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Scrooge Month Day 18: Robert Wagner in A DENNIS THE MENACE CHRISTMAS (2007)

Dennis the Menace Christmas 2007Director: Ron Oliver

Writer: Kathleen Laccinole

Cast: Maxwell Perry Cotton, Robert Wagner, Louise Fletcher, George Newburn, Kim Schraner, Isaac Durnford, Jake Beale, China Anne McClain, Heidi Hayes, Godfrey, Richard Notkin, Jack Noseworthy, Michael Lerner, Walter Massey, Elliott Larson

Notes: Dennis the Menace is one of those properties  Hollywood periodically takes down from the shelf, dusts off, and tries again. This is technically a sequel to the 1993 Dennis the Menace film starring Walter Matthau as Mr. Wilson, although none of the original cast is in it as they’re all either dead or way too old to play the parts again. In this version, an encounter with Dennis (Maxwell Perry Cotton) has crushed any Christmas Spirit Mr. Wilson (Robert Wagner) has left. The Christmas Carol stuff doesn’t come in at all until the third act of the movie, where rather than multiple ghosts we get Bob the Angel (Godfrey), who handles the chores for everybody. In fact, for much of the film Bob’s presence makes it feels a little more like an It’s a Wondeful Life pastiche than a take on Dickens.

Thoughts: In case you’ve never read the comic strip or seen the previous movies, here’s Dennis the Menace in a nutshell: he’s a little boy who’s basically good-hearted, but has a propensity towards mischief and disaster. This causes no end of torment for his next door neighbor, retired mailman Mr. Wilson, who Dennis regards as his best friend. This is not a mutual feeling on Mr. Wilson’s part.

This time out the movie begins with the school’s Thanksgiving pageant, where Dennis’s parents Henry and Alice Mitchell (George Newburn and Kim Schraner) are a bit nervous he may wreck the whole thing. George Wilson and his wife Martha (Louise Fletcher) are also in attendance, and Mr. Wilson is even more terrified than the Mitchells that things are going to go haywire. Backstage, pushy stage parent David Bratcher (Jack Noseworthy) instructs his son Jack (Jake Beale) to do whatever it takes to get front and center for the show. Mr. Wilson’s concerns turn out to be correct and disaster strikes. As it turns out, David is an old rival of Henry’s and also the school’s insurance provider, and he points out the “Dennis Clause” in their policy, absolving his company from paying for any destruction caused by Dennis Mitchell. Geez, and Mr. Wilson is the Scrooge in this story? This guy really needs a comeuppance.

As Christmas approaches, Jack harasses Dennis and his friends outside a toy store. Dennis challenges Jack to a bicycle race to get him off his back, but he’ll need a new bike from Santa Claus to pull it off. Back at the Wilson’s house, Mr. Wilson refuses his wife’s pleas to decorate for Christmas. She – along with everyone in town – wishes for a little snow for Christmas, which we’re reminded multiple times hasn’t happened in 30 years, virtually guaranteeing a blizzard by the end of the movie.

Alice gets a part-time job wrapping presents at a department store, and Mrs. Wilson agrees to watch Dennis. When Mr. Wilson falls asleep, though, Dennis gets his hands on a stamp collection worth $10,000, which causes some real trouble for the Mitchells thanks to the aforementioned “Dennis Clause.” I have to admit, I put the blame on Wilson here – if you’ve got a trouble-prone 6-year-old and something worth $10,000 in the same house, you don’t take a nap.

Things get worse and worse, with one disaster after another happening until, on Christmas Eve, Mr. Wilson tells Dennis to go away and never come back and – just to twist the knife a little – says there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. This is the last straw, and he’s visited by Bob the Angel, who has actually been wandering around for most of the movie getting involved in Dennis’s various capers for no apparent reason.

Finally, 59 minutes into the 87-minute movie, Bob starts the Christmas Spiriting. He takes Mr. Wilson back to his childhood, where he’s reminded of his neighbor, Mr. Newman (Walter Massey). Little George (Elliott Larson) turns out to be as dangerous to Mr. Newman’s collection of model ships as Dennis was to Mr. Wilson’s stamps. In the present, he’s shown Henry and Alice tallying up how much money they owe Mr. Wilson for his assorted escapades and they realize they can’t afford to give Dennis much of a Christmas. In fact, they may have to move to a smaller house. Upstairs, Dennis rejects Christmas as “stupid.” When Mr. Wilson hears him saying “the s-word,” he breaks. He’s then tossed to a future where a boy shows up at the Mitchell house, trying to impart some Christmas spirit, but he’s rejected. Dennis – now an old man played by Richard Notkin — spent his whole life trying to get back the house he cost his parents, but never had time for any family or friends. He lives there, pathetic and alone. You can argue, pretty convincingly, that his is a fate worse than Tiny Tim.

When Dennis and the Mitchells wake up in the morning, there’s a new bike there courtesy of “Santa Claus,” and Mr. Wilson shows up to forgive the Mitchells’ debt to him and make up with Dennis. Mrs. Wilson wakes up to a fully-decorated house, because it was the one sin of Mr. Wilson’s that hadn’t been addressed yet. As for the bike race – Dennis actually loses. As it turns out, though, he throws the race – hearing Jack’s father shouting about losers, Dennis realizes Jack needs the win more than he does. The boys make friends, and predictably, the snow starts to fall.

The movie takes an interminably long time to get around to the Scrooge-ish stuff, and it goes through the whole thing (past, present, and future) in less than 15 minutes. It makes sense, I suppose. This isn’t a case like Disney or the Muppets, where the characters are going concerns that are simply being dropped into the classic story. This time around, the focus is more on trying to jumpstart a franchise, with a little Dickens thrown into the mix. Judged purely as a Dennis the Menace movie, therefore, it’s not too bad. The characters are simple enough, and Robert Wagner’s grumpy turn as Mr. Wilson balances things nicely to keep it from getting too saccharine. They take things a bit too far into the cartoony though, with Wagner’s face literally turning red and whistling as smoke hisses from some unseen edifice after Dennis ruins his stamps.

