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Scrooge Month Day 19: Jim Carrey in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2009)

Christmas Carol 2009Director: Robert Zemeckis

Writer: Robert Zemeckis, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Daryl Sabara, Bob Hoskins, Molly Quinn, Fay Masterson, Fionnula Flanagan

Notes: This was the third film from director Robert Zemeckis in which he used his motion capture process to animate in 3D, following The Polar Express and Beowulf and preceding Mars Needs Moms, which flopped so painfully that his animation study was shut down. Although a fairly straightforward retelling of the story, he employs a lot of the motion capture tricks he’d used in previous films, such as using the same actor to play different characters opposite himself or at various ages. Jim Carrey, for example, plays Scrooge at every stage of his life, as well as all three of the Ghosts, using the logic that the ghosts are extensions of Scrooge’s own soul. Okay, I can buy that. Gary Oldman, meanwhile, plays both Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim and – for some reason – Marley, while Robin Wright plays both Scrooge’s sister Fan and the love of his life, Belle, which has some disturbingly Freudian implications.

Thoughts: Once there was a little boy named Robert Zemeckis. Robert made great movies in a far-off land called the 1980s, but as the 21st century began, he fell in love with a pretty girl named “Motion Capture CGI.” They had four children together before they broke up, and of the four, this is probably the best.

Part of it, let’s be honest, is the source material. A Christmas Carol is by far more classic than Zemeickis’s first or last motion capture films, and while Beowulf is a classic in its own right, he took too many liberties with that one (Grendel’s mom is hot? That’s sick.) for it to really rank. Here, though, he takes a legendary tale and gives it a pretty decent polish that makes it worth revisiting at this time of year.

One of the interesting things that Zemeickis pulls off is creating characters recognizable as the actors that play them while still giving them enough of a twist to work as animated figures. Carrey is clearly visible inside Scrooge, but his elongated nose and chin would look silly in real life. Gary Oldman can be squished down to play a short little Bob Cratchit, Colin Firth can be puffed up a bit so Fred looks comfortably plump. Carrey can also be seen in each of the three ghosts. It’s an odd choice, to have him portray the three of them, and I’m not entirely convinced of the point Zemeckis was trying to make, but Carrey’s performances as the ghosts are just fine. Christmas Past is light and airy, Christmas Present is enormous and bombastic. Christmas Yet to Come… well, he’s barely there, and that’s a good thing.

This version is also a good bit scarier than many of them, and at the same time, more in keeping with the original Dickens. Marley’s head wrapping – which was actually a tradition at the time to keep a corpse’s mouth from hanging open – comes loose, and his jaw opens up to a horrific degree. As he howls at Scrooge his mouth rattles around like something out of a zombie movie. Christmas Present doesn’t just age, as he often does, he withers away until there’s nothing left but a skeleton, its teeth chattering with maniacal laughter. Then there’s Christmas Yet to Come, who shows up initially just as a shadow – Scrooge’s shadow, in fact, in a warped and twisted form. We don’t really see much of a physical form for him at all, in fact, which is terribly effective. This is about as scary a version of A Christmas Carol as I’ve ever seen.

The scenes with the three ghosts are pretty by-the-book, but done well. In fact, one of the few times where Zemeckis’s love affair with his computer (more on that later) really works is when Scrooge is facing Christmas Present. Rather than teleporting him to the other locations, as he usually does, he turns the floor in Scrooge’s house transparent and we watch as they “fly” from one place to another. The visuals here – throughout the Christmas Present sequence, really – are absolutely top-notch, and are an example of what Zemeckis can do with his CGI at its best.

There are a lot of good things about this movie, but Robert Zemeckis brings the same problems to this as he did with all of his motion-capture films. First, and most problematic, the characters are largely expressionless. He can make a character move like a human, but he hasn’t mastered the skill of putting feeling into their eyes, which makes them seem somewhat stiff and lifeless. It’s the classic Uncanny Valley problem writ large.

What’s more, Zemeckis was so in love with the technology that he often did things just because it was possible that didn’t really add anything to the story. There’s an extended sequence where Scrooge – for absolutely no reason – is shrunk to the size of a mouse and whips around London. It reminds me of the scene from The Polar Express in which a train ticket is taken by the wind and blown around. It looks good, but ultimately, it’s a meaningless scene that doesn’t go anywhere or do anything. In both instances, I felt like I was watching the film of one of those motion simulator amusement park rides, which is pretty dull when you’re in a stationary seat. Zemeckis does similar things several times throughout the film, to the point where it starts to get actually obnoxious when you sense the first few seconds of the next such sequence.

It’s actually a shame that he never quite got a handle on how best to use this sort of technology, because when it works it works well. But like George Lucas dropping in added effects to the Star Wars special editions, Zemeckis got so excited that he could do certain things that he never stopped to think about whether they should be done. The result is like going to an industrial sawmill to cut a single two-by-four in half. It’ll work, but it’s overkill, and there are much better ways to do the same thing.

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

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

 

Blake’s Friday the 13th Marathon

Many, many years ago, in a magical land called 2006, my local Wal-Mart had a sale on the Friday the 13th series. Although I’d seen some of the films before, I never saw all of them, and I took the opportunity to get the films, watch them all (some of them for the first time) and review them. It became an annual tradition. The next year, I recruited some of my friends to join me in a marathon of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, and when we launched our podcast, it became a special Halloween episode every year.

Earlier this evening, I got into a talk online about the merits of the various Friday films and that reminded me of this long-ago review. With Halloween coming up (my second-favorite time of year, after Christmas), I thought it might be fun to dust off that old post and re-present it here. I’ll unearth the other Halloween marathons too, and present them to you in the weeks approaching the big night. So let’s start here, from the long-ago past of 2006, when I reviewed all (at the time) eleven Fridays!

Friday Review Logo

When I was a kid, I didn’t watch scary movies. For one thing, my folks didn’t let me – which in retrospect is probably a good thing in light of reason #2: I would have wet the bed every night for a month after seeing one. I was kind of a skittish kid, and even as my classmates would talk about how cool Jason or Freddy Krueger were, as much as I tried to join in the conversation faking my way through it, I knew that actually watching the scary movies of the 80s would be a really bad move, especially for my bedsheets.

As I got older, I started reading the likes of Stephen King and began to appreciate films like Alien and The Birds. By the time The Sixth Sense rolled along, it had finally dawned on me that I was majorly into horror, and it wasn’t keeping me up at nights. Although I may succumb to the cheap startle in a horror flick like anyone else, by the time the credits roll, the actual sense of danger has evaporated and I’m fine. The real world is frightening enough.

Even though I was into horror, I wasn’t into what I think of as the “slasher” genre. Buckets of blood and piles of gore wouldn’t even elicit a cheap scare out of me, and I avoided the movies handily. Then, a few years ago, my buddy Chase began to teach me how to appreciate the movies not as horror, but as camp. They were goofy, they were cheesy, and they were way over the top… and that’s what you’re supposed to love about them. By the time Freddy Versus Jason rolled around in 2003, I had decided to see it with my friends, but before that I wanted to at least see how the stories had started. I’d already seen the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, but I hadn’t seen any Friday the 13th movies, so the week before the release I rented the first two. They were okay, but very different from what I’d come to expect. I saw Freddy Versus Jason and thought it was brilliant as camp. Eventually, I saw a few more Jason movies, Jason Goes to Hell and Jason X.

As I was preparing the Halloween Party for my blog I discovered the local Wal-Mart had a biiiiiiiiig display of horror movies for only $4.58 (or something like that) a pop. Included in the display were all eight of the old Friday the 13th movies, the ones done before Paramount dropped the property. As I already owned the three movies made by its new home, New Line Cinema, I decided to pick up one or two of the classics at a time. Then, once I completed the collection, I’d do a massive Halloween Party article reviewing not one movie, not two, but all eleven motion pictures featuring Jason Voorhees. Because I’m crazy, that’s why.

So as you read these reviews, keep in mind a few things. First up, this is written through the perspective of someone in his late 20s who has grown an appreciation for both horror and camp, but is well aware of the distinction between the two. Second, this weekend Friday marathon will be my first time watching many of these films. Out of an 11-film series, I’ve only seen #s 1, 2, 11, 9 and 10. Oddly enough, in that order. And finally, these movies have been out for years – decades in some cases. There will be spoilers, especially concerning the first movie which (let’s face it) is the only one in the series that really has a big enough twist to even constitute calling it a spoiler. So without further ado, let’s begin.

friday01Friday the 13th (1980)

The original Friday film was actually really reserved, especially compared to how far the series would go in future installments. Years after a pair of counselors at Camp Crystal Lake are murdered, the owner of the camp decides to reopen, apparently unaware that he is in a horror movie and these things invariably lead to people getting killed. As he brings in a group of teenagers to begin getting the camp ready for the summer – and this is the shocker – people begin getting killed. Particularly the more promiscuous ones, which in fact means virtually all of them, except for sweet little Alice. As Alice watches her friends die gruesome deaths all around her, she’s the one left to face the killer before it’s too late.

