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Your Turn to Pick Episode 2: Digging Up the Marrow

Blake and Erin return this week for another Your Turn to Pick movie podcast! This time it’s Blake’s turn, and he pulls out Adam Green’s (Hatchet, Frozen) newest horror film Digging Up the Marrow. They talk about the monsters, the nature of characters in horror movies, and what kind of movie is creepy enough to make Erin jump at her own ringtone. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, check it out before the Petits get super-spoilery.

Your Turn to Pick Episode 2: Digging Up the Marrow.

Building a Franchise

In this weekend’s episode of the All New Showcase podcast, Kenny Fanguy and I talked about the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as other studios that are trying to duplicate their success. Sony is trying to expand their one Marvel franchise — Spider-Man — into a full-blown universe, while 20th Century Fox is planning to merge their two Marvel properties (The X-Men and the Fantastic Four) into one world. Warner Bros is finally launching a DC Cinematic Universe, and Disney seems to have similar plans for the Star Wars franchise now that they own Lucasfilm. It’s the usual pattern in Hollywood, folks — whenever somebody finds success, everybody else wants to duplicate it. In this case, though, I applaud it. A lifelong comic book nerd, the shared universe style is something I dearly love. And in fact, it’s something that kind of surprises me has never been done in the movies before.

Oh, there have been small crossovers. Alien Vs. Predator comes immediately to mind, and Freddy Vs. Jason. Godzilla faced off against King Kong and a plethora of other kaiju back in the day, and if we go back to the 40s, Universal Studios had their “Monster Rally” sequence of films, in which the likes of Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolf-Man, and Abbott and Costello would encounter each other over and over again. But nobody ever did it on the scale that Marvel has, or that these other studios want. In fact, I’ve heard some rumors buzzing that the big movie studios are looking at a lot of their different properties to see just how this may be done. So that gets me thinking: what other film properties might evolve into this sort of larger cinematic universe?

The first thing that comes to mind for me is Harry Potter. Granted, the books have all been adapted, but Warner Bros has recently announced a new sequence of films based on the spin-off book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This should surprise no one. For over a decade now, the top-grossing Warner Bros movie has either been a Harry Potter film or a DC Comics film. Since they’ve got neither scheduled for 2014, they’re no doubt looking to fill the gap in their schedule. If they can get creator J.K. Rowling on board for this, I’m fine with an expansion of the Potter universe. Now let me make something clear — I don’t want any more movies about Harry Potter. His story is over and done with, and I really don’t need to see his adventures as an Auror after the death of Voldemort, because frankly, anything else is going to be anticlimactic. But one of the best things about the Harry Potter world is that Rowling did, in fact, create an entire world — a rich, detailed world, one with many curious ideas and facets that she only brushed up against in her original seven novels. Fantastic Beasts will be the story of Newt Scamander, a wizard who lived centuries ago and cataloged the most amazing magical creatures in the world. There’s plenty of story potential there. Stories of young Dumbledore or McGonagall? I’d watch that. The story of the founding of Hogwarts? I’m there. There are ways to expand the Potterverse that don’t require Harry, Ron, or Hermione, and if anything, that’s the direction Warner Bros should go in.

Universal Studios is planning a remake of Van Helsing, which itself was an attempt to do a sort of modern “monster rally” film. I say they should go all-out. The Universal versions of Frankenstein and Dracula are still the most recognizable in the world, so why not use the new Van Helsing to relaunch a Universal Monster Universe? Throw in Frankie and Drac, put in a Wolf-Man, give us the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Tie in the Brendan Fraser Mummy films while you’re at it — the original Van Helsing had a very tenuous tie in the first place, and it’s easily the most successful Universal monster franchise in decades. Even kids who have never seen a Boris Karloff picture love the monsters, and this is a perfect time to bring them back.

20th Century Fox, as we’ve said before, has both Aliens and Predator in its pocket, and regardless of the quality of the crossover films in those franchises, it’s a pretty natural pairing. The two concepts fit well together, and I think there’s still more that could be done with them. But you know what else Fox owns that could do with a bit of a boost? The X-Files. Think about it for a minute… a new X-Files movie, one that opens with Mulder and Scully sent to investigate a mysterious crash site uncovered beneath the arctic ice, and they wind up finding a Predator, or one of the Engineers from Prometheus. Ridley Scott may not be wild about it (especially if, as the rumors persist, he plans on linking the Aliens franchise back to this own Blade Runner film), but I think there’s room for connectivity here.