It’s also the kind of story that has virtually no suspense. The conflicts are all laid out in a cookie-cutter fashion and the film marches on directly towards the most obvious solution. You know it’s going to snow simply because it’s been 30 years since it happened. You know Mr. Wilson will forgive Dennis because he does that in every movie. You know Dennis is going to get his bike, and you know there’s a 99 percent chance Mr. Wilson is the one who’ll buy it for him. I know they’re not trying to make groundbreaking cinema here, but does that mean the movie has to feel so cut-and-paste? The only thing that comes as a surprise is when Dennis loses the race, and then there’s an added segment of heartwarming just to make up for it.

I give the film a little credit for self-awareness. At one point, Mr. Wilson turns on Bob saying, “I get it. I’m Scrooge, I need to learn my lesson.” That actually shows the power of Dickens, really. Even when a character is fully aware that he’s getting the Christmas Carol treatment, it still works.

The weird thing is, I probably wouldn’t have cared for this movie too much if I’d watched it by itself. As part 18 of a Scrooge-a-thon, though, it’s actually kind of a refreshing change of pace. So I guess what I’m saying is, if you really want to enjoy A Dennis the Menace Christmas, the best way to do that is to watch 17 other versions of A Christmas Carol first.

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!

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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

 

Get ready for the Man of Steel…

Man-of-Steel-Flight-Poster-550x801It is absolutely no surprise or secret that the movie I’m the most excited for this year is finally hitting theaters this Friday. Lifelong comic book fan, and more importantly, Superman fan that I am, Man of Steel couldn’t possibly get here soon enough to suit me. I’m on a mini-vacation with my fiance, Erin, right now, but once I’m home with my DVD shelf I fully intend to immerse myself in the Superman films of the past. Chances are you’re aware of the four Christopher Reeve movies, the one Brandon Routh movie… you no doubt know about the Fleischer Studios shorts of the early 40s, the assorted TV shows starring George Reeves, Dean Cain, and Tom Welling. You may even know about the Helen Slater Supergirl movie, and you no doubt watched the 90s Superman: The Animated Series starring Tim Daly.

Today, I’m going to give you a quick rundown of a few Superman movies you may not know about. In 2007, Warner Brothers and DC Comics began a series of animated movies based on their superhero comics, beginning with a Superman film. Many of these are available via Netflix steaming, and all of them are being flooded back into stores this week, with the big Man of Steel push. Here are those DCU Animated Superman movies you may not have seen…

Superman-DoomsdaySuperman/Doomsday (2007). The first film in the series was based on the early 90s Death of Superman storyline from the comic books, although it is a very trimmed-down version. In this version, Metropolis is attacked by a rampaging beast that comes to be known as Doomsday, a mindless killing machine that threatens to destroy his city. Superman faces down the beast, seemingly at the cost of his own life, but both friend and foe alike are unwilling to accept that his death is that simple. The film wasn’t bad — Adam Baldwin made for a good Superman and James Marsters was a great Lex Luthor. Anne Heche’s Lois Lane was weak, though, and I think they trimmed a bit too much to allow the story to fit in the extremely abbreviated running time of the animated series. Still, this was the DC Animated Universe’s first shot, and the series got better very quickly.

Superman-Batman Public Enemies Blu-RaySuperman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009). This movie reunited the TV voices of Superman and Batman, Tim Daly and Kevin Conroy, for the first of two films based on a comic book series by Jeph Loeb. In Public Enemies Lex Luthor (also voiced by his TV actor, Clancy Brown), has been elected president of the United States, and uses that influence to draw together a group of heroes under the government payroll. Luthor uses the threat of an impending strike of a massive meteor of Kryptonite to turn the public against Superman and he and Batman go on the run, fighting their fellow heroes in an attempt to clear their names and reveal Luthor as the villain he is. This is a really great flick, one that plays not just with Superman, but with the larger DC Universe, with lots of heroes and villains that casual fans may be introduced to for the first time.

Superman-Batman-ApocalypseSuperman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010). The sequel to Public Enemies again reunites Daly and Conroy. The shower of Kryptonite meteors in the first movie brought with it a large chunk with some mysterious technology inside. Batman investigates the chunk to discover a girl in suspended animation — Kara Zor-El (Summer Glau), daughter of Superman’s uncle, and the first blood family he has seen since coming to Earth as an infant. The heroes take Kara to Wonder Woman (Susan Eisenberg) to teach her how to use her powers and help her adapt to life on Earth, but she soon becomes embroiled in a battle between the heroes and the powerful villain Darkseid (Andre Braugher). I rather like this movie even more than Public Enemies, adding Supergirl to the mix and bringing in the most dangerous foe Superman has ever faced.

All Star SupermanAll-Star Superman (2011). Based on a graphic novel by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, in All-Star, Superman (James Denton) receives a fatal overdose of solar radiation while thwarting one of Lex Luthor’s (Anthony LaPaglia) schemes. The radiation is killing him slowly, and giving him additional powers in the process. With his time limited, Superman embarks on a quest to make permanent, lasting changes to the world, leaving it better before his death. This film is based on one of the greatest Superman comics of all time and, sadly, came out just days after the death of its screenwriter, Justice League Unlimited showrunner Dwayne McDuffie. If you can only watch one of the movies on this list, or if you don’t understand what makes Superman a brilliant and compelling character, this is the movie to watch.

Superman Vs the EliteSuperman Vs. the Elite (2012). George Newburn, who voiced Superman on the Justice League cartoons, returns to the character in this film based on a comic book by Joe Kelly. Manchester Black (Robin Atkin Downes) is a new superhero, one whose team the Elite initially appears like a welcome addition in the war on crime. Superman soon realizes, however, that Manchester and the Elite have much more violent and permanent solutions to villainy than he is comfortable with. As the people of Earth start to gravitate towards the Elite and question whether Superman is outdated, the man of steel is forced to confront questions of his own relevance. Like All-Star, this is a brilliant story made into a very good movie. This film is the answer to everyone who ever says that Superman is “too old fashioned,” “too good,” or just plain “boring.” This is a story that explains the importance of Superman, and why he has to be who he is… because the alternative is chilling.