Like I said, this movie actually had a genuine surprise at the end, and if you don’t know what it is (or don’t want to know what it is), skip the rest of this paragraph. Actually, skip the whole article and go read my review of the Superman trick-or-treat pail again. Anyway, we’d spent the entire movie watching these kids get butchered by some unseen killer, and we thought Alice was finally safe when she met a nice, sweet little old lady names Mrs. Vorhees. Then Mrs. V begins telling the story of the camp, how a little boy drowned in the lake years ago because a couple of counselors were off being promiscuous in the fashion that gets teenagers in slasher movies killed instead of keeping an eye on the kid. Then Mrs. V goes a little loony, and before we know it, Alice is fighting for her life. Hence the twist: a cross-dressing Anthony Perkins aside, you just don’t expect the killer in a horror movie to be the little old lady.

It’s easy to forget, as the later films were focused firmly on making Jason an unstoppable machine, programmed to kill as many people as possible in as graphic a fashion as possible, that the original Friday was a pretty effective suspense flick for its day. It had all the hallmarks – surprising deaths, twists and turns and a killer you didn’t get to see until the very end. More than that, though, there weren’t even any hints of the supernatural killer Jason would turn out to be, except for a brief flash of him popping out of the lake in which he supposedly drowned at the end of the movie, in a scene that very easily could have been written off as a hallucination. The menace in the first movie was human – crazy Mrs. Vorhees, grief-stricken over her son, even muttering dialogue between herself and her boy in a particularly freaky sequence.

The acting was wooden, of course, and the effects don’t hold up at all, but all things considered, it wasn’t a bad little thriller. Which is what makes it so incongruous with the rest of the series. Now we want the big, crazy, over-the-top monster. The first movie doesn’t quite fit anymore.

Friday02Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)

Buoyed by the success of the film, the next year Paramount studios cranked out the first of what would be an interminable chain of sequels. We open up on Alice, who has apparently grown out her hair because she has nothing better to do while lying around having nightmares, then we get an extended sequence of archival footage from the first movie in case  there was anyone who missed it, which seemed kind of redundant to me as the gap between watching the first movie and the second was only as long as it took to put a frozen pizza in the oven. Plus there was a perfectly good sequence later in the film where one of the new teenagers told the story of the first movie as a campfire tale, which did the job perfectly well without boring the hell out of the people who’d seen the first one. Also, it was kind of stupid as it gave us a good 10 minutes or so of getting reacquainted with our heroine, Alice, before (spoiler for ya) she winds up getting killed by Jason before we even see the opening credits.

After the credits we find out it’s now five years later and a new group of counselors is heading out to the lake, but not to Camp Crystal Lake. To the Camp next door. Because if there’s a psycho killer on the loose, he won’t make the hike or something. Actually, most of the new campers don’t believe the story at all, which makes them feel downright foolish when the first person gets garroted against a tree trunk with a string of barbed wire.

This is Jason’s first time out as the killer (although he didn’t yet have his trademark hockey mask), and he was quite a different character from who he would later become. He still didn’t speak, and he had a burlap sack over his head for most of the film, but he wasn’t the mindless beast we’re used to. He actually had intelligence. He laid traps. He came up with some clever murders that didn’t rely on conveniently placed props or explosive devices. And what’s more, he was human. Strong, yes, and a cold blooded killer, but still not the super-zombie we would all grow to know and love. Still, it’s a step closer, and this is probably where real devotees of the franchise began to fall in love with it.

The ending works fairly well, as the Obligatory Last Teenage Girl pretends to be Jason’s mother and confuses him long enough for them to make their escape. Of course, as we know from the first movie, there’s still room for one more shocker at the end.

Friday03Friday the 13th Part 3 (1982)

The third installment in the franchise took an interesting path – the movie was filmed in 3-D. This was no doubt very cool in the theaters, but just makes it look a little silly on DVD without the benefit of the funky glasses. [2013 Note: Remember, I wrote this in a pre-Avatar universe where there was little to no demand for 3-D movies and I, as a viewer, had not yet grown violently angry about how the technique is overused.] There are tons of shots that clearly serve no other purpose than to take advantage of the gimmick – knives and pitchforks thrust right at the screen, a snake jumping out at you and other such things. There are also a lot of shots like this that probably seemed nonsensical even when it was in 3-D – a totally irrelevant shot of a baseball bat pointing at the screen while some kids are playing in the street, a few stoners shoving a joint at the camera, a yo-yo scene that no doubt got this film serious Academy Award consideration, a crazy old man waving around an eyeball shouting warnings and so forth. On the upside, we did get the funkiest opening credit sequence in the series so far.

The story is exactly what you would expect. The film opens with an extended flashback from the previous film, then we find out it’s the next day (which means it’s no longer Friday the 13th, doesn’t it?) as couple in a general store down the road watch the news reports about the killings. Things don’t turn out too well for them. Next, a group of teenagers decide to go up to “the lake” where a bunch of people have been killed, because teenagers were as stupid in 1982 as many of them are today, and Jason starts slaughtering them. Actually, the teenagers in this series are even stupider than most of the other ones – the girl whose family owns the farmhouse where the teens are staying actually escaped an encounter with Jason two years earlier, but she decided not just to come back anyway, but to bring all of her friends with her. She would most certainly be off my Christmas Card list.

We get a few series milestones in this film – we see Jason acquire his now-trademark hockey mask and machete, we see the beginnings of the strains of humor in the series, and we also introduce, for the first time, the Dork Factor in the character of Shelly, an afro-ed prankster who keeps scaring the hell out of the other characters in a series of pathetic attempts to be liked. I think we’re supposed to sympathize with him, but by the time he starts popping out of the water under the dock, we’re kinda waiting for him to die.

Jason honestly doesn’t come off very well in this movie. Sure, he gets to kill people, but he often comes across as kind of clumsy – even buffoonish. The things the obligatory Last Surviving Teenage Girl does to him, successfully slowing him down just enough, turns him into a monster that Abbott and Costello could have had a ball with. I guess that’s understandable, though – in this installment, Jason is still at least kind of human. He still hasn’t become Superzombie. Not yet.

The story structure as a whole is pretty poor, actually. Early in the film one of the teenagers announces she’s pregnant, after which the filmmakers make the bold choice of completely ignoring that plot point for the rest of the film. Then, after an hour of fake scares and the occasional killing – often off-camera – we get ten minutes of a bloodbath, then the remaining 20 minutes are the surviving teenage girl running around and screaming.

Ah well, when I got into this, I wasn’t expecting Orson Welles or anything.

Friday04Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)

In perhaps the single most misleadingly-named film outside of The Neverending Story, the filmmakers tried to wrap up the series by killing off Jason far more definitively than they had in previous installments. Clearly, it didn’t take.

This time out, we begin with a montage from the three previous films, framed in the campfire story from Part 2, which actually works pretty well. Then we pick up right at the end of Part 3, as they take Jason’s body to the hospital. (The hospital? Come on, guys.) There, of course, he wakes up and kills a very nice young couple making the mistake of doing the dirty down in the morgue, which now that I think about it, doesn’t really make them all that nice to begin with.

Then our attention shifts to – you guessed it – a group of teenagers trying to have a fun little weekend. (Apparently the second, third and fourth films in this series all take place during a bizarre chronal anomaly which resulted in five or six Friday the 13ths being held one after the other, without any of those pesky Saturdays or Thursdays getting in the way). This time out, one of the teenagers has brought along her little brother Tommy – played by Corey Feldman. The sad thing is, were it not for Goonies, this clearly would have been the high point of his career.

The filmmakers then begin to try to make up for the lack of sex in Part 3 by throwing about ten times more than in the first two films combined. We’ve got twins, we’ve got vintage films, we’ve even got Crispin Glover as one of the teenagers who should have known better than to have sex while Jason was around. (The sad thing is, were it not for Back to the Future, this clearly would have been the high point of his career.)

I’ll give director Joseph Zito credit – this is the film where the deaths in the series really started to get elaborate. They weren’t too over-the-top yet, but Jason was no longer content with simple stab wounds and the odd strangulation. Here we’ve got people slaughtered with corkscrews, killed through movie screens, crushed through shower glass – he goes all out.

