably one of the scarier movies I’ve seen recently, although not for any of the reasons the filmmakers probably intended. (If you want a movie that has a similar sensibility but is actually… y’know… good… I recommend John Dies at the End.)

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Freaky Firsts Day 1: House (1986)

House 1986Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Steve Miner

Writers: Fred Dekker & Ethan Wiley

Cast: William Katt, George Wendt, Richard Moll, Kay Lenz, Mary Stavin, Michael Ensign, Erik Silver, Mark Silver, Susan French, Curt Wilmot

Plot: Things have been better for writer Roger Cobb (William Katt). His marriage has fallen apart, he’s stuck working on a book about the Vietnam War nobody seems interested in reading, and the elderly aunt who raised him was found dangling from the ceiling in her big, lofty home, victim of an apparent suicide. Cobb returns to the house, where he has flashes to his son’s disappearance in the mansion’s pool some time earlier, the incident that led to his estrangement from his wife Sandy (Kay Lenz) and which Aunt Elizabeth (Susan French) chalked up to her house being haunted. Now alone, Cobb decides to stay in the house that has already destroyed his family to work on his book. As he wanders the house alone, he sees a vision of Elizabeth stringing herself up, warning him to leave before she leaps to her death.

The next day he meets his new neighbor, Harold Gorton (George Wendt, who surprisingly doesn’t offer to buy him a beer). The visions in the house persist until he’s assaulted by a bizarre creature in the closet – an ugly mass that looks like a melted wax figure with claws. Instead of running in terror like a sane person, he sets up video cameras and tries to make the creature reappear, embarrassing himself in front of the neighbor. Harold, thinking Roger is having war flashbacks, contacts Sandy to warn her. Things in the house begin coming to life – a huge mounted marlin, assorted garden implements, and so forth – and Roger arms himself. Sandy arrives just then to check on him, but he sees her as a monster and shoots her. When he realizes what he’s done, he hides her body, unaware that Harold heard the shots and called the police. He nervously dismisses them, feeding them a line about his gun going off while he was cleaning it. Once they’re gone, though, he finds Sandy’s body missing.

The Sandy-monster attacks again, taunting Roger about his missing son, but he manages to use the levitating garden tools to behead it, and… yeah, I know that sounds utterly ridiculous, but that’s what he does, and then disposes of the monster’s body in the backyard in a montage set to Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good.” The body parts keep coming back, though, even clinging to the child of his neighbor when he’s somehow tricked into babysitting. (The boy is nearly taken away by a pair of demonic creatures, but that’s really incidental to the plot.)

Telling him there’s a raccoon in his attic, Roger recruits Harold to help him confront the Thing in the Closet. Harold loses his grip, though, and the monster drags Roger through a portal into his own nightmares, the day in Vietnam when his buddy Big Ben (Richard Moll) was mortally wounded. He finds Ben, who begs Roger to kill him, but Roger can’t do it and flees back through the portal, where several hours have passed and Roger has gotten drunk, which never seemed to happen to him in 11 seasons of sitting in a bar every night. Finding a clue in one of his aunt’s paintings, Roger explores the house and finds his missing son, only to face a horrifying, skeletal vision of Big Ben. Ben’s ghost, it seems, has been behind Roger’s troubles, seeking revenge on his friend for leaving him alive and subject to the tortures of the Viet Cong before dying a brutal death weeks later. The two engage in a chase throughout the house, Roger finally triumphing and blowing up Ben with a ghost-grenade… just as the real Sandy arrives for a happy reunion.

Thoughts: Considering my love of 80s television, I’m really quite astonished that I’ve lasted this long on the planet without ever having seen a movie that starts the nigh-holy trinity of William Katt, George Wendt, and Richard Moll. That said, I’ve known of the existence of House (another Sean S. Cunningham joint) for as long as I remember watching movies. It was one of those horror movie staples on the shelves of the video store, the shelves I would browse even though I knew there was no way my parents would allow me to rent one of these movies and, instead, I’d walk out with Mac and Me or something else that I would be forced to shamefully admit on a blog almost 30 years later. On the first night of my “Freaky Firsts” experiment, when I told my wife I’d never seen it, she dove right in.

William Katt is one of those actors that’s almost impossible to divorce from his more famous roles – in this case, that of a teacher with an alien super-suit on the TV show The Greatest American Hero. Even keeping that in mind, he seems an odd choice to be playing a Vietnam vet in 1986. Admittedly, he was 35 years old at the time, old enough to have taken part in the war, but he has such a youthful appearance that I had to look up his birthday to convince myself he wasn’t pulling a Reverse Dawson.

This film is on the horror/comedy line, something I obviously enjoy. While balancing the creepy story, we get moments of pure slapstick, like Katt’s bumbling lawyer (Michael Ensign) almost shooting him with a harpoon gun and returning a sheepish “oops, did I do that?” look that would make Bugs Bunny proud. George Wendt, a man I will idolize until my dying day for his role on Cheers, brings his good-natured bumbling to the table the minute he appears on the screen, first badmouthing the previous owner of Katt’s house, then backtracking and trying to babble his way out when he learns she was Katt’s aunt. He spends most of the movie this way – trying earnestly to be a good neighbor, but at the same time fouling things up for Katt’s character in pretty much every way imaginable. Richard Moll, best known as the gentle giant Bull from Night Court, hams it up considerably as Big Ben, pulling a performance that’s equal parts manic and goofy.