Superman UnboundSuperman Unbound (2013). The most recent film on this list came out just last month. based on a graphic novel by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, Matt Bomer takes on the role of Superman in this film. Brainiac, a highly-intelligent alien that menaced Krypton in the past, has come to Earth, terrifying Supergirl (Molly Quinn), who remembers the villain from Krypton. Brainiac travels through the universe, miniaturizing and stealing cities from different planets before destroying them, and Metropolis is his next target. The graphic novel this movie is based on is great, the movie is just okay. Like some of the earlier films on the list, it suffers a little from having to strip away a bit too much from the original story to fit in the short animated running time. For the Superman fan, though, it’s still worth watching.

Dorothy Gale Week BONUS: Zooey Deschanel in Tin Man (2007)

Tin Man 2007Director: Nick Willing

Writer: Steven Long Mitchell, Craig Van Sickle, based on the novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Cast: Zooey Deschanel, Alan Cumming, Neal McDonough, Kathleen Robertson, Raoul Trujillo, Callum Keith Rennie, Richard Dreyfuss, Blu Mankuma, Anna Galvin, Ted Whittall, Rachel Pattee, Alexia Fast, Gwynyth Walsh, Kevin McNulty, Karin Konoval, Andrew Francis, Grace Wheeler.

Plot: DG (Zooey Deschanel) is a waitress in a Kansas farm town who doesn’t feel like she fits into her life. She’s been having dreams about a woman with lavender eyes (Anna Galvin) – a dream that seriously concerns her parents (Gwynyth Walsh and Kevin McNulty). Elsewhere, in another realm called the Outer Zone (O.Z. – get it?), a brutal witch named Azkadellia (Kathleen Robertson) is struggling against spies who are trying to wrest control from her. She turns to a captive lion-like creature called a “viewer,” who predicts trouble coming from “the other side.” Azkadellia tells her general to launch a travel storm, find the trouble, and destroy it. They arrive at DG’s farmhouse, coming after her. Her parents force DG onto the roof in the midst of the storm and tell her to jump to escape Azkadellia’s Longcoats. She is swept away into the storm .

She wakes up in a forest and is captured by a group of diminutive resistance fighters from the Eastern Guild who take her as a spy sent by Azkadellia. In her cage, DG meets a man named Glitch (Alan Cumming), who has had half his brain (and memories) removed by Azkadellia. Together, they escape and find Wyatt Cain (Neal McDonough), formerly one of Azkadellia’s “Tin Man” police who has been imprisoned for years for disobeying her. His family was taken from him, and his years of imprisonment have turned his heart cold, bent only on revenge. When they stop to rescue a viewer named Raw (Raoul Trujillo) from a group of predators, they all plunge off a cliff to escape. Azkadellia’s viewer shows the escape, and when she realizes DG is alive, she is outraged.

DG finds her parents amidst a town full of cyborgs. Her parents reveal they are androids, programmed to protect DG until return to the Outer Zone. Her true mother is the woman with lavender eyes. She’s instructed to find the Mystic Man of Central City, and DG and her friends flee as the Longcoats arrive. They sneak into Central City, where DG’s picture is on a wanted poster, and Wyatt leaves the group to search for Zero (Callum Keith Rennie), who took his family. The others find the Mystic Man (Richard Dreyfuss), a carnival showman who is bombed out on Azkadellia’s mind-altering vapors. As they watch his show, Zero and the Longcoats appear, looking for DG. Wyatt saves them and the Mystic Man tells DG her search for her mother must begin at the Northern Island. He makes Wyatt promise to protect DG at all costs, and covers while they escape. At the ice-covered Northern Island, they find a hidden palace, and the truth. DG’s mother was Queen of the Outer Zone, and Glitch her advisor. Raw uses his power to show them a glimpse of the past, when Azkadellia – DG’s older sister – killed her. Their mother restored her to life, giving up her magic to do so. She tells DG she is sending her away until the time is right for her to find the only thing that can stop Azkadellia – the Emerald of the Eclipse. As they watch, the adult Azkadellia arrives and demands the location of the Emerald. Raw and DG are captured, and Zero reveals to Wyatt that his family is still alive, just before shooting him and sending him plunging into the icy water outside.

Part 2 of the film begins with DG waking up in her house in Kansas, her parents talking about the nightmares she’s been having. Her father is terribly interested in the dream, particularly about where the Emerald is. DG realizes it’s fake – Azkadellia used a hologram projector to recreate Kansas and reprogrammed the androids to trick DG into revealing the location of the Emerald. Raw is tossed in a dungeon with the other viewers, who say he is no longer one of them, while back at the northern palace, Glitch finds Wyatt in the snow.

DG is put in prison, where she finds the Mystic Man, his mind now clear, who encourages her to go south. Frustrated, Azkadellia kills him with the same life-draining spell she once used on DG. A strange dog helps DG escape, and she finds and rescues Raw. They encounter Glitch and Wyatt, who broke into the dungeon to find them, and the dog leads them to safety. It transforms into a man (Blu Mankuma) who was once DG’s tutor (which she mispronounced as “Toto”), and has been sent by her mother to help her reclaim her lost memories. She begins recalling times when Azkadellia actually helped her and treated her kindly, and starts to wonder if there may be redemption for her sister yet. In truth, Azkadellia sent Tutor as a spy, and he occasionally drops a glass disc to allow the witch to track them.