Then finally, little Tommy comes up with a plan. He shaves his head and pretends to be baby Jason, confusing the big brute. (Anyone who thinks this sounds suspiciously like how he was defeated in Part 2, there’s a reason for that. It is suspiciously like how he was defeated in Part 2.) Lil’ Tommy then gets Jason in the head with a machete, which apparently is supposed to be more effective than being knifed in the chest with a machete, hung in a noose and getting an axe lodged in his skull, because those didn’t seem to work in the last two films. Then, in a rare burst of common sense for these films, Tommy sees Jason’s hand twitch and, instead of screaming, running away and/or getting slaughtered after the killer appeared to be dead, he just picks up his machete again and goes to town.

So Jason is dead, but Tommy is clearly very disturbed by the whole thing. Still, it’s all over now. Right? Right?

Yeah. Right.

Friday05Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning (1985)

Paramount couldn’t even wait a year before changing its mind on this one. Apparently in this franchise, “final” means “final” in the same way that “dead” means “dead” in a comic book universe, a philosophy that would later be adopted by the makers of the Final Fantasy video game series and the Final Destination franchise.

Jason, who’s busy being dead, gets a break after three films that run right into each other. It’s a few years later and Tommy (now a rugged teenager played by John Shephard) has been institutionalized due to his childhood trauma. He’s sent away to a retreat where he shares his hideous rubber masks with Steve Urkel’s pal Weasel from Family Matters (not a joke, friends, I looked this up). As he tries to acclimate to life at the home, he meets the other teens, each of whom is troubled in his or her own way. One of them, for example, is troubled in that he goes bonkers and hacks up one of the others with an axe. This is widely regarded as a bad thing, as later that day other people start getting hacked up in ways very reminiscent of Jason’s murders at Camp Crystal Lake.

There’s lots of blood, lots of hacking, a truly disturbing eye fetish, and the psycho in the hockey mask returns. We’re all supposed to imagine that this is Jason back from the dead, but frankly, it’s not very convincing. Yeah, he’s tall, but the hockey mask is all wrong and the big, bulky Jason is now built like a skinny little basketball player. In the end Tommy and his friends (and here’s another spoiler warning) manage to kill off Jason by chucking him off the side of a barn onto a conveniently-placed array of spikes. As he dies, his mask falls off and we realize it wasn’t Jason at all, but Roy Burns, one of the docs who investigated the killing of the teenager back in the beginning… who evidently was his son, whose very existence he managed to keep a secret all this time. Okaaaaay, if you say so.

For all its flaws, I do believe in credit where credit is due. This movie comes across like a clear attempt by the studio to escape the crutch of having to kill off Jason in at the end of every movie only to have to bring him back at the beginning of the next one. Switching killers and then implying that the evil had traveled on to someone else at the end wasn’t that bad an idea, and at least was more intelligent than the Halloween franchise’s attempt to divorce the property from Michael Myers in its third installment. But let’s face it, fans of Friday want Jason, and this movie didn’t feature Jason at all. Hey, wait a minute… “didn’t feature Jason at all?” Wasn’t my stated purpose at the beginning of this experiment to review “all of the films featuring Jason Vorhees?” Could I have skipped this one on a technicality? Aw, crap.

Friday06Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

Okay, this is where it really started to get ridiculous.

About a decade after the events of A New Beginning (judging by the fact that Tommy is now played by Thom Mathews, who looks like he’s in his 30s, which is a neat trick for someone who just two movies ago was not only 12 years old, but also Corey Feldman), Tommy can’t escape the spectre of Jason. He grabs his friend Allen and… hey, wait a minute. Is that Horshack? Is that freaking Horshack from Welcome Back, Kotter? playing Allen? Okay, this movie automatically gets ten more cool points. Don’t worry, it’ll lose them by the opening credits.

Anyway, Tommy is freaking out about Jason, so he and Allen go to dig up his corpse and cremate him. Tommy freaks out, though, and stabs Jason’s body with a metal pole. This proves to be a really bad idea, when lightning strikes the body and reanimates it. Yes, friends, it’s Superzombie! He’s finally here! As he pulls himself out, Tommy runs away like a little scaredy cat and Jason imitates the opening titles of a James Bond movie.

Tommy runs to the police, who very presciently throw him in jail, where Officer Expository Dialogue reminds him that they changed the name of Crystal Lake to “Forest Green” because they wanted people to forget Jason. Meanwhile a young couple in the woods runs into Jason and the girl utters a phrase that manages to even the movie out on the Cool-Point-O-Meter again, “I’ve seen enough horror movies to know any weirdo wearing a mask is never friendly.” Ironic, self-referential humor always appeals to me.

Back at Camp “Forest Green,” yet another group of teenagers is setting up to be counselors for the summer. Also, for the first time, we see some actual campers at camp. Go figure. As the teens get the camp set up, we visit a bunch of comical would-be-warriors playing paintball and taking it way too seriously, which is what makes it kind of cathartic when they start to die.

The survivalists are actually just the start of showing off the crapitude that would be Jason Lives. The filmmakers in this go-round really tried to go for the laughs in addition to the killing. There’s not anything wrong with this, in and of itself. There’s a proud tradition of horror/comedies, from the good ol’ days of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein all the way up to modern classics like Army of Darkness. The thing is, a good horror/comedy must be both frightening and funny. Jason Lives was neither.

The only really good thing I can say about this movie is that at least the filmmakers had the good taste not to blow their wad and have Jason kill off an entire cabin full of children when he burst in on one. That, I think, would have gone too far. Yeah, we want to see Jason killing, but killing punk teenagers. Fact is, in movies like this you almost kinda root for the killer, you want to see how he’ll up the ante. Going after the kids would have been too much.

Tommy again manages to beat Jason, this time following the completely out-of-the-blue announcement that “the only way to stop Jason now is to bring him back to where it began… Camp Crystal Lake.” And how does Tommy know this exactly? Apparently that home for troubled teens he stayed in during the last movie had an extensive course study on occult manifestations and how to exterminate them. That or the screenwriter was a hack, take your pick. Anyway, Tommy finds a convenient boulder which he wraps around a chain and puts in a canoe. Yeah, I know. Then, in a fairly unconvincing fight piece, he loops the chain around Jason’s neck and drops him in the lake. His girlfriend then jumps in to hit Jason in the head with a boat motor, and everybody lives happily ever after, except for anyone who actually paid money to see this. Horshack and self-referential humor aside, we’ve hit the real low point in this series.

Friday07Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)

C’mon, did anyone really think a little thing like being stuck on the bottom of a lake was going to stop Jason? Part VII opens up with another montage sequence of scenes from the previous films, all of which basically make one point that everyone seeing the movie already knows: Jason is a bad ass. Oh, and he’s stuck at the bottom of the lake. Jason is a bad-ass stuck at the bottom of the lake.

The movie opens with a little girl who runs out into a boat on the lake and somehow kills her father. Seems she’s got some telekinetic powers, those funky things. Years later, as (wait for it) a teenager, she comes back, lamenting her father’s death, and winds up accidentally freeing Jason from his watery prison. Soon, a bunch of teenagers up there for a birthday party start getting killed.

This is actually a vast improvement over Jason Lives. They filmmakers mostly abandoned the idiotic slapstick that killed the previous movie, and Tina – while coming across as a “Carrie Lite,” does make for an interesting adversary. Terry Kieser (the “late Bernie” himself) does a suitably despicable turn as a self-important doctor hoping to study her condition, with no thought for what havoc his little experiment may cause. This is also the first appearance of Kane Hodder, who would play Jason three more times and who many fans consider the definitive performer. He’s good – big, imposing, frightening, and the makeup and costuming has improved a lot as well. Chunks of flesh have fallen off, you can see spine and ribcage, and he really looks menacing for the first time.

Is it a great movie? No. But it’s better than the series had been since its earliest installments, and a well-needed jolt of what makes the monster so much fun.

Friday08Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)

It’s time to travel! With the Crystal Lake region done to death, for their final Friday, Paramount Pictures put Jason out to sea and then on to the mean streets of New York City. The film begins with a pair of rambunctious teens spending the evening on a yacht on Crystal Lake. (Apparently Crystal Lake is connected to a river. This was news to me.) While they’re having their fun, their anchor drags a submerged power cable into Jason’s body, jolting him back to life. The moral of the story? Once you’ve finally got Jason dead, put whatever’s left in a rubber box, for God’s sake. Jason thanks the teens who resurrected him in his own inimitable style, and then the story takes off.

The next day we see a group of high school graduates taking a cruise for their senior trip – a cruise to New York. You know, when I think of great cruise destinations, I think: the Caribbean, Cancun, New York. But that’s where they’re going, especially our heroine du jour, Rennie, who is terrified of the water. Would that this were the only thing to be terrified about. Jason has stowed away aboard the ship, and the killing begins.

For a movie ostensibly about Jason “taking Manhattan,” it sure takes long enough to get there. The first hour of the film takes place on the ship, with Jason killing people in various clever and distinctively nautical ways. Finally, the survivors make it to New York, and Jason is hot on their heels, ready to begin the killing there. All the time, Rennie keeps having flashes of Jason attacking her even when he’s busy elsewhere.