The sillier aspects of the movie, in fact, go on much longer than I really expected. When Roger first walks away from the Thing in the Closet and the screen cuts to (presumably) the next day, when a truck full of camera equipment arrives, I looked at Erin and said, “Because you wouldn’t just get the hell out?” Before she could blame it on the 1980s, though, we’d already reached the point where Katt was bouncing through the house, into the yard, and shamefully trying to convince George Wendt he wasn’t crazy. And really, living as we do in a post-Big Mouth Billy Bass world, the mounted marlin flailing on the wall doesn’t really send shivers up my spine.

In some ways, the movie tries to do too much. The missing son subplot is sandwiched with the Vietnam flashbacks subplot, and together they sort of weigh down on Katt to the point where he comes across as a sad sack. One or the other tragedy probably would have been enough, and compounding them slightly disrupts that balance between horror and comedy. It’s not enough of an imbalance to ruin the film, but especially towards the end, you can start to feel the pressure of everything coming together, and not in an altogether satisfying way. The reveal of Ben as the big bad is a little disheartening as well, although part of that may simply be because… c’mon, it’s Richard Moll, and no matter how many tough guys he’s played, what child of the 80s doesn’t love that big lummox? More so, though, it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. Why target Roger instead of the people who actually killed him? And Aunt Elizabeth clearly thought her house was haunted for a long time – when exactly did he start targeting her? And why her instead of Roger? Sure, this was pure 80s diversion horror at its finest, but to see it fall apart so quickly under just a little scrutiny is somewhat disappointing.

On the other hand, it’s nice to see a movie old enough that a lot of the things we take for granted aren’t yet tropes. There’s a moment, for example, where Roger is fumbling with a bottle of medicine at the bathroom sink, and I was 100 percent convinced there’d be a ghost or a skeleton or some sort of creature in the mirror when he stood up. Not only wasn’t there one, but with my expectations averted, I was totally unprepared seconds later when Sandy arrived and turned into a monster.

This is really indicative of the kind of horror movies we had in the 80s – at least, the ones that hadn’t tuned into the slasher subgenre. Movies like this, like Gremlins, like Critters… even, to a degree, like Poltergeist, all drew on on-school horror elements, but mixed in comedic moments much more freely than filmmakers are usually willing to do today. Modern films, at least mainstream ones, are terrified to legitimately blend comedy elements with terror – we’ve got torture porn and PG-13 demons on the one hand, and on the other pure parody like the Scary Movie franchise. I not only liked this movie, I admire it for recognizing that horror and comedy can co-exist in a way that post-millennium movies refuse to do.

House is neither a horror legend nor a comedy classic, but it has enough traces of each that I sincerely enjoyed watching it. The Halloween season is off to a great start.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

The Showcase Gang’s Halloween Marathon

Another trip in the Wayback Machine today, friends. Here we’re spinning through the timeline to 2008, when I got together with my Showcase buds to take in not one, not two, but nine movies in the Halloween franchise. Let’s take a look, shall we?

MyersSince Mike’s parents are staying with him after their home was damaged in Hurricane Gustav, Kenny graciously offered to let us use his apartment to kick off this year. On Friday evening, he and I sat with Jason and Andrea, and Daniel and Lauren, patiently awaiting the arrival of Mike, who apparently forgot we were doing this in the vast expanse of time (the day before) since I called and reminded him we were doing this. While we’re waiting, how about a brief history lesson? John Carpenter’s 1978 flick Halloween is sometimes credited as being the first slasher film, with all others (the adventures of Freddy and Jason included) being derivatives of that first maniac in a whitewashed William Shatner mask. It should be interesting watching this, as I know that at least a couple of our intrepid geeks have never seen the first Halloween before, whereas Jason knows it about as well as I know the Richard Donner Superman. The differing opinions will be great, right up until Kenny grabs one of the many bladed weapons he keeps around the apartment and runs Jason through as he attempts to defend Halloween III: Season of the Witch.

For information’s sake, I’ll just point out that I have not seen all of the films in the franchise either. The ones I have seen include the original Halloween, Halloween II, Halloween III, Halloween H20 and the recent Rob Zombie remake. So four of these flicks will be all new to me as well.

Okay, Mike’s here! Let’s get this show on the road…

halloween1Halloween (1978)

The first slasher film comes on the DVD player, with the option to play either in widescreen or fullscreen. Kenny loses geek points for even asking which one he should play. As we go through the long opening shot, Jason and Mike begin arguing over whether Rob Zombie topped this film. (Jason argues it is impossible, while Mike claims the lack of “jump in fear” moments in the original makes it inferior. I merely nod and continue typing.) The argument comes to an abrupt halt when lil’ Michael Myers walks in on his sister naked, causing Mike to cheer in joy. The carnage has begun. As the film scrolls out of the Myers house, Mike comments on how cute he is, standing here holding a bloody blade. Daniel chimes in, “it’s like a little Kenny.”

As Dr. Loomis (the immortal Donald Pleasance) makes his appearance, noticing the breakout at the mental institute where lil’ Mike has been for 15 years, the classic John Carpenter theme music appears.  And friends, no matter what else we say about this franchise over the course of this marathon, I want to make one thing clear: Carpenter wrote the best slasher movie score of all time. I mean… the Nightmare theme is okay, and Jason has his “ki-ki-ki… ma-ma-ma…” thing going on, but… oh, sorry. I was distracted as Kenny wondered aloud how a 22-year-old man who’s been in a mental institution for 15 years knows how to drive a car.