Wyatt finds the house where his wife and son lived, but instead of his wife, finds her gravestone. As he mourns, Glitch finds a glass disc on the ground just as one of Azkadellia’s monkey-bats attacks. Wyatt kills it and Tutor nervously suggests they move along, finally arriving at the former home of the royal family, an abandoned lakeside city called Finaqua. DG has another memory flash, remembering a time when she and Azkadellia found a cave in the woods. DG accidentally released an ancient witch (Karin Konoval) who possessed her sister – all of the trouble that has befallen the Outer Zone is DG’s fault.

In Part 3, DG finds a message from her mother who tells her to find her father, Ahamo (Ted Whittall), in the Realm of the Unwanted. After they depart, Azkadellia arrives and finds the same message. Wyatt discovers Tutor has been dropping Azkadellia’s discs, and Tutor swears he was using the discs to buy time while DG recalled her past and powers. The Realm of the Unwanted turns out to be an underground city, where the Outer Zone’s outcasts are in hiding. An attempt to locate Ahamo instead lands DG’s friends in Zero’s clutches, although Tutor escapes. DG, meanwhile, is taken by the “Seeker,” who turns out to be Ahamo himself.

Ahamo tries to teach DG to use her powers and reveals he’s from Nebraska, and first crossed to the Outer Zone years ago via a hot air balloon. Followed by Tutor, they take the balloon and find a hidden doorway. Inside is DG’s family crypt, including the first member: a woman named Dorothy Gale – DG’s namesake — who was brought over from the other side just like Ahamo. DG steps into the crypt into a greytone vision of Kansas. There, the original Dorothy (Grace Wheeler) gives her the Emerald of the Eclipse. As they leave, Azkadellia captures Ahamo and takes the emerald from DG, sealing her in a tomb.

DG’s friends are rescued by a band of resistance fighters who turn out to be led by Wyatt’s son, Jeb (Andrew Francis). Zero confesses that Azkadellia plans to use the Emerald and a machine Glitch doesn’t remember inventing to lock the two suns behind the moon and plunge the Outer Zone into darkness. Azkadellia reunites her parents, completely taken over by the Dark Witch, and tells them their family’s royal line ends today. In the tomb, DG remembers Tutor’s lessons about her magic, and uses her power to free herself. She finds her friends and the resistance plans an attack on Central City as a diversion. Raw is losing his nerve, though, and DG makes him recall the times he’s shown his courage. She has similar moments with the “brainless” Glitch and the “heartless” Wyatt, bolstering each of them in turn, but Wyatt cautions her that he won’t be there to help at the climax of their plan.

Breaking into the city, they find the missing half of Glitch’s brain and reconnect it so he will know how to shut down the machine, but they are interrupted by the Longcoats, and the Outer Zone goes dark. DG confronts the Dark Witch, trying to appeal to Azkadellia’s memories of their childhood love, and pleads for her sister to take her hand so their magic will be strong again. Azkadellia breaks free of the witch, and the sisters try to hold her off. Below, Raw defeats the Witch’s men and Glitch turns off the machine. The Dark Witch melts and the sisters, finally together again, embrace. As DG’s friends arrive, the suns come out from behind the moon, and the Outer Zone is once again filled with light.

Thoughts: Once upon a time, kids, there was a lovely little place called the Sci-Fi Channel, a realm where you could reliably turn for tales of science fiction and fantasy of all stripes. That is, until a cruel television executive came in, changed the name to a Scandinavian word for Herpes, and started loading it up with professional wrestling and ghost hunter shows. But before that happened, in 2007, they produced a new version of The Wizard of Oz called Tin Man.

This is the strangest vision of Oz we’ve seen yet, a bizarre mixture of science fiction and fantasy you rarely see these days. Most writers try to keep the two totally separate – something is either sci-fi or fantasy, as if there’s no room for both (a notion I personally consider ludicrous). There’s plenty of stuff in here that feels like science fiction – the hologram device, Wyatt’s particularly inventive torture chamber, the robots and cyborgs all seem to belong in that realm. They even use cars and guns that are basically retro versions of the things we have in the real world. Most of the things we see, though, are purely magic – DG’s handprint, the “travelling storm” the Longcoats use to traverse dimensions, or the power of the viewers have no attempt at a scientific explanation, nor do they require one. At the end, it’s the combination of the magic Emerald and Glitch’s technological Sun Seeker machine that the Dark Witch’s entire plan hinges on. The two elements blend very well together, and while it’s true that may be because there’s no real effort to explain the science behind the machine, there’s at least an implication that there’s science in there somewhere.

One thing I really like about this version of the story is how many of the changes are simply additive in nature. It was originally broadcast as a three-part miniseries, with part one ending with DG and Azkadellia’s confrontation at the Northern Island. By then, we’d already covered most of the important plot points from The Wizard of Oz – Dorothy is taken to Oz in a storm, meets her three friends, encounters the Wizard and confronts the witch. Even then, the writers managed to fill part one with rich backstory for all four of the heroes. Parts two and three, while still holding on to the skeleton of Baum’s story, go on to introduce lots of new elements that give the story more of an epic quality than it usually has. Even the wildest interpretations of Oz rarely attempt to expand the plot in any significant way. It was an interesting gamble for writers Miller and Van Sickle to take, and it’s one that paid off for the most part.

With the addition, though, is a healthy respect for the original. The revelation of Dorothy Gale as DG’s “greatest” grandmother, and the first “slipper” between the O.Z. and the other side, links this back neatly to Baum’s work. While it seems too far-fetched to think that the original Dorothy’s story is exactly the one that Baum wrote (there are simply too many differences between the Outer Zone and the real Oz for that to be the case) it does leave the door open for earlier stories, prequels about Dorothy and the rest of the O.Z. Royal Family, or about how the Dark Witch was imprisoned in the first place that could potentially tap into that book or the other Oz books even more than this film did. Sadly, as it’s been six years since this miniseries was made and no such movement in that direction is evident, that probably isn’t in the cards. Still, it’s nice to dream.