I was actually surprised by this movie. Based solely on the title, I was braced for another Jason Lives level of camp and crap. The first hour, though, is actually pretty good. I’ve got a penchant for “claustrophobic” horror movies, where the protagonists are forced to fight for their lives in an enclosed space with little or no hope of escape, and the shipboard battles fit that bill very well. Once we make it to New York, it’s not as strong. It’s still basically the same few characters running around with Jason, occasionally drawing in a gang banger or bystander to take a hit and allow someone else to live another scene or two. The filmmakers totally squandered the potential of having a killing machine like Jason in a major metropolitan area – so much could have been done with that premise, but except for a brief chase on a subway car, it isn’t even touched on. I’m also not a fan of the new powers Jason started whipping out in this movie. Superzombie is one thing, but a psychic, teleporting superzombie? That’s a bit much. Jason works best as the unstoppable killing machine/mama’s boy. Let’s leave the psychic stuff for the Tinas of this series, shall we? They also worked in some unnecessary (and out of character) humor bits, like Jason scaring away a group of gang-bangers by taking off his mask and revealing his face, allowing them to escape. Um… since when does Jason actually care about scaring people? He just wants ‘em dead. For that matter, letting them escape is pretty preposterous too.

After this film, Paramount apparently gave up on the property, resulting in a four-year gap before the next movie, the longest at the time. Then New Line Cinema bought the license, but apparently not the trademark, because none of Jason’s subsequent appearances have appeared under the Friday the 13th moniker. In fact, the next time we saw Jason was in…

Friday09Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993)

Why New Line would resurrect the franchise just to (pretend to) finish it off is beyond me. Why they made their first venture into this series such a bad one is even more perplexing. The DVD I have features both the “R-rated” and “Unrated” versions of the film. I went with the unrated version for this review, assuming there’s nothing in the whopping three minutes of extra footage that would be too much for my fragile little mind.

The last time we saw Jason, he’d been wiped out by a wave of toxic waste beneath the streets of Manhattan. This time, the filmmakers (including Friday creator Sean S. Cunningham, who came back for this “final” installment) didn’t even go through the pretense of showing how this film relates to the previous one. Jason pops up at the very beginning, hale and hearty, chasing a girl in a towel through the woods. Oh, but she’s not just any girl in a towel – she’s an FBI agent. After several movies of trying to pretend Jason didn’t even exist, it seems the authorities have finally wised up. The girl is bait for a sting operation that involves lots of guns and at least one explosive charge. Jason blows up. Jason blows up good. We’ve got body parts strewn about, a head flying through the air and a still-beating heart lying on the ground. And that’s before the credits.

As the coroner examines Jason’s remains, he sees the still-beating heart and – because this is what coroners do with still-beating hearts – eats it. Then he goes on a killing spree of his own. Flash to a TV interview with a big-name bounty hunter, Creighton Duke, who claims that Jason has the power to change bodies the way normal people can change clothes, and only he knows how to defeat him. Back in Crystal Lake, he approaches a waitress at a local diner, saying that only she and her daughter can stop Jason once and for all, and if you don’t know where this is going yet, you haven’t watched enough horror movies.

What with one thing or another, we find out the waitress’s daughter, Jessica, is dating the TV host, Robert, and has a child of her own with a local boy (Steven) that she’s estranged from. The waitress is killed, Steven is thrown in jail and he meets Duke. After a nicely sadistic finger-breaking sequence, Duke explains what anyone who’s ever seen a horror flick should have been able to figure out for themselves – through some convoluted twist, the waitress was Jason’s long-lost sister, making Jessica and her child his last two blood relatives, which means they’re the only two people who can either kill him once and for all or bring him back to his own body.

Steven escapes from jail and hightails it to the Voorhees house, where he finds a book that one of the prop guys stole from the set of Army of Darkness but which otherwise serves absolutely no purpose. He also overhears Robert on the phone laughing over the fact that he swiped the waitress’s body and stowed it away here for the sake of ratings. It’s his last boast, however, as Jason’s previous host then takes his body, and continues the carnage.

Eventually, Jessica and Duke wind up at the Voorhees house, where he tosses her a switchblade which then mysteriously transforms into a… um… magic dagger. And he tells her that only she can send Jason to Hell, tonight, “for all time.” He also informs her that she can’t trust anyone, because Jason could be in anybody’s body at this point. This turns out to be true, but only because Jason has suddenly, spontaneously developed the power of speech. Sure, just because none of his other hosts could talk, why should it be a stretch that this one suddenly can?

Jason jumps into the dead waitress’s body, which then turns into his, and Duke gets killed as Jessica wastes precious seconds trying to get the dagger out from under a dresser because, apparently, she doesn’t want to bend over the extra three millimeters it would take to reach it. Steven and Jason have a big final battle scene while Jessica (again) tries to grab the dagger. She finally stabs him with it, which results in a peachy little lightshow and a bunch of hands popping up from under the ground to drag him off to hell. A couple of the hands also grab Steven and try to pull him down. Jessica winds up saving him, but she takes a really long time to decide to do it, considering that he’s the father of her child and has saved her life about a billion times during this movie.

The movie, as a whole, is full of plot holes, terribly convoluted and utterly out of synch with the rest of the franchise. It does, however, get points for the single coolest shot in the entire series at the very end. New Line took advantage of its new property to give fans something they’d been craving for a decade – as Jason’s mask lies in the dirt, one last hand pops up to drag it down with the rest of him… a hand with long, sharp knives on the fingers. That’s right, fans wanted to see Jason take on Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street fame, and now that New Line owned both properties, was it going to happen?

Yes. But not for another decade. At any rate, the only way this could be considered “The Final Friday” is if we assume future installments did away with the crutch of trying to place the events on Friday the 13th and decided they could happen at any old time. Still, it would take a good eight years before Jason would grace the screen again.

Friday10Jason X (2001)

After eight years, New Line decided “to Hell with this final stuff (pun intended), let’s bring him back. But this time… let’s make it a sci-fi movie!” So in the near future, Jason has been captured (how did he get out of Hell?) and is awaiting cryogenic suspension at the Crystal Lake Research Facility. One of the bigwigs has decided he doesn’t want Jason frozen, though, he wants him “soft” so they can continue to study his amazing regenerative powers. Which may well be the stupidest decision in the history of the planet. Jason, of course, cuts loose and begins a killing spree that doesn’t end until he and Rowan (the hottest female scientist) are frozen in cryogenic sleep.

Over 400 years later, they’re found by a group of scavengers (all of whom, coincidentally, appear to be teenagers) sifting through the ruins of a dead planet Earth. They find the two frozen bodies and bring them to space, anticipating that Rowan can be revived. She’s reanimated and brought around with the help of handy nanobots, and begin to study Jason’s corpse. Unfortunately, the scientists don’t seem to comprehend that with Jason, you don’t need nanobots to wake him up, you just need him to thaw out. And yes, the killing begins anew.

Jason slaughters lots of people really good, including the ship’s pilot, which in turn causes the spaceship to crash into the Solaris station instead of docking with it, as was the plan. The entire space station blows up, pretty much ensuring that Jason breaks his record for body count with this one. As the survivors flee, the professor who saw so much profit potential in Jason utters what has to be one of the dumbest things ever said in this franchise, “Guys, it’s okay! He just wanted his machete back!” Okay, yeah, they were going for the funny there, but still.

The survivors try to escape, and one of them finds love with his android (aaaaaaaw). Then he upgrades the android to turn her into a fighting machine, giving us the closest we’ll probably ever get to a Jason Versus Ripley battle scene. She blows him all to smithereens, but happens to knock his body right into the medical hold where all those helpful little nanobots are. So while the others wait for a rescue and prepare to blow up part of the ship so the rest of it will stay in one piece long enough, the shipboard computer (showing the sort of poor judgment that has given shipboard computers a bad name since 2001) rebuilds ol’ Jason. He’s not just Superzombie anymore. Now he’s Cyber-Superzombie! Sadly, his snazzy new duds don’t make him any more agreeable, and he keeps a-comin’. A few more people die, although remarkably, none actually are killed directly by Uberjason (one blows himself up, one dies in explosive decompression and the last one rides Jason into burning up in the atmostphere). Jason falls to the surface of “Earth 2,” and whatever’s left of him just happens to touch down on the bottom of a lake… beside which we have a couple of teenagers out camping. This is supposed to be poetic, I suppose. Anyway, the few survivors seem to have a little happily ever after potential, so good for them. As far as Jason, hopefully this little glimpse of the future was the last, because it just didn’t work. If it had been done right, this movie could have been another Alien. Instead, it was another Alien: Resurrection.