The action shifts to Jamie Lee Curtis, the young babysitter Laurie Strode, walking home from school past – as Daniel observes – a street full of Volkswagens. She’s the virgin of the group, thus inspiring horror movie tropes that would last decades. A little later, as Jamie Lee’s slutty friend brings her young charge over so that Laurie can watch both the little girl AND the little boy, Jason chimes in, “in five years, those two will have sex and get killed in a Halloween movie!” Mike looks over, incredulous. “Really?” I shrug. “Well, they’ll be eligible.”

As we approach the climax of the film, Mike pshaws the “lame” slash Michael makes at the terrified Laurie. I kinda think it’s intentional, though. Based on the later reveals about their relationship, I don’t think he was actually trying to kill her. As Jason points out, “he could have gorked her easily.” This begins a five-minute dissertation on the etymology of the verb “gork.” Daniel, meanwhile, tries to rat out Jamie Lee’s hiding place in the closet to Michael.

In the end, of course, Dr. Loomis shows up, and blows Michael away… or does he? Honestly, it’s a very good movie, but I don’t think it’s quite the masterpiece that some people (namely Jason) make it out to be. I give it a lot of credit for codifying the slasher subgenre, but there are later films, in my opinion, that did it better. I like this movie quite a bit, but I don’t think it’ll ever make it into the ranks of my all-time favorite horror flicks.

Halloween2Halloween II (1981).

Picking up literally minutes before the end of the first movie, we re-watch the final scenes we’ve already seen, with Laurie facing off against the Shape after letting the little kids flee in terror. Dr. Loomis shows up, again, to save the day, and the second movie begins in earnest. The new stuff becomes obvious when Loomis rushes outside to find a hysterical body imprint in the grass. Laurie, having been wounded in her encounter with Michael, is whisked off to the hospital by Lance Guest, who will always be The Last Starfighter to me. As she gets an injection of a sedative, Jason squeals and covers his mouth, while Daniel leaps up and shouts, “Stick it in there!”

As Michael makes his way to the hospital, Laurie starts to have nasty dreams about being a child, visiting someone… somewhere. Really, at this point it should have been obvious where it was going, but hey, it was 1981. We then move down to the therapy ward of the hospital, where Nurse Naughty Parts is getting ready for a soak with the Last Starfighter’s partner. Mike gets excited, while Andrea just questions what kind of hospital they’re running here. Mike’s enjoyment of the film is curtailed only seconds later by the first appearance, in this franchise, of NMA (“Nasty Man Ass”) just before the paramedic is strangled on the other side of a frosted window while the nurse gets out of the tub, not even attempting to cover up despite the fact that a film crew is right there in the room. At this point, we ask Mike if he’s satisfied. “Eh, not really,” he says. Nothing satisfies that jackass. As Michael goes on to kill the nurse by making her bob for apples in a hot tub that’s gotten waaaaay too hot, I foolishly question why his hand isn’t burning. “He’s been shot 17 times!” Daniel shouts. I concede the point.

Finally, inevitably, Laurie is the last person still standing in the hospital and, after 70 ponderous minutes, the Shape begins to really go after her. Laurie and the Last Starfighter end up in his car, trying to flee, when he passes out and falls on the horn. “How in the hell is he gonna pilot a Gunstar?” I asked.

Fleeing from her comatose protector, Laurie tries to get BACK into the hospital, with Michael hot on her heels. Loomis gets her inside just under the wire, having just realized what everyone else figured out an hour ago: Laurie is his sister. Loomis shoots Michael – a lot – but then Haddonfield’s answer to Barney Fife tells him to stop. “He’s dead!” he shouts. Loomis shouts back, “no he’s not! He’s still breathing!” I nod. “That’s the smartest thing anyone has ever said in a horror movie,” I observe. “And it’s the last time it’ll ever happen,” Daniel adds.

Michael continues his rampage, stabbing Loomis, prompting someone to ask if he’s dead. “No,” I said, “he comes back.” Kenny adds, “he had the scalpel set on ‘stun’.” They flood the surgical room with gas, Laurie escapes, and Loomis lights a Bic, causing an explosion of epic (not really) proportions. Michael staggers out, burning like the Human Torch, before finally collapsing. How the hell Loomis survived that one, I’ll never know. At least, not until we get around to watching Halloween 4.

Halloween3Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

Before Kenny can even get the disc with the black sheep of the Halloween franchise into the DVD player, Mike and Jason are humming the “Silver Shamrock” song. The third film, famously, is sans Michael Myers entirely. John Carpenter decided to try to escape the trap of using the same antagonist in every installment of his franchise, which in and of itself, is a decision I can get behind. But man, man, man did he fall short in the execution.

In this film, the Silver Shamrock corporation begins marketing the most popular Halloween masks of all time: a pumpkin, a skeleton, and a witch. Accompanying the mask is a television show with the most ubiquitous, obnoxious theme song in human history. “Eight more days ‘till Halloween, Halloween, Halloween! Eight more days ‘till Halloween! Silver Shamrock!” What exactly a Shamrock has to do with Halloween is never adequately explained. The film follows a drunken doctor summoned to treat a man who was almost killed fleeing in terror from Clay Aiken. Clutching a Silver Shamrock pumpkin mask, he pleads, “They’re going to kill us… all of us…” The token black guy in the scene immediately runs for his life, causing Daniel to proclaim him the smartest black guy in one of these movies ever.