Even this version, though, couldn’t resist a few nods to the MGM movie. DG’s waitress uniform is the classic blue checked dress, and at the beginning of part 2 she makes a joke about dreaming “in Technicolor.” One flashback even has young Azkadellia cautioning DG to be on the lookout for “lions and tigers and…” then a bear appears. Cue DG’s line: “Oh my.” They’re funny bits, admittedly, but they kind of take the viewer out of the moment of the story. It’s not too bad in a mostly lighthearted interpretation of Oz, but with the darker attitude this miniseries reached for, it’s somewhat distracting.

In certain hipsterish circles, it’s become very fashionable to hate Zooey Deschanel. I really don’t care – I’m a fan of hers in general and I like her in this miniseries. She does have a very understated approach to the character, rarely showing extreme emotion until she’s really pushed far, and that’s an approach that seems to fit very well with this mystic/steampunk vision of Oz.

Kathleen Robertson as Azkadellia is a little less impressive. While she’s certainly got the looks for this sort of beautiful fairy tale evil queen, she lacks a certain intensity. She’s the bad guy of the piece, the one everyone in the Outer Zone is terrified of, but it’s hard to get a feeling of menace from her. She’s more of a Mean Girl than a real Wicked Witch. It’s a little more justified when you realize, at the end of Part 2, that she’s being possessed, but if that’s the intention it’s telegraphed too early.

The transformation in Dorothy’s friends works pretty well here. Although none of them are, strictly speaking, analogous to their classic counterparts, each of them has qualities that are suitable. Alan Cumming’s Glitch, for example, isn’t a scarecrow, but the large zipper atop his head (where his brain was removed) gives him a touch of the patchwork feel that the character requires. He’s also got the sort of long-limbed, lanky motion that you’d expect from a scarecrow. Raoul Trujillo, Raw, looks most like his classic counterpart. The viewers are covered in long, golden fur, with a tail and facial features that evoke the Bert Lahr Cowardly Lion in some ways. In terms of development, though, he’s probably the least developed of the three of them and doesn’t really have enough to do except for occasionally using his powers to reveal a little backstory. Richard Dreyfuss’s Mystic Man only appears in two scenes, in one of which he’s almost completely stoned. While his performance is perfectly good, like Raw, it seems like much more could have been done with him. It’s curious that they took the most interesting thing about the Wizard – his origin as an American swept to Oz via balloon – and instead transferred that role to DG’s father. The character of the Wizard is essentially split between the two of them. Dreyfuss’s character has the recognition and gives DG her quest, Ted Whittall’s Ahamo is the false mystic, the “humbug” as it were, and gives DG guidance when it really matters.

Neal McDonough as Wyatt, the titular “Tin Man,” gets the most emotional meat here. He’s got the best backstory and the deepest well of feeling to draw from, and he does a superb job tapping that mine while still trying to put forth that cold shell he insists on showing the world. The point of the original Wizard of Oz is that Dorothy’s three friends each already had exactly what they most desired, they just needed to find it within themselves. That’s not really true of Glitch (what he wants is something that has literally been taken from him) and we don’t see enough of Raw to get that impression, but Wyatt personifies this trope. I’m still not quite sure why he gets the naming rights to the whole miniseries, mind you – he’s a very important character but not really the protagonist – but he at least gives the most impressive performance out of the principals. (And with a group that includes Alan Cumming, that’s saying a lot.)

I’m a tad disappointed in the ending. There’s a little too much of the “love conquers all, hold hands and sing Kumbaya” thing going on for my taste. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for the power of love and all that, but it always feels like a little bit of a cheat when used as literally as it is here. Fortunately we get a little more than that to contribute to the Dark Witch’s downfall – DG’s love may have helped free her sister, but the Witch still would have one if Raw, Glitch and Wyatt had failed at their task of actually turning off the machine.

As far as the actual production goes, Sci-Fi Channel productions (or “SyFy” as they call themselves now) are strange. Their original movies are famously, fabulously terrible, but they really put very high quality into their miniseries and original TV shows. This is no exception. The set design, costumes and makeup are all film-quality here, with absolutely nothing to complain about. The complaints come in whenever they start trying to use computer effects, most noticeably the creatures that attack them when they free Raw. The CGI is done on a TV budget, which even 20 years after it became commonplace, still isn’t really enough to make things look convincing. If they had done puppets or guys in suits, it may have still looked kind of cheesy, but probably would have been more convincing. The reason the Wheelers in Return to Oz were so damn scary is because they were played by real people wearing real weird suits they had to learn to use to roller-skate on all fours. It just wouldn’t have been as frightening if little Fairuza Balk had been running from a computer effect, just as it isn’t scary when little Zooey Deschanel does it here.

It’s not the greatest film version of Oz, but it’s by no means a bad one. It’s entertaining and unusual, and most importantly, it’s unique. It gives us something no other version of Oz has, and that’s the toughest part of the job.

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 Christmas Special Day 24: Shrek the Halls (2007)

shrek-the-hallsDirector: Gary Trousdale

Writers: Gary Trousdale, Sean Bishop, Theresa Cullen, Bill Riling

Cast: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, Cody Cameron, Susan Fitzer, Christopher Knights,  Gary Trousdale, Conrad Vernon, Aron Warner, Marissa Jaret Winokur

Plot: With only 159 days left until Christmas, Donkey (Eddie Murphy) begins pestering his friend Shrek (Mike Myers) to begin the preparations. Over the next few months, Donkey gets more and more insistent and Shrek more and more resistant, until it’s finally December 23 and he realizes for the first time his wife, Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), and their triplets are looking forward to their first Christmas as a family. Not wanting to let her down, Shrek sets out for town to figure out how to “make a Christmas.” He winds up with a copy of a self-help book, Christmas For Village Idiots, that promises to help him one step at a time make the holiday Fiona deserves.