Friday11Freddy Versus Jason (2003)

If you’re wondering how Jason got out of Hell after part nine, this film would seem to be your answer. More importantly, it gave horror geeks something they’ve wanted for nearly 20 years – a face-off between the two most popular slasher film stars of all time. Ten years after the teaser at the end of Jason Goes to Hell, we open up with the story of Freddy Krueger, a child killer who was burnt alive by a mob of vengeance-seeking parents. Freddy’s demonic spirit couldn’t be quieted, though, and he gained the power to attack children and teenagers (always with the teenagers) in their dreams. Thing is, Freddy only has power over your dreams if you’re afraid of him, and the parents of his little town, Springwood, are drugging their kids to suppress their dreams and make them forget Freddy ever existed. Down in Hell, Freddy finds Jason Voorhees, and sends him back to the surface to wreak a little havoc, bring back the fear, and let him cut loose again.

Jason heads straight for the house where Freddy’s most infamous killings took place, and where there just happens to be a new teenage girl, Lori. Lori is depressed because her boyfriend, Will, up and moved away without as much as a goodbye, so her friends bring over a couple of guys to cheer her up. One of them goes upstairs for a little fun with his girlfriend, which is Jason’s cue to have a little fun of his own. The cops are called and Freddy is the immediate suspect, even if they don’t want to even say his name out loud. Freddy makes a play for one of the other teens, but he isn’t strong enough, so he give a brief soliloquy about letting Jason have some fun. After 10 movies with a bad guy who doesn’t even so much as grunt, it’s a little disconcerting to suddenly have a baddie who yammers on for hours on end. Of course, that’s one of the things that gives these two such distinct personalities.

Turns out, though, Will didn’t just run off from Lori, he was placed in a mental institution because Freddy was too strong in his mind. When he sees Lori’s house on the news as the scene of an attack, he and his friend Mark break out and run to the rescue. Back at school, the class nerd expresses his concern for Lori and a guy who apparently was cloned from Jason Mewes starts handing out flyers for a party. Will and Mark pop up with Freddy’s story on their lips and people start getting more and more terrified, which of course is just what Freddy wanted. Mark figures out that the institution was a place to quarantine everyone who had contact with Freddy, like he did when his brother, Scut Farkus, “committed suicide.” Fortunately, even after four years in a mental institution, he’s still got his van (which he apparently got when he was 14), and Will sets off to find the girls at Jason Mewes’ party, which happens to be in the middle of a cornfield.

One of Lori’s friends wanders off on her own and winds up getting drawn into Freddy’s Dreamworld boiler room, where he’s at his strongest. Before he can take her out, though, Jason kills her in the real world, denying Freddy his kill, which he doesn’t take well at all. Jason crashes the rave and some enterprising Horatio Sanz wannabe (I swear, when they decided to cobble together the two leads from previous movies, they just gave up on having any original characters in this movie) sets him on fire. In a dry cornfield. You know, it’s actually a mercy he was killed off before he graduated high school and entered the work force.

The kids escape and Freddy starts killing people himself. Meanwhile, the only cop in town whose head isn’t up his ass recognizes the similarities between the new killings and the Jason Voorhees legend. He meets up with the teenagers and they put everything together in a painful sequence of expository dialogue, culminating in them heading back to Will’s institution for more of the dream-suppressing drug. Freddy and Jason both show up to cause terror, and somehow along the way the kids decide that Jason is the lesser of two evils. They get him drugged up and haul him back to Crystal Lake, where he’ll have “home field advantage” over Freddy. While they’re doing this, Freddy and Jason face off in the Dreamworld.

The mandate must have been to have them battle on both of their home fields, because the kids manage to yank Freddy out of Dreamworld to do battle at Camp Crystal Lake, which has apparently been rebuilt and abandoned again since Jason Goes to Hell. As usual, both of them prove to be imminently distractable, which gives the remaining kids just enough time to set up a firetrap on the dock, which Jason really should have been ready for since Tommy Jarvis nailed him with the same thing in Jason Lives.

The final battle sequence is actually pretty satisfying. It’s a bit over-reliant on a highly convenient construction site there at the camp, but Freddy and Jason each get their licks in and there’s a lot of blood to go around. You’ve also got to give the producers credit for actually having the guts to show a winner. (Sorry, Freddy fans, but when one of the characters ends the movie with a head attached to his neck and the other one doesn’t, he can wink all he wants, but he’s still lost.)

So there you have it, sports fans. All 11 Jason Voorhees films, viewed and reviewed in a 48-hour stretch, because I clearly have lost my mind. What’s even crazier – I enjoyed it. Even the really bad ones. I’ve seen ‘em all now. The worst of the bunch? Easily Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. The best? I’m gonna call that a toss-up between Friday the 13th Part 3 (yeah, I know I was kind of down on it in the review, but this is the film where Jason as we know him really began to take shape) and Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood. The most fun? Freddy Versus Jason, because the geek in me will always give it up for a great crossover. Is this the end of Jason? Probably not – reports are that there’s a Freddy Versus Jason 2 in the works, possibly bringing in a character from a third horror franchise (God, I’d love to see Ash take on those two), and there’s supposedly a new Friday solo film in talks as well.

As for me, I think I need to cleanse myself – go watch some Looney Tunes or something to wash all the blood out of my system. But if you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed whipping it up, let me know. There are plenty of other horror franchises out there. Maybe in next year’s Halloween Party, it’ll be Freddy’s turn.

[And it was. But here, just for the sake of completion, is the review I wrote of the Friday remake in 2009.]

Friday 2009Friday the 13th (2009)

One of the many wonderful things about Erin is that she not only tolerates the kind of movies I watch, she makes me promise to wait for her to watch them. So today, she and I went out to catch the remake of the 80s horror staple Friday the 13th. If you may recall, a while back I actually reviewed all of the previous films in the franchise, so you can consider this a sort of addendum to that review series.

This film, like producer Michael Bay‘s remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is sort of an updating of the horror legend. The film begins some 20 years after the death of Pamela Voorhees, a mother who murdered a slew of counselors at Camp Crystal Lake whom she believed caused her son Jason’s death. (This, of course, was the plot of the first movie.) In the here and now, a group of teenagers (it’s always a group of teenagers) comes up to the lake in the hopes of finding a large crop of wild pot purported to grow here, quickly allowing the movie to cast aspersions on all three of the vices that get kids killed in these movies — sex, drugs, and alcohol. Six weeks later, the brother of one of the teens goes to the camp to search for her, at the same time as a second group of oversexed, alcoholic, pothead kids rolls up to spend a weekend away from it all.

“Away,” unfortunately for them, means “right in Jason’s backyard.”

There’s actually a lot of good in this movie. The plot isn’t just a carbon copy of any of the previous films, although the film goes out of its way to include all the tropes that made them popular. The brother, played by the kid from Supernatural whose name I can’t spell and am too lazy to look up, is a stronger male lead than most of the heroes of the franchise, and we get two fairly well-rounded female characters as well. The rest of the characters are all painful stereotypes, including the slutty blond, the jackass boyfriend and the black guy who feigns offense at unintended racial stereotypes. Seen it.

Jason himself is quite a departure from previous incarnations of the character. This is a much smarter Jason. He doesn’t just march through the film mindlessly killing everyone with whatever he has at hand. This is a Jason who thinks. Who sets traps. Who uses a light switch. He’s got a brain. As a result, he’s nearly an entirely different character.

In the end, actually, that’s the main drawback for the film. Jason is almost a different character, and the film is almost a different franchise. It’s not that it’s bad — I mean, it’s not great, but it’s at least as good as at least half of the old films. But it’s not really the same, and it’s supposed to be. It’s the Coke Zero of the franchise. You can tell it’s supposed to be the same, and it’s not bad, but it still tastes different no matter what the commercials tell you.

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.

Gut Reaction: Dark and Stormy Night (2009)

Dark and Stormy NightDirector: Larry Blamire

Writer: Larry Blamire

Cast: Jim Beaver, Jennifer Blaire, Larry Blamire, Bob Burns, Dan Conroy, Robert Deveau, Bruce French, Betty Garrett, Trish Geiger, Brian Howe, Marvin Kaplan, James Karen, Alison Martin, Fay Masterson, Susan McConnell, Andrew Parks, Kevin Quinn, Mark Redfield, Tom Reese, Daniel Roebuck, Christine Romeo, H.M. Wynant

Plot: After the demise of millionaire Sinas Cavinder, an eccentric group of friends, family, rivals, employees, reporters, total strangers, and a dude in a gorilla costume gather for the reading of his will. When the lawyer is murdered in the midst of the reading, the gathered survivors have to solve the crime, or any one of them could be next.