A few days later, Drunk Doctor is throwing back a few in a bar when a trailer for the first Halloween movie comes on. Seems there’ll be a special screening, sponsored by Silver Shamrock. The film has officially committed the same cardinal sin as the Simon Welles version of The Time Machine – you never remind the audience that there is an earlier, better version of the movie you are watching. Drunk Doctor hunts down the daughter of the guy who died with the mask, hoping he can solve the murder. Together, they decide to investigate the Silver Shamrock factory, in the totally Irish town of Santa Mira, California, where everyone is a freaky-ass stalker-type. As they stop for directions at a local gas station, I see that unleaded is only $1.32 a gallon. Upon reflection, I decide it may be worth living on top of a portal to hell if gas was that cheap.

As Drunk Doctor and the Daughter continue their investigation, they start doing unspeakable things to each other in the Santa Mira hotel – things his wife at home would certainly never approve of. Meanwhile, in a nearby room, a woman who came to town to get masks for her novelty shop uncovers something terrible – a computer chip in the mask’s trademark that kills her violently via a really bad special effect. Ironically, the mutilated remains of her face are probably the best splatter effect we’ve yet seen in this series, and when insects begin crawling out of her mouth, Lauren gets all squeamish. As we begin to discuss this effect, Drunk Doctor leaps to attention, exposing us again to the horrors of NMA. We all scream and cover our eyes, except for Lauren and Andrea, who just laugh at us.

The dynamic duo take a tour of the Silver Shamrock factory, which Daniel and Lauren are convinced was filmed at some museum they visited in Nashville. They continue to debate it while the CEO, Bob Silver Shamrock (or whatever the hell) gives a “processed” mask to a kid on the tour. Drunk Doctor decides to sneak back in that night, only to get attacked by one of the goons that’s been gouging eyeballs out of people for the entire movie. He manages to beat him up, punching a hole into his gut and making a startling discovery: the bad guys are robots, and they apparently bleed honey mustard sauce. Captured, Bob Silver Shamrock decides to conveniently reveal his whole plan to Drunken Doctor: they bring the a kid who begged like a hobo for a mask earlier, have him put it on while he watches the godawful commercial, and we see a portal to hell open up inside the kid’s head, resulting in bugs and creepy crawlies flowing out all over his fetid corpse. Mom was right about what happens to you when you sit too close to the TV. Y’see, these old Celtic folk hate how we Americans have corrupted the ancient ritual of Samhain with our candy and kids in masks, so he decides to kill all the kids as a human sacrifice to bring back the devil or Gilligan’s Island or something. I wasn’t really paying attention any more at that point. The doc slips out of the trap by transforming from a drunken slob to MacGuyver, busts the girl out, and sabotages the operation by pressing exactly the right buttons on the evil giant UNIVAC computer. The whole town blows up behind them as they flee, but the broadcast is going to go on as planned. Oh, and the girl is a robot now. I dunno. He escapes and manages to run into one of the least satisfying endings in horror movie history.

This film is the “New Coke” of the franchise. It really just made people want Michael Myers even more. There’s a reason you can still buy his modified William Shatner mask at any Halloween store, but damned if you can find one of the Silver Shamrock specials.

At this point, as it was late and we were old, we retired for the night. We reconvened the next day at Mike’s house. At this point, it was me, Mike, Chase, and – improbably – Mike’s mom and grandmother for the next adventure…

Halloween4Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1987)

Having learned their lesson from the “Season of the Witch” fiasco, producer Moustapha Akkad decided to bring back Michael Myers for the fourth round. Taking place ten years after Michael’s original rampage (which, if you’ll recall, took up both of the first two movies), we pick up the story with Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris), the daughter of the late Laurie Strode. Oh yes – they decided to kill off Jamie Lee Curtis in-between movies. (We’ll debate this more when we reach Halloween: H20). It’s been 11 months since the death of her mother, and now Uncle Mike has apparently come back to hunt her down. Evidently, he somehow survived getting burnt to a crisp at the end of part two and now he’s back as a giant super-strong psycho burn victim.

As lil’ Jamie gets upset because her foster sister doesn’t want to take her trick-or-treating, which (as Chase observes) is really rather shallow of her. She pouts and Loomis – now a burn victim himself – pops up to continue his Ahab-like quest for Michael. He finds a bloody ambulance upside-down in the river, which in these movies is the surest sign of a psycho killer. It’s at this point that I really start to appreciate Loomis as a character. Most of these movies always feature a string of protagonists who are totally in denial about the murderers in their midst. It’s nice to have at least one character who doesn’t have his head up his ass. He continues his search, only to find a dead guy dangling from the ceiling by chains. Mike’s mom then pops out with the best quip of the night thus far: “He’s not a very good mechanic.” Loomis finds Michael and begins to beg him to stay away from Haddonfield and leave lil’ Jamie in peace. When Michael doesn’t say anything (horrors!) he opens fire on him, missing him enough times at short enough range to qualify instantly for a job as an Imperial Storm Trooper.