The next day, Christmas Eve, Fiona wakes up to find Shrek decorating their house for Christmas. Although she’s happily surprised, Donkey shows up to drop off a Christmas card and criticizes the decorating job. Fiona and the babies pitch in, and by dark Shrek is ready to sit down and tell his kids the Christmas story, but he’s interrupted when Donkey bursts in along with all of their friends. Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) entertains the kids while the others race around putting up more and more decorations, ruin supper and – in the case of the Gingerbread Man (Conrad Vernon) – make a pass at the angel-shaped Christmas Cookies. Although Shrek tries to hide from the chaos, Fiona lures him back, but things just get worse. He tries to get himself back into the spirit by telling his kids his Christmas story, but Donkey again steals the spotlight with an insane poem about a Christmas parade. Puss in Boots gets into the act with his tale of “Santa Claws,” and the Gingerbread Man jumps in with a story that’s really more appropriate for Halloween. A fight ensues and Shrek, while trying to hide his book, accidentally starts a chaotic chain reaction that ruins the party and sets both himself and the Christmas tree on fire. Boiling with rage, he throws Donkey and the rest out of his house. Fiona is upset that he threw out their friends, and sets out to find them while Shrek complains about how they ruined “his” Christmas. He catches up to them and tries a halfhearted apology, finally admitting that ogres don’t celebrate Christmas, and he has no idea what he’s doing. Everyone apologizes to each other and the odd little family returns to Shrek’s home to settle in for the night. Before lights out, Shrek tries once more to tell his Christmas story: a tale of a Santa Claus making his visit to an ogre home. As he finishes, they hear laughter in the air and rush outside to see Santa Claus flying across the moon.

Thoughts: My thoughts about Dreamworks Pictures Shrek franchise are fairly simple: I thought the first one was entertaining. As for the rest, my grandma always said if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. But even the worst franchise can sometimes turn out a charming Christmas story, so when Shrek the Halls made its network TV debut, I gave it a chance, and I rather liked it.

In truth, it suffers from many of the problems that plague Dreamworks Animation in general – too many topical jokes and current songs that hurt the special’s ability to become a real timeless classic. There’s a reason Rankin and Bass didn’t throw the Beatles into their specials… well, they also probably couldn’t afford them, but you see my point. In truth, this and oversaturation is one of the reasons Dreamworks will never quite reach the heights of a Pixar or Disney Animation Studio – they’re so focused on making a franchise that’s current and modern and now that the next generation of children will find themselves tuning out to the constant reminders of the world their parents grew up in. To put it another way, my two-year-old niece loves every Toy Story movie (and, in fact, everything Pixar has produced). I find it really hard to believe that she’ll latch on to Shrek or Kung-Fu Panda in the same way, even once she gets a little older and enters into the sphere of the intended demographic. They also rush out sequels, cranking out cookie-cutter cartoons that rarely, if ever, match the original, rather than allowing the story to dictate the future of the characters. Finally, there’s an emphasis on gross-out humor (such as the Gingerbread Man throwing up a chocolate kiss and the Donkey eating it) that shuts out older viewers… something else Pixar doesn’t feel the need to succumb to.

But don’t get the impression that I didn’t like this cartoon – I did. The animation itself is top-notch, and a lot of the characters and design are very imaginative… the giant Waffle Santa Claus, for instance. Puss in Boots is a great character, especially if you’re a cat owner and recognize how easily he slips from the persona of the suave Latin lover into a typical feline, which leaves him embarrassed.

Like any good Christmas special, the true test comes in when the hero learns his lesson at the end. Shrek has an interesting character arc here – he goes from being a complete Scrooge to suddenly wanting desperately to create a good Christmas for his family. From there he bumbles, he misunderstands the meaning of Christmas, he learns it, and then gets it all right. This time around, rather than giving a religious message or a message about the virtue in giving and sacrifice (all of which are well and good, by the way), the message is one of family. You may fight and struggle and drive each other crazy, but there’s a reason you stick around people besides blood. It’s a nice message about love and the truth about what a real family is, and it’s one even the children will no doubt be able to grasp.

Throughout most of the 90s and early 2000s, there was a dearth of new televised Christmas specials, which is why this particular Reel to Reel project has been so heavily weighted with films from the 60s through the 80s. (In a way, it’s the exact opposite of the problem I had with Lunatics and Laughter.) But in recent years, Dreamworks and Disney both have stepped up and started to change that. Have a wonderful Christmas Eve, my friends, and come back tomorrow for the finale of The Christmas Special with my favorite TV Christmas Special to premiere since I was a child.

Lunatics and Laughter Day 18: Trick ‘r Treat (2007)

trick-r-treattDirector: Michael Dougherty

Writer: Michael Dougherty

Cast: Dylan Baker, Rochelle Aytes, Quinn Lord, Lauren Lee Smith, Moneca Delain, Tahmoh Penikett, Brett Kelly, Britt McKillip, Isabelle Deluce, Jean-Luc Bilodeau, Alberto Ghisi, Samm Todd, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Leslie Bibb, Connor Christopher Levins, James Willson

Plot: (Note: Trick ‘r Treat is a movie in the Robert Altman tradition – not just an anthology film, but a film in which multiple plotlines tend to weave in and out of one another. Although I’ll attempt to give as straightforward a synopsis as possible, it may be best if you just watch the movie. Come to think of it, just watch the movie anyway. It rocks.)

On Halloween night, Emma (Leslie Bibb) and Henry (Tahmoh Penikett) return home after a party. Despite Henry’s objections, Emma blows out the candle in their Jack O’Lantern and begins taking down their decorations, even as kids on the street continue trick-or-treating. Something leaps out at her, covered in a sheet, and slashes her throat open with a pumpkin-shaped lollipop sharpened into a blade. Henry comes outside later to find her head severed and limbs dismembered, dangling from a scarecrow, the lollipop stuffed in her mouth.