Thoughts: Have you ever gotten a disc from NetFlix with no memory of the movie or any idea why you put it in your queue, let alone how it got close enough to the front to actually make it to your mailbox? When that happens, you pop the disc in just so it doesn’t feel like a waste before you send it back, usually disappointing you in the process. But every so often, you get a movie that delights you so much you wish you could go back in time, figure out who clued you in on the film in the first place, and thank them.

Larry Blamire’s micro-budget motion picture Dark and Stormy Night is exactly this kind of movie. This black-and-white buffet of assorted cheeses is a loving tribute and send-up of old-fashioned murder mysteries, mixing together parts of Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Clue with the sort of killers and freaks that made for the richest mocking in the glory days of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Every actor, without exception, delivers their lines with an excess of camp and self-awareness, gleefully hamming up preposterous dialogue and overreacting to the most simple of situations. It’s as if somebody is deliberately putting on the most melodramatic dinner theater production ever made, and that’s what makes it glorious.

The show-stealers here are Daniel Roebuck and Jennifer Blair as competing reporters 8 O’Clock Farraday and Billy Tuesday, respectively. The two of them bounce off each other with energy and vigor, chewing through Python-esque logical leaps that eat up one noir cliché after another. Dan Conroy is funny as hell as hapless cab driver Happy Codburn, who only got drawn into the whole mess because Farraday stiffed him out of 35 cents. Jim Beaver’s Jack Tugdon brings in a sort of faux intensity to the proceedings, pulling in a taste of The Most Dangerous Game with his humorless (and, by result, hysterical) delivery of such lines as “I went to bed… once.”

Blamire drops in plenty of tired clichés and runs with them – Alison Martin as the terrible psychic Mrs. Cupcupboard, who has the audacity to announce “I sense death” while standing over a fresh corpse. The staff includes a butler (Bruce French) who seems to have some skeletons in his closet and a chef (Robert Deveau) who wields his meat cleaver in a particularly disturbing way, spouting out lines that feel like Norman Bates talking to Mother. Blamire even gets into the act himself, playing a stranger whose “car broke down” outside, then immediately asks if he can stay for the reading of the will, which nobody has mentioned to him yet.

As funny as the performances are, it’s Blamire’s script that makes this work. His lines go from painful puns to razor-sharp wordplay without missing a beat, and he takes great joy in using every cliché you can imagine for this sort of “trapped in the mansion” mystery, then deconstructing the hell out of it. I admit I was a little shaky about the film for the first few minutes, when we saw an obvious model car driving up to an obvious model mansion. But when the lights go off and the guests all panic until the frustrated maid (Trish Geiger) turns the switch back on and shows her exasperation when the idiotic guests behave as if she’s performed some sort of miracle, I found myself buying in entirely.

Most importantly, you really get the sense that the cast is having fun. None of them are making a fortune performing in a film released by the Shout! Factory, but all of them take what they’re given and run with it. Half the time when you go to the movies these days you get a film with a blockbuster budget and a bunch of actors walking through their parts, taking the paycheck, clearly having no passion for what they’re doing. Dark and Stormy Night is the opposite of that in every way, and it’s glorious because of it.

Looking up info about this movie for the sake of this review, I notice that Blamire has two other films with most of this same cast, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra and The Lost Skeleton Returns Again. Both of those are going to the front of my NetFlix queue right away. And this time, I’ll remember how they got there.

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!

Sherlock Holmes Week Day 5: Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Sherlock Holmes 2009Director: Guy Ritchie

Writers: Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, Simon Kinberg & Lionel Wigram, based on characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan, Robert Maillet, Geraldine James, Kelly Reilly, William Houston, Hans Matheson, Oran Gurel, James Fox

Plot: Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) races through the streets of London. Journeying deep into the underground he finds a woman on an altar, about to be sacrificed in a pagan ritual. He’s almost captured, but Dr. Watson (Jude Law) steps from the shadows and rescues him, telling him Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan) is preparing his men to attack. Holmes and Watson disrupt the sacrifice, fighting off the participants and coming face-to-face with the hooded leader of the cult: Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), who is arrested.

Three months later Watson is planning his departure from 221B Baker Street, planning to get married soon. Watson insists Holmes meet him and his prospective fiancé Mary (Kelly Reilly) for dinner. Mary, a fan of Holmes’s exploits, has him use his powers of deduction to piece together information about her, ultimately embarrassing her and driving her off. The next day, Blackwood’s scheduled execution day, Watson tells Holmes Blackwood’s last request is an interview with the great detective. Blackwood calls his five murder victims a necessary sacrifice and tells Holmes he underestimates the gravity of coming events. Blackwood’s hanging proceeds as planned, and Watson himself declares him dead.

Holmes is visited by a former acquaintance named Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), who finds that Holmes has been investigating her illicit criminal activities. She asks him for help hunting down a man named Luke Reordan (Oran Gurel), then meets with a hidden man who hired her to engage Holmes. Holmes and Watson consider the hidden man just as Constable Clark (William Houston) arrives to tell them the late Lord Blackwood has been spotted, alive. They find his tomb has been smashed open, and the coffin contains Luke Reordan, dead, covered in dirt. In Reordan’s home, Holmes finds dead animals that have been preserved and experimented upon in what appears to be an attempt at a magical ritual. They’re attacked and chase one of the assailants to a shipyard. Destroying a ship, the man escapes, and Holmes and Watson are arrested. In the morning Mary bails out Watson – but not Holmes. Holmes’s bail comes later, and he is taken to meet his benefactor, Sir Thomas Rotheram (James Fox), member of a supposedly-benevolent Temple of the Four Orders, who fears Blackwood will use their techniques for something terrible. Holmes deduces almost immediately that Rotheram is Blackwood’s father. That night, Blackwood murders his father in the bath. With the help of Lord Coward (Hans Matheson), who has influence over the police, Blackwood seizes leadership of the Four Orders, planning to wrest control of Britain, then America, then the world.

Holmes and Watson track down Blackwood, but find Irene about to be killed in a slaughterhouse. They save her (as they always do in the movies) in the nick of time. Before they can leave, the slaughterhouse explodes. The police arrive and Clark, finding Holmes in the wreckage, warns him that there’s a warrant for his arrest, and urges him to flee. Holmes compares Reordan’s rituals with Blackwood’s crimes to determine his final target: Parliament. In an action sequence that takes them across, underneath, and above London, the trio face down Blackwood and his men. Holmes and Irene wind up on the incomplete bridge over the Thames when Blackwood arrives, shoving her from the bridge. The two duel and Holmes explains how Blackwood carried out his various feats just before the villain falls and hangs from a chain. Holmes goes to Irene, safe on a platform below, and she tells him her employer is a professor named Moriarty who forced her into going along with his scheme. He arrests her for her assorted crimes, but admits he’ll miss her.

Later, as Watson moves the last of his possessions to his new home with Mary, Clark tells them of a murdered police officer, a crime Holmes attributes to the mysterious Moriarity, who stole a piece of Blackwood’s machine. Donning his hat, Holmes declares the case re-opened.

Thoughts: This is without a doubt the most unique interpretation of Holmes we’ve yet encountered in this experiment. The first four films, even the ones that aren’t very good, adhered pretty closely to the formula Arthur Conan Doyle created in the original stories. This time, though, director Guy Ritchie has turned up the action quotient considerably. The film is very fast-moving, and frequently shifts into a sort of slow motion sequence in which Holmes plans out the next several seconds, then executes his plan. It’s a neat little trick that works well to demonstrate the sort of analytical mind we’re looking at here, allowing the audience a rare glance into the internal life of Holmes, something that most creators (even Doyle, for the most part) have always been careful to avoid. In truth, with most versions of Holmes it probably would have been a mistake to do such a thing, but in this version, it fits very well.

The Holmes/Watson dynamic is the core of this movie in a way that we haven’t seen before. While their friendship has always been the most significant relationship in Holmes’s life, in this case it’s almost essential to the tone of the story. Ritchie plays it for comedy, showing them as real brothers – snarky, insufferable brothers, sometimes at each other’s throat but always willing to fight and bleed for the other. Even the bits where Holmes seems trying to deliberately sabotage Watson’s romance with Mary don’t feel too far-fetched… it comes across as a man who feels his more sincere connection slipping away from him, and for once the great mind is completely unable to deal with it. In some ways, Mary even comes across as an interloper. She’s the one monkeying with the long-established bond (even though this is the first film in this particular incarnation) between the two characters, and there’s a temptation to resent her for it. This is overcome, fortunately, when Mary and Holmes meet in the hospital, standing over the injured Watson, and she implores the detective to do whatever he needs to do to solve the case and save the man they both love from further danger.