Jamie’s foster sister takes her shopping for a Halloween costume, where she meets her pinstriped boyfriend, who drives me absolutely crazy because I know I saw him in some 80s movie and I can’t remember which one and it’s driving me batty! Jamie, meanwhile, picks up a clown costume that, coincidentally, looks just like the costume Michael wore when he killed Judith waaaaaay back in the first movie. She goes out trick-or-treating and Michael breaks in, coming across her photos of her mom. Jamie’s sister is heartbroken to see her butt-ugly boyfriend hanging out at another girl’s house (a girl who is wearing nothing but a T-shirt that says “Cops do it by the book,” which virtually guarantees she’ll be hamburger patties before the movie ends). A group of rednecks show up and start shooting and random things, and Butt-Ugly Boyfriend starts doing decadently non-PG-13 things with Whore Girl, which sends Mike into fits when he realizes that she actually keeps her boobs nominally covered. Pretty soon, everyone is dead except Jamie, her sister, Butt-Ugly Boyfriend and Loomis, and Michael has them all trapped in the house. BUB gets killed just after I hear his name is “Freddie” and vow to look him up on IMDB when I get home. Rachel, the worst sister in the world attempts to help Jamie escape, and Michael soon has them dangling over the edge of the house. Sis falls and Jamie rushes to her aid, screaming “you can’t be dead!” and thereby proving that she’s never seen one of these movies. As they finally escape by the skin of their teeth, they meet the rednecks, who show an out-of-character amount of good sense when they agree to get the hell out of town and let the National Guard take care of Michael. Michael manages to hitch a ride and pull one of the guys’ faces off, leaving the girls alone to deal with him. Michael is finally killed by getting run over by a car, sprayed with a hail of gunfire, and trapped in a mine explosion. The girls go home… just in time for what is admittedly one of the best horror movie endings ever. As Foster Mom draws up a bath for lil’ Jamie, she dons her clown mask and, in a tracking shot reminiscent of the first film, approaches mom… only to reappear seconds later, covered in blood. The evil, it seems, survived.

Halloween5Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989)

Two years later, it was time for round five, and I begin to weep as I realize that this film actually only marks the halfway point of our marathon. After a particularly brutal “pumpkin carving” scene, we open with a recap of Michael’s overkill death via car, gunfire, and explosive. However, this time, we see him narrowly escape the blast and get away, according to Chase, by riding a Schlitterbahn waterslide to safety. He gets away and almost kills a transient, then passes out. Flash forward to one year later, in a child’s mental clinic, where Lil’ Jamie is strapped into a machine that’s monitoring her nightmares. She flashes back to brutally murdering her foster mother and wakes up screaming, then gets cuddled by a nurse who asks to… call her mom? Huh?

We see Michael wake up in the transient’s shack, where he wakes up without his mask. Chase then tells us to rewind the DVD so we can see how cute he is, and we are all far more frightened than we have been for the entire marathon to date. Jamie mimics Michael putting on his mask, helping strengthen Mike’s theory that they’re sharing some sort of mental link, then starts going through convulsions as he kills the friendly neighborhood transient. Eh. It happens. Jamie is better later, except for the fact that she’s apparently lost the ability to talk, and it soon becomes clear that Rachel has taken on a mother role for her. Chase sums up my thoughts about this perfectly: “SHE KILLED YOUR MOM, LADY!” It does seem a little bizarre… until Rachel again says, “Mom and Dad send their love.” As we debate whether the murder was a dream sequence or if mom just survived the attack or what, someone throws a rock through the window with a note that says, “The evil child must die!”  I immediately think of a few former students of mine.

Over the course of the next several minutes, Rachel is interrupted from a shower by Jamie having a premonition of Michael killing the dog. We then meet the worst pair of cops in Haddonfield, evidenced by the goofy music that accompanies them. Seriously, it’s like listening to a Vaudeville routine. Loomis begins shouting at Jamie to tell him what she knows and she starts to weep. I shake my head. “not a child psychologist, are you Sam?” I ask. Chase pops up with, “I thought he was…” Oh. Yeah.

After Michael kills Rachel (Mike weeps because he never saw her boobies), her friend is picked up by a guy who I can only describe as looking like Fonzie, “if he was a douchebag.” Loomis terrifies Jamie some more, and then we see some dude with metal-tipped boots get off a bus and kick a dog. Mike’s mom chimes in with, “You no-good man! I’d kill you right now!” My only response is, “that’s going into the blog.” The next genuinely terrifying moment? When we see a convenience store that keeps its spinner rack of comic books outside. Those books weren’t made to handle the elements. Fonziedouche backs up behind the behind the store where Michael appears, doing something worse than killing him. He scratches his car. Then he stabs him in the face with a pitchfork, and we’re all happy.

Jamie breaks her streak of not talking just in time to save her friend Tina from Michael. As we begin a long, ponderous section featuring kittens and a jackass friend dressed as Michael pretending to kill people, we realize that Halloween 5 is, in fact, too dull to even effectively riff on. We’re all pretty relieved when the real Michael drives a pitchfork through the guy as he’s on his girlfriend. Then he comes back with a scythe to take her out. The worst cops in the world hear the bloody deaths, then they actually summon Michael to their car to chew him out. We’re pretty happy when he kills them too.

Michael comes after Tina with a car, but somehow, Jamie screams at him and makes him come after her instead. Mike and Chase are amazed at how his car can turn on a dime, while I am amazed that it’s apparently too slow to catch up with a 12-year-old girl in a fairy costume running over uneven terrain. They get away, Tina dying in the process, and Loomis issues his challenge to Michael: face him “back where it all began”! They’re going to the Myers house, and Loomis clearly has no qualms about using a 12-year-old girl as bait. Loomis is a jerk.