Earlier that evening, elsewhere in town, the streets of Warren Valley, Ohio are loaded with partiers and revelers – this is a town that takes Halloween seriously. But not everyone is ready yet. Laurie (Anna Paquin) and her friends are at the local costume shop, trying to find last-minute outfits. Laurie is reluctant to join the fun, but her sister Danielle (Lauren Lee Smith) insists. Laurie selects a Red Riding Hood costume. As they check out, Danielle invites the sales clerk to join them at a party they’re going to in the woods. After the others chide Laurie for being a virgin at 22, Laurie abandons her friends, saying she’ll meet them at the party later. She’s decided she wants to find “her guy” herself.

Elsewhere, a young boy named Charlie (Brett Kelly) marches down a street, knocking over pumpkins as he goes. He approaches the home of his school principal, Mr. Wilkins (Dylan Baker), who catches him stealing candy. As he carves a new Jack O’Lantern, he gives Charlie a lecture about respecting the dead and the traditions of the past no one cares about anymore. Charlie begin throwing up blood. Wilkins gleefully confesses that he poisoned the candy, and Charlie dies. He takes the body into the house, but is interrupted by trick-or-treaters. As he gives them candy, one of the kids asks if they could have his Jack O’Lantern for a scavenger hunt. He drags Charlie to his backyard, dumping the body into a hole where another body already waits. While working, his son Billy (Connor Christopher Levins) loudly yells for him from the window. His next interruption is the neighbor’s dog, which he distracts by throwing one of Charlie’s fingers to him… but his neighbor Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox) comes out. As Wilkins hides in the grave, the second body squeals, not quite dead. He gives Kreeg a story about his septic tank being backed up, sending him back inside. Billy pops out again, begging to go with Wilkins to the Halloween party, but Wilkins says he can’t, he has a date. He finally manages to get the bodies buried. When he walks inside, Kreeg shrieks at him from the window, but Wilkins ignores him, and we see someone attack Kreeg. Inside, Wilkins and Billy sit down to carve their Jack O’Lantern… Charlie’s severed head. Billy sweetly tells his daddy to help him with the eyes.

The trick-or-treaters who took Wilkins’s pumpkin meet up with some other friends who’ve been gathering pumpkins. Macy (Britt McKillip) says they need more, so they visit “idiot savant” Rhonda (Samm Todd), who has carved dozens. Schrader (Jean-Luc Bilodeau) charms Rhonda into joining them. They make their way to a quarry where, according to the legend Macy tells them, 30 years ago a school bus full of mentally challenged students were taken instead. The children’s parents – exhausted and embarrassed– asked him to do “the unthinkable.” As he passes out candy and checks the chains on the students, one of them gets free and starts the bus, sending it into the lake at the bottom of the quarry. Only the driver survivs, and no one knows what happened to him. Finishing the story, Macy says they’re going to leave the Jack O’Lanterns by the lake. They manage to activate the old quarry elevator, taking Macy, Schrader and Sara (Isabelle Deluce) to the bottom. Macy says she’ll send the elevator back up for Rhonda and Chip (Alberto Ghisi).

Back at the Halloween party, a hooded figure in black kisses a girl in an alley. He bites her with a pair of fangs, drinking her blood. She flees into the streets, running into Emma and Henry and begging for help, but they think she’s just drunk. The hooded man returns, finishing her off. Laurie, meanwhile, is having no luck finding a suitable single man – until she sees the man in the hood.

At the quarry, Rhonda hears a howling in the distance and declares it to be werewolves. She and Chip take the elevator down, hearing their friends shouting for help as they come down. When they reach the bottom, the others are nowhere to be found. Rhonda leaves the frightened Chip behind and seeks the others, finding the half-submerged school bus in the lake, along with shredded and bloody remains of the other kids’ costumes. A pair of creatures emerge from the slime, and she runs. She falls into the lake, hitting her head, and the attackers reveal themselves to be Schrader, Macy and Sara – the whole thing was a cruel prank. Schrader tries to apologize, but Macy seems more irritated that their trick is over. Packing up, Macy kicks the last lit Jack O’Lantern into the lake, and voices begin to come from the water. The children from the bus crawl from the lake, pursuing the pranksters. They get back to the elevator, where Rhonda sits with her Jack O’Lanterns. The dead children approach, and Rhonda turns the elevator on, leaving her tormentors behind, screaming.

Laurie walks through the woods to her party alone, afraid she’s being pursued, until she encounters the hooded man. Danielle, at the party, is nervous for the sister her mother always called “the runt of the litter.” As she waits, a body in a Red Riding Hood cloak falls from the trees. Danielle lifts the cape to reveal the hooded man, begging for help. Laurie suddenly steps out of the trees, casually, albeit with a little blood on her. Danielle admonishes her for being late, and one of the other girls, Maria (Rochelle Aytes) removes fake fangs from the Hooded Man’s mouth. She removes his mask to reveal Principal Wilkins. She smiles, saying she’s glad he’ll be Laurie’s first. Laurie admits to Danielle that she’s nervous, and her big sister tells her to just be herself. She walks to Wilkins, sits on his chest, and transforms into a werewolf, opening her mouth wide for her first kill.

Earlier (again), a group of trick-or-treaters visits Mr. Kreeg’s house. He scares them off, taking the candy they left behind, and desperately tries to find something on television that isn’t about Halloween. He’s alerted to an intruder when his gate begins creaking, and someone begins pelting his window with eggs. He steps into the backyard, where his dog is nibbling on something and, over his fence, his neighbor is digging a hole. While they chtalkat, someone watches him from the bushes.  Kreeg sees a figure running through his house – a small child in orange pajamas with a burlap sack for a mask (Quinn Lord). (“Sam,” as he’s called, has turned up several times throughout the film, watching our stories.) Kreeg goes to his bedroom, where a burning pumpkin reveals “Trick or Treat, give me something good to eat” written on the walls and ceiling, over and over again, in blood. Sam slashes his ankle with a knife hidden in a candy bar. Kreeg runs for help, slipping on candy and broken glass that sends him tumbling down the stairs. He goes to the window and begs Wilkins for help, but his neighbor ignores him and Sam leaps again. Kreeg  rips off Sam’s mask, revealing a horrible pumpkin-like head. Sam finally gets the upper hand on Kreeg, approaching him with a sharpened pumpkin lollipop… but instead of stabbing him, he takes the candy Kreeg stole earlier. As Sam leaves, we see in Kreeg’s fire a burning photograph… years before, when he was a bus driver, at a home for mentally challenged children.