The small moments between them, consequently, work very well. Holmes constantly makes coy remarks about Watson being unhappy with retiring from investigation. He bribes a “fortune teller” to predict a miserable life with Mary, brings a corpse right under Watson’s nose to examine… Very often we see Holmes as someone unable to admit any real human connection, unwilling to let it show how deeply he values Watson’s assistance and, even more importantly, his companionship. This isn’t that Holmes at all. Although he dresses up his actions by pretending he’s doing it for Watson’s own good, because Watson would never be satisfied without him, it’s plain from the outset that Downey’s Holmes needs Law’s Watson more than the other way around.

The fighting, much more than the other Holmes films, is central to the film. It’s energetic, well-presented, and exciting. Even the parts that are clearly CGI – such as the slightly too-perfect destruction of the shipyard – work perfectly well as an action sequence.

Downey’s Holmes has the requisite pomposity, but also a sort of dashing charm other interpretations of the character often lack. While Billy Wilder chose to cast a Holmes in a way that left his associations with the fairer sex in doubt, this film makes it clear from the beginning that Holmes’s lack of experience with women comes from the fact that there’s only one who has ever truly fascinated him: Irene Adler. Jude Law’s Watson is younger and more active than most other versions, and much more likely to demonstrate the sort of exasperation any of us would probably feel having to associate with a Sherlock Holmes on a regular basis.  He plays the character really well, a convincing proper British gentleman constantly trying to deal with and defend a very improper one.

Rachel McAdams rounds out the main cast as Irene Adler – sly, clever, and alluring without being over-sexualized. It’s easy to believe she’s someone with a sharp enough brain to engage even the great Sherlock Holmes. Unlike Mary, when she joins with Holmes and Watson she fits in very well. There’s no feeling like she’s disrupting things – she actually seems to belong. Watson is amused that there’s actually a woman who can keep up with Holmes, Irene is pleased to have an ally in antagonizing the great detective. The three of them together are even more fun to watch than just Downey and Law.

Eddie Marsan’s Inspector Lestrade is a bit of a wild card. In the many, many interpretations of Holmes over the years, we’ve seen Lestrade as everything from a willing ally to the detective to a frustrated police officer who only barely tolerates his presence. This version leans closer to the latter, and Marsan plays him well. At the same time, though, he doesn’t let his personal dislike of Holmes blind him to facts or obvious conclusions, which makes him a more reasonable and believable version of the character than many. When he arrests Holmes, we believe it. When we learn that he helped Holmes to escape just minutes later, we believe that as well.

Like The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire, this film attempts an all-new story with the classic characters. Unlike that weak film, however, this one draws in lots of small bits from the Doyle canon. Adler and Moriarity are frequently used in Holmes adaptations, even though they play only small roles in the original stories. Here, they fill the roles the story requires, while still allowing room to grow into different directions. Mary, also, is a character plucked from the Doyle canon, and her role in the story here is close enough to the original purpose to feel natural. The whole thing comes across as fresh, exciting, and engaging. It’s almost a surprise – when a franchise veers so far from the source material it could be easy to grow angry about it, but instead we get something that’s fun to watch.

If there’s one thing missing from this movie, it’s the mystery. Holmes knows from the outset that Blackwood is his enemy, and instead of trying to find the perpetrator of a crime he’s instead trying to find the evidence to explain how he’s doing what he’s doing, then stop him from carrying out what can only be termed a terrorist attack. It’s a “howdunit” rather than a “whodunit.” It’s a legitimate form of mystery (virtually every episode of Columbo operated on a similar principle), but it does diminish Holmes just a bit, to have a clear adversary in his great battle of wits.

All in all, though, the film is remarkably fun. I don’t know if I’d be quite as happy if there weren’t more traditional versions of Holmes available, though. While Downey and Law’s film is a blast, I like having a Holmes that works well as a detective first and an action hero second. That in mind, how about a Sherlock Holmes Week Bonus, friends? It’s not a movie (technically speaking), but to my way of thinking, it’s one of the best interpretations of Sherlock Holmes ever put to the screen, and if you come back tomorrow we’ll talk all about it… Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC television series Sherlock.

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 25: Prep and Landing (2009)

prep_postertDirectors: Stevie Wermers & Kevin Deters

Writers: Kevin Deters, Stevie Wermers & Chris Williams

Cast: Dave Foley, Sarah Chalke, Mason Vale Cotton, David DeLuise, Derek Richardson, William Morgan Sheppard, Nathan Greno

Plot: Before “The Big Guy” (William Morgan Sheppard) can make his rounds, it’s up to the Prep and Landing Elves to scout ahead and make sure your house is ready: children nestled in their beds, no creatures stirring, and so forth. For over 200 years Wayne (Dave Foley) has been a Prep and Landing elf, but this year he’s certain he’ll get promoted to Head of the Naughty List. He’s shattered when North Pole Christmas Eve Command Center Coordinator Magee (Sarah Chalke) tells him he’s been passed over in favor of his partner, an elf he helped to train. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he’s being given a new rookie, Lanny (Derek Richardson), an idealistic young elf who thinks he’s landed the “most tinsel” job in the world. Broken, on Christmas Eve Wayne starts to sleepwalk through his job, bumbling and eventually getting caught by a little boy named Timmy (Mason Vale Cotton). Lanny manages to put Timmy back to sleep, but a massive snowstorm is raging, and as Wayne has slacked off his work, Magee is left with no choice but to declare a “Figgy Pudding” situation — they’re going to have to skip Timmy’s house. Realizing the depths of his mistake, Wayne snaps Lanny into action, calling the boss back and transforming an inflatable snowglobe into a beacon to guide him in for a landing. Christmas is saved, but Wayne’s career may be over. The next day, the Big Guy calls him into his office. Wayne is ready to accept his punishment, asking only that the boss assign Lanny a good partner to replace him. But to his surprise, the Big Guy tells him he understands… everyone winds up on the naughty list once in a while, but he gave him Lanny precisely because he’s so god at his job. When Wayne leaves the office, he tells the waiting Lanny he was offered a promotion, to head of the Nice List, but he turned it down. He’s decided he’s more of a Prep and Landing guy.

Thoughts: One special is not enough to declare it a new Golden Age of Christmas Specials, but if Disney keeps turning out things like this – and starts inspiring other studios to do the same, we’ll have plenty to choose from very soon.

Disney really pulled out all the stops for this, with animation as crisp and energetic as anything they would put on the big screen, characters just as well-developed and entertaining, and even a musical score by Michael Giacchino. If they had showed this before The Princess and the Frog, not a single moviegoer would have been disappointed.

Prep and Landing is one of those cartoons that genuinely does everything right, starting with the characters and cast. Wayne and Lanny make for a fine odd couple, with Dave Foley bringing in the sort of exasperated worker attitude that worked for him on Newsradio and Derek Richardson matching it with an enthusiasm that would be obnoxious if it weren’t so sincere. Sarah Chalke’s Magee has a sort of frantic, manic energy that perfectly suits the character of the woman who’s doing the real legwork of running the north pole operation, and her interaction with her voiceless assistant, Tiny, make for a constant string of sight gags that still make me laugh after watching this a half-dozen times. I didn’t mention Santa’s reindeer Dasher and Dancer (Nathan Greno and David DeLuise) during the synopsis because they really don’t add anything to the plot. However, they bring out some fantastic comedic moments, adding to the conceit that Santa’s operation is treated like a cross between NASA and a military enterprise. The two of them put on the persona of hardcore, Top Gun-style pilots, while Magee runs things like she’s in charge of Mission Control and we’re about launch for outer space.

The characters, of course, play these things all perfectly straight. There’s no winking at the camera, no tongue-in-cheek moments where you get the impression the characters know they’re in a Christmas special. Instead, every beat of the story comes across like we’re watching a vital, life-and-death situation, even as Wayne’s depression sends him into mocking the Big Guy and his partner and Christmas in general (even shutting off a TV presentation of Mickey’s Christmas Carol – a nice touch).

It’s also nice to see the Elves elevated into stars for once. Most Christmas specials focus on Santa or one of his ancillary associates – Rudolph, Frosty, even Mrs. Claus. Until now, any special or movie that has shown the Elves in any large part has kept them in supporting roles. The only exception I can think of is the 2003 film Elf, and even that is less about the Elves themselves ad instead focuses on a goober who happens to think he’s an elf… not exactly the same thing. This is the first series I can think of that takes real Elves and shows us what they can really do, making them our heroes. It’s telling that “the Big Guy” is rarely mentioned by name, that his face never actually appears on-screen. Sure, we all know it’s Santa, but by keeping our distance from him it’s easier to look at Wayne and Lanny as our stars instead of worrying about what the boss is up to on this particular Christmas Eve.

This special has become the start of a lucrative franchise for the Disney folks. After winning a boatload of awards, they came back in 2010 with a seven-minute short (Operation Secret Santa) and, in 2011, another half-hour (Naughty Vs. Nice). Both of these have expanded the world of Prep and Landing, introducing more characters, more parts of the overall operation, and more worlds to explore with our favorite Elves. The characters even appeared in an eight-page Marvel Comic (Disney being Marvel’s parent company), in which Wayne and Lanny prep the Avengers’s headquarters for Santa’s arrival. Point is, these guys are becoming legitimate stars in their own right.