I’m just spitballing, friends, I’m throwing stuff around to see what sticks, but I think there could be fun had in any of these directions. If Sony insists on bringing back Ghostbusters, why not build that into a universe with not just ghosts, but all manner of supernatural entities and different squads of heroes combating them? Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are probably done with Men in Black, but there’s plenty of juice left in that universe. Sam Raimi is already planning to tie the reboot of The Evil Dead back into the original Evil Dead/Army of Darkness franchise — why not take a page from the comics and have Ash encounter the likes of Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, or Herbert West?

I know I’m throwing a lot of things around here, but that’s how these things start. Here’s hoping that somebody decides to run with this ball soon, and decides to do it the right way.

Reel to Reel ranks 2013 in movies

And once again, we reach the end of another year. And as usual, I didn’t get to see as many movies as I wanted to. I saw most of the ones I was really excited about, all but one in fact (which wound up not being made at all, sadly). For the record, the ones I didn’t see yet that are still on my to-see list are American Hustle, Wolf of Wall Street and Her, all of which will be readily available after the holidays, what with being award bait and all.

So here, for the second year (here’s last year’s list if you’re interested), the list of movies I saw this year roughly in order of how much I liked them, along with brief comments on a few films. This list includes made-for-TV, direct-to-video, and streaming films, as long as they were feature length. The rankings are based purely on how much I enjoyed watching the movie, and no other criteria. I caution you, though, that my opinions on rankings and such change frequently, so if you ask me to make this same list tomorrow, it may well be slightly different:

1. Saving Mr. Banks. Simply a beautiful movie that hits me hard as a writer. I get where both the characters of P.L. Travers and Walt Disney were coming from, I sympathize with them both, and I found the movie deeply moving. I know that a lot of it was conjured up for the sake of cinema, but I’m kind of afraid to look up how much for fear it would ruin the film for me.
2. Frozen. Disney’s best animated movie in years. I particularly like that the film was undeniably a love story, but at the same time, broke every major rule in the usual “princess” formula.
3. Man of Steel. A controversial choice to be this high, I know, but I don’t care. As someone who’s loved Superman since childhood, I thought this film was a worthy jumpstart for both the character and for DC’s effort at a cinematic universe.
4. Pacific Rim. The most underrated movie of the year, in my opinion. Visually exciting and a hell of a lot of fun.
5. Monsters University.
6. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
7. Ender’s Game.
8. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
9. An Adventure in Space and Time. TV film about the original star of Doctor Who, William Hartnell, made in conjunction with the series’ 50th anniversary. I really liked it.
10. Evil Dead.
11. The World’s End
12. Oz, The Great and Powerful.
13. Star Trek Into Darkness.
14. Thor: The Dark World.
15. Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox.
16. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part II.
17. The Rubber Room. Intriguing documentary about the New York public school system, specifically the practice that leaves teachers accused of assorted mistakes stranded without work for months or years without the opportunity to defend themselves.
18. Crystal Lake Memories:The Complete History of Friday the 13th. Good and terribly thorough documentary about the horror movie series. Make sure you’ve got the time to watch it, though – it’s SEVEN HOURS LONG.
19. Iron Man 3.
20. LEGO Batman The Movie: DC Superheroes Unite.
21. The Wolverine.
22. The Sound of Music. Live TV production of the classic musical.
23. Necessary Evil: The Villains of DC Comics.
24. Europa Report.
25. Superman Unbound.
26. Kick-Ass 2.
27. Warm Bodies.
28. Upstream Color. I really liked the director’s last movie, Primer, so I had high hopes for this one. I felt somewhat let down, though. The movie thought it was smarter than it really was.
29. Escape From Planet Earth.
30. Side Effects.
31. A Good Day to Die Hard.
32. World War Z.
33. Mister Scrooge to See You.
34. Jack the Giant Slayer.
35. Iron Man: Rise of Technovore.
36. The Purge. Intriguing idea – a world where all crime is legal for 12 hours a year – but the film is handled poorly, set up on a soapbox, has a horribly predictable ending and is so heavy-handed it’s impossible to enjoy as a thriller.
37. The Host. The only thing I have to say about this Stephanie Meyer adaptation is that I initially mistyped it as The Hose, and I couldn’t help but think that would have been a more interesting movie.
38. Riddick.
39. Oblivion. I challenge anybody to explain the backstory and plot of this film in a way that does not invite a six-year-old child to point out how outrageously stupid the aliens are. I DARE YOU.
40. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.
41. Sharknado. I know that this TV production was supposed to be bad, but I disagree with those who think it was both bad and fun. I just didn’t enjoy it.