At this point, Kenny joins the fun, and we are temporarily distracted by the fact that he is now clean-shaven for his new job. It’s like Samson losing his hair. We barely notice the rest of the film, but that’s not really that big a loss. Jamie runs to the attic, where she finds the corpses of everyone she loves, and he hides in a coffin, which is the worst hiding place ever. Michael approaches her, but before he can turn her into kibble, she calls him “uncle” and asks him to stop and take off his mask. Which he does, prompting her to say, “You’re just like me.” I don’t quite get the connection. She’s not a nine-foot-tall psycho killer from hell. Loomis arrives (again), chains Michael up, and beats him with a two-by-four. Of course, he’s still not dead. He’s going to a “maximum security facility,” to stay there until he dies. People in this franchise are idiots. Finally, metal-toe-boot-man arrives (we’ve been watching him periodically pop up throughout the film), and begins trying to shoot Michael through the bars. Jamie wanders back into the jail, where the cell is burning… and it ends. “Thank god,” I say, before the significance of this event dawns on me. Yeah, the cell was on fire, but dammit, Michael was gone.

Halloween6Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)

The film begins with Jamie, now a teenager and played by somebody else, being wheeled through a hospital and into a large satanic-looking chamber to, evidently, deliver a baby. The child is marked by the silver-toed dude from the last movie, but Jamie manages to grab the baby and flee… right to an abandoned farmhouse, where she abandons the screaming infant and is soon killed by Uncle Michael. This, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, is the cardinal sin of a horror movie: bringing back the previous film’s survivor girl just to kill her off in the opening act. I hate that. Anyway, before she dies, she whispers to him that he can’t have the baby. Then she dies a lot.

Back in Haddonfield, we find a man who was actually stupid enough to buy the Strode house, and as a result is being plagued by kids putting standees of Michael in the yard. Living here is a lovely non-nuclear family: Abusive Grandpa and Grandma, their teenage son Tim, their slightly older daughter Kara, and her son Danny. It gets worse when it dawns on me that this is another branch of the Strode family, Laurie’s foster-relatives. After a fight at the breakfast table, Grandpa slaps Kara, only to have Danny grab a steak knife and point it at him. This is why you never buy a house that previously belonged to a serial killer’s foster sister. Living across the street, however, is the grown-up Tommy from the first movie, now played by Paul Rudd. He’s been watching Kara undress through the window, while meanwhile obsessing over the minutia of the Michael Myers legend… he’s clipping newspaper articles, listening to radio call-in shows full of Myers conspiracy theorists, and genuinely creeping the hell out of everyone. Somehow, he finds the missing baby in the restroom of a bus station, which is by no means the most sanitary possible place. Kara and Tim find a drawing by Danny featuring his entire family being stabbed to pieces, which Tim thinks is “cool.” Tim is freakin’ strange. Tommy hunts down Dr. Loomis to ask for help, which makes me realize that Loomis apparently hadn’t begun his child-terrorizing tactics in the first movie.

Tommy reveals that an ancient cult used to choose one child per town to be possessed by a demon and be driven to slay his family, thereby saving the rest of the town… which is evidently what happened to Michael. Which means it didn’t work, because how many non-Myers has he killed? Case in point: in the next scene Abusive Grandpa finds Grandma’s head in the washing machine, then gets stabbed and electrocuted. Really, I’m calling this spell an absolute failure.

Later, at a sort of outdoor Halloween festival (this town never learns) Tommy walks around being creepy, and finds a little Halloween fairy princess dancing in a “red rain.” It’s Tim’s buddy the shock jock, dangling from a tree and bleeding on things. Tommy calls Dr. Loomis and informs him that “it’s happening.” Well duh. Tim and his girlfriend get iced, and Danny (showing the sort of foresight that people always display in these movies) runs to the Myers house. Kara goes after them and manages to knock Michael down the stairs. She immediately becomes my favorite character in the franchise since Laurie.

Chase and I miss out on her battle with Michael as we debate who died first in each of the Scream movies for no apparent reason. Kara and Danny run across the street to meet up with Loomis and Tommy, and EEEEEEVIL VOICES call to Danny. It’s silver toed shoe man, played by the straight-laced dad from Dharma and Greg, who is Loomis’s boss. Evidently, everyone in this movie has been part of a conspiracy to get their hands on the baby. Kara leaps from a window, but gets captured, and Michael chases the whole gang to the asylum or something. Tommy busts Kara out just in time to get away from Michael, who takes a very large-caliber bullet right in the chest. Yeah, like this will work. Barely wounded, Michael goes to town in the operating room, though, resulting in a nifty little bloodbath and Mike screaming, “WHY IS THERE A STROBE LIGHT IN A HOSPITAL?”

Tommy tries to fake Michael out by giving him a fake baby, but the real one cries and screws the deal. Then Kara starts to beat the crap out of him with an iron pipe, further cementing her as my favorite. he still takes her down, but Danny shouts at Michael, drawing him away just in time to save her life. Loomis shows up AGAIN, does nothing AGAIN, and the others all leave him behind because he’s got “something to do.” We don’t know what, though, because that’s where the movie ends, along with a memorial to the late Donald Pleasance. Much as I goofed on Loomis, he really did add an air of class to these movies, and the next two feel his absence in a particularly painful fashion.