Unfortunately, last I heard a third full-length special was put on hold after Naughty Vs. Nice didn’t quite grab the ratings bonanza the first film did. But with both specials being shown all over ABC and ABC Family, and the DVD and Blu-Ray now available, there’s always hope. I love Wayne and Lanny, I love Magee and Tiny, I love the whole world of these gutsy little Elves, and I want to go back there again.

Lunatics and Laughter Day 19: Zombieland (2009)

zombielandtDirector: Ruben Fleischer

Writers: Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Bill Murray

Plot: Zombies have taken over the world, and only a few isolated survivors remain. A young man from Columbus, Ohio (Jesse Eisenberg) has lasted longer than anyone he knows thanks to a carefully constructed set of rules, assembled mainly through trial and error. Little things make a difference in Zombieland: cardio, “double tapping” (always use a second bullet to make sure the zombie is dead), and of course, fastening your seatbelt. He’s a nervous sort, afraid of clowns, and mostly a loner. “Columbus” is making the long journey home from Texas in the hopes that his parents may still be alive. He is picked up by a cowboy hat-wearing fella in an SUV who calls himself Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson). In order not to get attached, Tallahassee insists on using their hometowns as identifiers, rather than bothering with real names. Tallahassee’s passion for killing zombies is matched only by his craving to find a Twinkie, and when they encounter a supermarket, Tallahassee insists on stopping to check it out. Instead, they find a young woman who identifies herself as Wichita (Emma Stone). Her younger sister, Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) has been bitten, and they’re begging for help – they need a gun to kill her. Tallahassee is about to pull the trigger, but Wichita asks to do it herself. Taking the gun, she turns on the men, stealing their car, ammunition, and weapons; it was all a scam.

The girls head west, planning to get to a supposed safe zone called Pacific Playland. Tallahassee, meanwhile, finds a Hummer in good condition, loaded with big guns. They set out to find the girls, and although Columbus cautions Tallahassee not to let his anger take him, Tallahassee says he’s got nothing but the little pleasures since he lost his puppy, Buck. They find the SUV on the side of the road, hood open, abandoned. While Tallahassee checks it out, Little Rock hijacks Columbus in the Hummer. The girls rob them, again, but this time take them on the road. Wichita drops the sad news that Columbus, Ohio, burned to the ground during the outbreak. She offers to drop Columbus off so he can find a new path, but he decides to stay with her.

Eventually, they make it to California, where Tallahassee suggests finding and resting in the home of his favorite celebrity: Bill Murray, an unknown quantity to the 12-year-old Little Rock. They split up to search the place for zombies, and Columbus decides to culture Little Rock by showing her Ghostbusters in Murray’s own movie theater. Tallahassee and Wichita, elsewhere, make enough noise to summon a zombie – Murray himself. Or so it seems. Murray, still alive, had himself made up in zombie makeup as a defense. He begins showing his guests a good time, reenacting scenes from his movies, and they convince him to prank the jittery Columbus by pretending to be a zombie again. The joke goes too far and Columbus shoots Bill Murray in the chest. As he dies, Murray identifies his one regret: Garfield.

As they decompress and remember the things they miss from the Pre-Zombieland world, Columbus realizes the “Buck” Tallahassee has been mourning isn’t really his dog, like he said, but his son. He has a good cry, finally letting the emotion out. Later, Wichita brings Columbus a bottle of wine. As they trade life stories, Wichita asks him to dance, and he’s about to kiss her when Tallahassee interrupts, asking for help in moving the couch to build a fort.

In the morning, the girls take the Hummer and leave the guys behind, Wichita upset that she almost broke her cardinal rule: the sisters trust no one but each other. They drive the last few miles to the Pacific Playland amusement park. Instead of the zombie-free paradise they were promised, when Wichita turns the power back on the lights and sounds draw all the undead for miles. They are trapped at the top of a ride, surrounded. At Murray’s house, Columbus fails to persuade Tallahassee to help him find the girls and starts to set out on his own. When he drives a motorcycle into a hedge, Columbus takes pity on him, and they take one of Murray’s cars to Pacific Playland. Tallahassee lures the zombies away from the ride so he can blow them away. He locks himself in a carnival booth, shooting through the bars and ceiling, killing all the zombies he can. Columbus, meanwhile, makes it to the girls just in time: there’s a zombie climbing the ladder towards them and they’re out of ammo. But before he can charge to the rescue he encounters his greatest fear: a zombie clown. Taking a page from Tallahasse, he beats the clown to hell and saves the girls. Wichita gives him a special prize – her real name – and he kisses her. As they leave, Little Rock tosses Tallahassee a Twinkie from the snack bar, and the odd little family sets out on the road again.

Thoughts: Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick originally conceived Zombieland as a TV series, and looking at the movie through that prism, it’s actually pretty obvious. It plays much like a TV pilot, introducing a cast of characters and a situation through which it would be easy to tell a lot of stories over an extended period of time. It also explains why, unlike most zombie movies, the entire principal cast survives the film. There are a lot of short holdovers from that TV script as well – the rules for surviving Zombieland were intended as part of the TV framing sequence, and the “Zombie Kill of the Week” was going to literally be a “kill of the week.” It also suggests that there may have been intended answers to some of the assorted questions the story leaves open – why sisters Wichita and Little Rock have different home towns, for example, or perhaps even more tellingly, why on Earth the electricity is still on everywhere we go. Seriously, throughout the film we see a total of five living people post-outbreak, how is it that the only place with no energy is the amusement park, and all it takes to get that going again is Wichita hitting a few switches?

Those minor holes aside, the movie is still intensely enjoyable. The story comes across as a clear Type A horror movie, but that doesn’t diminish the comedy at all. We get a group of very funny, very relatable characters in this movie, each of whom displays more depth and potential than their archetypes would suggest. Columbus is your standard awkward nerd, and the others tease him as such, but at the same time the very fact that he’s survived so long on his own reveals the sort of steel he really has. Tallahassee’s tenderness is hidden for much of the movie, but obvious when he decides to open up about his son, and integral in his decision to join Columbus on the rescue mission. The girls are tough and fight dirty, but at the core is a mutual desire to protect each other. We don’t know why, exactly, they’re so damaged, but that damage is presented in a believable way that makes their behavior easy to understand. The four of them fit together very naturally and very organically, in a way that leaves open plenty of room for the comedy.

I was reluctant to talk about the Bill Murray sequence in my recap, because not only is it a delicious, hysterical segment of the film, but it was such a surprise when I saw it that I think it ratcheted my overall enjoyment of the movie as a whole, and I hate to spoil that for anybody else. But then, I suppose anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet either won’t read this recap or doesn’t care about spoilers, so why skip talking about something so memorable? The thing is, the film was planned in such a way that any of several celebrities could have been plugged into those scenes, depending entirely on who they could get to agree to do it. I don’t know who else was under consideration and I don’t care: Murray was perfect. His pedigree, the chance to listen to him as he performed some of his greatest one-liners, the admission that making Garfield was a terrible mistake… who else could have possibly filled that role in such a perfect fashion?

The finale, not to overstate it, is the greatest thing ever committed to celluloid. Killing zombies is always fun. Doing it while riding roller coasters, marching through a haunted house, or dangling from one of those spinning swing rides? It’s the stuff that dreams are made of. Or at least a bitchin’ video game. In fact, that’s what the last fight actually feels like: we’re watching Tallahassee and Columbus fight their way through the final level, except instead of one boss it’s just more zombies than anybody has ever seen.

The zombies themselves really feel like a secondary element to this film. While it wouldn’t work as well if the apocalypse was caused by vampires or a virus or something of those sorts, the zombies are just stage dressing. In many ways, this movie shares a lot in common with that other zombie TV show that did get made. In The Walking Dead, the zombies are usually relegated to the background – a problem to be dealt with, to be sure, but not the major thrust of the stories. The same is true here. The major difference is that The Walking Dead plays the scenario for drama, while this is a relatively lighthearted comedy. The only truly serious moment, in terms of character, is when we realize that Tallahassee is mourning a dead child instead of a dead puppy, and our hearts break a little… something that is rectified only moments later when he wipes his tears away with a wad of now-useless money.

Like I’ve said for several of our recent films, I hope the suggested sequel to this someday gets made. Sure, Eisenberg and Stone have both become much bigger stars since the film premiered and Breslin is a teenager now, but that doesn’t mean the time lapse couldn’t be worked into the story in an organic way. By design, these are characters that have a lot of life left in them and much more story to tell. I just hope, sooner or later, we get to see it.