Later that night Kreeg, wounded and heavily bandaged, gives candy to a group of trick-or-treaters who come to his door. As he looks around the street he sees Billy Wilkins, bloody, handing out candy, Rhonda coming home with a wagon of pumpkins, Laurie and her friends driving by and giggling… and Sam, on the sidewalk, watching him. Across the street, Emma and Henry arrive at home, Henry admonishing her not to blow out the candle in their pumpkin. When she does it anyway, Sam looks down at his sharpened lollipop and walks towards their home. Kreeg drags himself back inside, but there’s one last knock on the door. The dead children from the quarry are back… and they want their candy.

Thoughts: Trick ‘r Treat is one of those movies that sat on a shelf for a few years, scoring only a limited theatrical release before coming to DVD. As such, many people dismissed it – straight-to-DVD movies have a rather negative reputation, you may have heard. But when I finally got a chance to watch the movie I realized that, not only was this a cut above most DVD-first fare, it was actually one of the best horror movies I’ve seen in a very long time.

Writer/director Michael Dougherty’s film puts its inspiration on display in the opening credits, which are structured to resemble old-fashioned horror comics of the Tales From the Crypt variety (inspiration for the TV show and movies, the Creepshow series, and countless other contemporary horrormeisters). He displays his four tales (and pieces of others) as part of a single night of insane terror across a little town, connecting them in subtle ways and using the audience’s own expectations of horror movies against it. The effect is a movie that makes you chuckle, jump, and scream, all the while giving you a brand-new horror icon that really could stand right up there with the Freddies and Jasons of the world.

The movie isn’t quite a gag-laden comedy the way a lot of the other movies in this project have been. In fact, someone unfamiliar with horror movie tropes may not find much to laugh about at all. The laughter almost always comes in when you realize the direction the story is going is not at all what you expected. In the principal’s story, for instance, Dougherty shows us early that Wilkins has no qualms about murdering a child, and when he begins showing clear frustration at Billy, we’re certain that either Billy will die or Wilkins will get some sort of cosmic comeuppance at the hands of his son. In virtually any other horror movie, in fact, that’s exactly what would happen. The end of the scene, where they tenderly begin to carve Charlie’s mutilated head up together, works brilliantly against everything a normal horror movie does, while delivering a powerful kick to close off that story (for the moment, at least).

Even more brilliant, perhaps, is the twist at the end of Laurie’s story. Dougherty sets her up perfectly as the sweet, innocent, virginal “survivor girl,” even making it seem as though she’s going to be pitted against a vampire for her grand moment of triumph. He nails us with two reversals here – first, making her the killer instead of the victim, and second, pulling a werewolf out of nowhere to close it off. Well… almost nowhere. Rhonda, earlier, did claim she heard werewolves in the woods, something that is easy to blow off the first time you watch the movie but that seems like a brilliant bit of foreshadowing on the second viewing.

Those little connected moments, by the way, also work brilliantly to make this a strong, cohesive film. Each of the four main stories could be chopped out of the anthology and shown as individual short films, and each would feel more or less complete. The connections, though, make things a lot more fun and help us connect the characters to one another and keep track, mentally, of the timeline. The movie doesn’t jump around quite as much as, say, Pulp Fiction, but it does jump.

The good thing is that the nonlinear nature of the story helps with the playfulness of the plot. When Sam kills Emma at the beginning, it seems sort of random. Okay, so she didn’t like Halloween, but surely that isn’t enough to deserve a death sentence. The callous way Henry blows off the girl who died at the party – which happened earlier but which we see later – helps bring things around to Emma getting what (in a twisted scary movie sort of way) she had coming to her. Mr. Kreeg’s story also benefits tremendously from this technique. Chronologically speaking, Sam attacks him long before we hear the story at the quarry, but had the film been shown in that order, the burning photograph would have been meaningless. We would have picked up the meaning later, but it would have robbed the story at the quarry of much of the impact. What’s more, when the dead children drag themselves out of the lake, it’s the first time the movie shows anything that’s explicitly supernatural. Rearranging the story would undercut that, and lord only knows what it would do the werewolf story.

Then there’s our new horror icon. Sam, at first, appears to be just a sort of playful phantasm, something that appears everywhere. He gets candy from Wilkins, visits the massacre at the quarry, and observes the murders at Laurie’s party. At first, he’s actually cute. He comes across as a mischievous little sprite that seems to be a watcher of sorts, but not actually connected to the chaos around him. The encounter at Kreeg’s house changes all that, of course, and does so in a clever way. Without actually spelling things out, Dougherty reveals why Sam is after Kreeg, ties many of the stories together, and makes the jolly little pixie truly horrific. You even understand – kinda – why Sam decides to let Kreeg live at the end. (It’s telling that perhaps the most disturbing part is that when Sam is injured, he doesn’t explode in blood, but in pumpkin seeds and entrails.)

Dougherty and producer Bryan Singer have been working for a few years to get a sequel to this film made. Although progress is slow, unlike the perpetually-stalled Behind the Mask sequel, it seems like this one will make it to the screen sooner or later – the movie is not only critically acclaimed, but eventually achieved solid commercial success on DVD. The FearNet TV channel has also embraced the film, having Dougherty direct several holiday shorts starring Sam and showing the film for 24 hours on Halloween, mimicking the success of A Christmas Story on TBS. In fact, if you’ve never watched this movie and you get the FearNet network, there’s the perfect chance to rectify this egregious error. Just check out the various shorts on YouTube, then set the DVR or carve out any two-hour block on Halloween night, and prepare to discover a movie that has become a tradition for horror fans everywhere.