What I Watched In… April 2013

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

  1. The Neverending Story (1984), B+
  2. John Dies at the End (2012), B+
  3. Hotel Transylvania (2012), C
  4. Seeking a Friend For the End of the World (2012), B+
  5. Ruby Sparks (2012), A
  6. Evil Dead (2013), A-
  7. Hitchcock (2012), B
  8. Plan 9 From Outer Space (1958), F; RiffTrax Riff, B
  9. Idiocracy (2006), B+
  10. Slumdog Millionaire (2008), A
  11. History of the World Part I (1981), A
  12. Buck Privates (1941), A-
  13. Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), B-
  14. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003), B+
  15. Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004), A-
  16. Pumaman (1980), D; MST3K Riff, B+
  17. Time Chasers (1994), D; MST3K Riff, B
  18. Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders (1996), D-; MST3K Riff, B
  19. The Wizard of Oz (1925), D
  20. The Apple (1980), F; RiffTrax Riff, B
  21. Carnage (2011), B+
  22. Iron Man: Rise of Technovore (2013), C+
  23. Oblivion (2013), C+
  24. Midnight in Paris (2011), A-
  25. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), A
  26. Horse Feathers (1932), B
  27. Journey Back to Oz (1974), C-
  28. The Wiz (1978), B+
  29. Return to Oz (1985), B+
  30. Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), D; RiffTrax Riff, A-
  31. Condorman (1981), C+
  32. Reservoir Dogs (1992), B+
  33. Pulp Fiction (1995), A-
  34. The Galaxy Invader (1985), F; RiffTrax Riff, B
  35. The Matrix (1999), A-
  36. The Matrix Reloaded (2003), B
  37. The Matrix Revolutions (2003), B-
  38. Shame (2011), D+
  39. Tin Man (2007 Miniseries), B
  40. The Looney, Looney, Looney Bugs Bunny Movie (1981), B
  41. Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation (1992), B-
  42. The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie (1979), B

Trilogy Trouble

I am, as you may know, an English teacher. As such, I’ve got a particular sensitivity towards using words correctly. The wonderful thing about words, you see, is that by using them properly you can be much more specific in your meaning… more descriptive, more precise and, therefore, more effective in making the intent of your words clear. If I wanted to say, in one word, that something has been broken into ten pieces, I should be able to use the word “decimate,” because that was its original meaning. But too many people used it as a synonym for “destroy,” and now that secondary – and far less specific – meaning is also considered correct. And it irritates me. And it’s the same vein of irritation that strikes me when I hear people throw around the word “trilogy” willy-nilly.

Dark Knight TrilogyStrictly speaking, a “trilogy” can refer to any series of three, but I think using it that way cheapens its usage. The word “trilogy” should be reserved to refer to something a little different than just “three.” These days, it seems to be  popular to group movies into trilogies, perhaps because it’s so attractive package them together in a DVD box set. You can go out and buy the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Dark Knight trilogy, the Back to the Future trilogy, each with three films in a series, each of which fits the definition to varying degrees. But are they true trilogies? How about the X-Men trilogy? There have been two movies released since they started calling it that, although one could argue that they aren’t part of the original series, but rather spin-offs… but next year’s X-Men: First Class seems poised to tie everything together. Can you still make that arguement? There are three films with Evil Dead in the title, but when people talk about an Evil Dead trilogy they mean Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness.  And then there’s my personal favorite, the Star Trek Trilogy. In a series with either six, ten, or eleven movies (depending on how you count), the boxed set with “trilogy” on the cover collects numbers two through four, because technically, those are the only ones that take place (chronologically) one after another.

Let me break this down, guys.

The True Trilogy.