Halloween7Halloween: H20 (1998)

This was actually the first Halloween  movie I ever saw. Jason and I caught it when it first came out, and I hated it. I haven’t seen it since, and I’m hoping that my new familiarity with the franchise will make me enjoy it more. This film, you see, ignores every movie since the second one. It begins in Langdon, Illinois, at the home of the late Dr. Loomis. The house is open and his nurse is freaking out, so she asks the kid from 3rd Rock From the Sun to investigate. We all bemoan the fact that he’s going to play Cobra Commander in the upcoming G.I. Joe movie, and just hope he dies. [2013 Note: Despite G.I. Joe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has since proven himself to be a fine actor, and these earlier indiscretions have been forgiven.] Instead, he freaks out and beats up a pot rack, then takes a beer from the refrigerator. The fridge light is on, even though nothing else works. Apparently, the fridge is on a completely different circuit than everything else in the house. I’m not feeling particularly optimistic that this movie will be better than I remember. I do perk up a little when the teenage brat gets a pair of hockey skates shoved in his face a few minutes later.

On the plus side, Jamie Lee Curtis makes her triumphant return in this film. Evidently, Laurie Strode faked her death years ago and is now living under an assumed name with her fiancé, Alan Arkin, and her son, Josh Hartnett, and is the headmistress of a prestigious boarding school in Summer Glen, California. Of course, she’s still haunted by the memory of her big brother. As she meets her secretary, I am reminded that Janet Leigh is in this film, which is amusing on a few levels. First, she’s Jamie Lee’s real mother, and second, she was awesome in Psycho. She’s picking up some of the class slack left by Donald Pleasance’s absence.

There is a moment of vindication when we see Michelle Williams’ character washing dishes. You see, for years, Chase has referred to this movie as Halloween: Water, But There’s No Water in the Movie, as if it was the full title. When I point out the water in the sink, he apologizes. A few seconds later, as she walks down a hallway full of puddles, he announces, “There’s water all over this freakin’ movie!”  I also make everyone quiet when we get to the best moment in the movie: when Janet Leigh tells Jamie Lee that she’s not trying to be “maternal,” and that “we’ve all been through things in the past.” When Jason and I saw this movie in the theater, we were the only two people who laughed at this line.

Chase had to step out at this point, as he was catching a plane in the morning, and by now Mom and Granny were in bed, so we were down to Mike, Kenny and myself.

Pretty soon, Jamie Lee is getting stalked again, but she keeps imagining she sees Michael all over, so when the real deal begins showing up, she thinks she’s just hallucinating again. The four main kids skip out on a trip to Yosemite to stay at the school and do dirty deeds, which terrifies Laurie when she realizes it. Mike comments that this episode feels too much like the Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer franchises, and I point out that it was made in that era of the Slasher. The killing finally starts when Michael takes a corkscrew to one of the kids and a carving knife to another. Then, if that wasn’t bad enough, she gets her leg caught in a falling dumbwaiter before finishing her off. I must admit, it’s one of the more creative murders in these films as of yet. The remaining kids, including Laurie’s son, flee, and brother and sister come face-to-face once again.

We then get a first in this franchise – Laurie’s fiancé accidentally shoots LL Cool J, thinking he’s Michael, before getting gutted himself. Laurie sends her son and his girlfriend away and she decides to face him, alone, once and for all. Kenny suggests she put on a William Shatner mask and go after him. I counter – “No, no… Leonard Nimoy.” Laurie manages to stab the hell out of Michael, and she’s about to finish him off before LL Cool J pops in and stops her because, “He’s dead!” LL is a moron. Laurie, knowing it isn’t over, wait until the cops load Michael into a coroner’s van, then steals it and drives off into the middle of nowhere for the final battle. This includes throwing him through the windshield of a moving van, running him over, plunging both him and the van off a cliff, pinning him between the van and a tree, and chopping his head off. Credit where credit is due. Laurie doesn’t do things in half-measures. “I’ll say this,” I conclude. “A bad movie, yes, but with a good ending.”

Halloween8Halloween: Resurrection (2002)

Mike says “Oh my god, this is gonna suck ass” from the beginning of the opening credits, which features Busta Rimes and Tyra Banks. I cannot disagree. The movie begins with Laurie, now in an insane asylum. She’s there for decapitating “a man.” Y’see, it seems in all the confusion after Michael was beaten in the last movie, he put his mask on some other dude and stuck him in the coroner’s van, so Laurie actually killed an innocent man while Michael roamed free. Frankly, all things considered, I think she’s remarkably well adjusted. Michael has been on the loose for three years now, and he’s somehow tracked Laurie down. After killing a couple of security guards (because that’s how he rolls), he bursts through the door to Laurie’s room and chases her to the roof, where Mike notices that the mask in this movie doesn’t look anything like the previous ones. Where the hell does Michael get these things? Anyway, Laurie manages to catch his foot in a trap and dangle him over the roof, but she reaches for his mask to be sure it’s him. He grabs her, stabbing her in the gut before he throws her off the building. This just plain pisses me off. Laurie is the ultimate Survivor Girl. Dying 15 minutes into the movie? First of all, it ain’t kosher. Second of all, with her dead, Michael has no more reason to exist. But somehow, we’ve still got at least an hour of movie to go through.

Flash to Haddonfield University (apparently there is one) and we meet three college students who have been picked to be on an internet reality TV show called Dangertainment. God help me.  They, and three others, are being sent to Michael Myers’ childhood home to “look for answers,” whatever the hell that means. A quick interview sequence makes me conclusively determine that five of them are pretentious idiots, leaving only our apparent new Survivor Girl, Sarah, who freaks out when a light is knocked over and whose scream apparently turns on Busta Rimes, who begins talking to himself in the third person. We all want him to die.

The killing starts even before the show does, though, as one of the technical producers is murdered with what must be the sharpest tripod ever made while Tyra Banks dances around and makes herself a cappuccino. The kids begin investigating the house, where they discover everything has been falling apart for years… except that a cursory investigation of the kitchen shows fresh fennel.  Apparently, when Michael came home he took the time to refill the spice rack. Meanwhile, Sarah’s dorky high school-aged internet buddy is dragged off to a party against his will, when all he really wants is to log on to a computer and watch her. He finds a kick-ass computer setup in the house where they’re staying and logs on. From there, he figures out Michael is in the house long before anyone actually in the house wises up, except for the ones he kills. We briefly have a moment of hope where we think that Busta is going to get killed as, dressed like Michael, he chews him out under the assumption that he’s the missing producer. But then Michael lets him live, disappointing us all, and goes on to kill the cute redhead, further disappointing us all.

The remaining kids figure out Busta’s plot and are about to leave, just before the real Michael shows up and starts cutting them up. Soon, only Sarah is left, and her only hope of survival is a primitive text message system with her geek buddy, giving her clues to keep her alive. In the end, this is a movie with stupid, shallow characters and a stupid flash-in-the-pan story. With the possible exception of three, I think this may well be the worst in the franchise. The house actually burns to the ground in this one, with Michael in it, which I guess makes it technically the end. After all, the next one is a remake…

Halloween9Halloween (2007)

Last year, Rob Zombie remade the beginnings of the franchise. Mike, Kenny and I saw the remake when it first came out, and we all liked it, so it’s nice to know we’re ending with a good movie. Zombie went back to Michael as a child, starting with him being bullied by his dad, torturing animals, and ultimately killing one of the bullies that tormented him. At this point, we’re all pretty exhausted, and the riffing has dwindled to a minimum. Still, we’re into the flick. It’s actually the Richard Donner Superman formula. The first half of the movie is all origin; he doesn’t put on the familiar costume or go to the familiar setting until the second half of the film, and from there, all hell breaks loose.  Just like that other masterpiece of cinema to use the same formula: Santa Claus: The Movie.

Young Michael’s first kill, like I said, is the school bully. That night, after his older sister refuses to take him trick-or-treating so she can stay home and do things to her boyfriend, he duct-tapes his stepfather to an armchair and butchers him before taking care of the happy couple. At this point, Mike scares us all by announcing that, at this point in the movie, he’s rooting for Michael. Sure, Stepdad is a drunken jerk, but man… Anyway, after the killings, we flash through his treatment by Dr. Loomis (now played well by Malcolm McDowell), into an obsession with making masks, through his murder of a nurse, and through his mother’s suicide, unable to deal with the fact that she seems to have given birth to the Antichrist. I don’t know if I can root for this Michael, but Zombie has succeeded in making me pity him.

Anyhoo, 15 years later it’s the same ol’ thing. Mike breaks out and stalks his way back to Haddonfield, and the new Laurie Strode. Maximum cool points go for the casting of Danielle Harris, lil’ Jamie from 4 and 5, as Laurie’s friend Annie. And may I say, she did a damn good job of growing up. Hotcha. On the other hand, out of the three main girls, only Scout Taylor-Compton (as Laurie) could possibly pass for a teenager.

Once the killing starts in earnest, Zombie starts recreating scenes, lines, deaths, even shots, from the first two movies, which is a lot more fun to pick out having watched the original just last night (although it seems like about ten years ago.) We begin picking out comparisons between the two: Annie lives in this one, but died in the original; the cops are competent in this one, but morons in most of the other films… the big question is as to what time period, exactly, the different segments of the film are supposed to be set in. The second half feels very contemporary, very 2007. The first segment felt very 1970s. But only 15 years had passed. That first section in no way felt like 1992. It’s kind of hard to reconcile the two halves of the film, we say. The debate continues until Danielle Harris takes her top off, at which point all conversation ceases.

Eventually, as must always be the case, it’s down to Michael, Laurie, and Loomis, who turns out to be a much better shot in the remake than in the old movies. Bullets still don’t really work for beans, but at least he’s a better shot. The final fight, the last 20 or so minutes of the movie, are totally brutal and unflinching. It’s harsh, it’s dirty, and it’s disturbing. Which, frankly, is what makes it work.

The final tally: Mike, Kenny and I all seem to agree that the Rob Zombie Halloween is the best of the bunch, although I contend that it wouldn’t be as good if you hadn’t seen the original. Season of the Witch is hands-down the worst, but if we’re only going to count Mike Myers movies, the consensus is that Resurrection sucks hardest. And thus ends the third annual Halloween Marathon, guys. Hope you enjoyed the recap as much as we enjoyed doing it!

Halloween 2Since we held this marathon a tenth Halloween film has been released, the sequel to Zombie’s remake. Here’s the podcast Mike, Kenny and I recorded about that one…

Two years ago, Rob Zombie reinvented one of the slasher classics with Halloween. This year, Halloween II picks up and extends his new vision of terror — but do the Showcase boys share his vision? Check our our mini-review!

Download the episode