Lord of the Rings TrilogyIn my personal, extremely picky (I know) vernacular, a true trilogy is one story told in three parts. The Lord of the Rings, for example, is a true trilogy. (Yes, I know Professor Tolkien never actually wanted to split the book into three volumes, that it was done on the insistence of a publisher who didn’t think people would want to purchase a novel the length of a phone book. For the purposes of this semantic discussion, that’s not actually important.) For me to consider it a true trilogy, it needs to be planned as such… maybe not necessarily conceived in three parts, but once finished, part three should end with the ending the author was working towards all along. True trilogies, by my definition, are really quite rare.

It’s not uncommon for someone to claim a story was intended as a trilogy even when it wasn’t. These usually don’t hold up to close scrutiny – the original Star Wars trilogy, for example… as much as I love the first three movies, if you watch them together it seems terribly unlikely that George Lucas had decided that Leia and Luke were brother and sister when he wrote the first screenplay, and even the question of Luke’s parentage isn’t a slam-dunk in that first film. Try to handwave it as being a “certain point of view” all you want, Obi-Wan – either you lied to Luke in Episode IV or Lucas hadn’t decided yet that Vader was Anakin Skywalker. The third Scream film also tries to claim trilogy status as well – Jamie Kennedy’s character appears in a post-mortem video that lays out the “trilogy rules” – but it’s written by a different writer than the first two films and the story it tells makes the second film (which was considerably better than the third) largely irrelevant, from a narrative standpoint. True trilogies are hard to find, but easy to confirm.

Far more common is…

The Retroactive Trilogy.

Star Wars TrilogyA Retroactive Trilogy is what you get when a storyteller doesn’t have any solid or specific plans for a sequel, but once the first movie turns out to be a success, comes up with two more films that more or less go together. The original Star Wars, most likely, fits into this category much better than the “true trilogy” category. There are differing reports as to how much of Return of the Jedi was mapped out when Empire Strikes Back was written, it seems that at least some sort of framework was planned… as Luke is leaving Dagobah and Obi-Wan calls him “our last hope,” Yoda replies, “No… there is another.” Did they know the “other” was Leia when they wrote that line? I dunno. But they were at least thinking.

The problem with these Retroactive Trilogies is that sometimes the writers simply try too hard. They build everything up in part two to some gargantuan cliffhanger, but along the way they’re throwing so many things at the audience that the story starts to get lost and garbled. Then, when part three comes along, they’ve gotten so jumbled up that they just can’t untie the knot before the end. I don’t have the hatred for the Matrix sequels that some people do, but I can’t deny they fell victim to this problem. Even worse, I’d argue, were the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films. Not coincidentally, I liked the fourth Pirates film much better than two or three, mostly because the plot had almost nothing to do with the previous three films, simply throwing Jack Sparrow and Captain Barbossa into another standalone adventure.

Back to the Future TrilogyOne of the best Retroactive Trilogies I’ve ever seen is the Back to the Future series, with second and third installments that are entertaining in their own right, extend the world built in the first, tie back to the beginning in a logical way, and each have their own clear identity. But they’re still, to be clear, a retroactive trilogy. Yes, I know, we’ve all seen that “To Be Continued” logo at the end of Part I a million times… which is why most people forget that it wasn’t actually in the theatrical cut, but added to the VHS release after the first movie was a hit and the studio decided to go on and make some sequels.

The Trilogy in Name Only.

This is the one that really irritates me. When the trailers for Oz the Great and Powerful came out, they identified Sam Raimi as the “director of the Spider-Man trilogy.” Which made me bristle. The three Raimi-helmed Spider-Man movies are in no way a trilogy… not planned as such, not conceived as such, not executed as such. Aside from the lead characters, the only arc that even remotely welds them together is that of Harry Osborne, whose significance in Spider-Man 2 was negligible. Furthermore, Raimi never intended to stop at three. There were plans, at one point, to go to six films, but after Spider-Man 3 left audiences disappointed and Tobey Maguire hurt his back, everyone decided to walk away from the franchise and let someone else take a crack at it. (Incidentally, there are reports that the current Amazing Spider-Man film is intended to launch a trilogy. Whether there’s actually a three-part story planned or whether it’s just marketing using that word because they think it sounds sophisticated remains to be seen.)

Blade TrilogyA Trilogy in Name Only is what you get when a series happens to end after the third installment. Blade, for example. Ocean’s Eleven. The original Robocop franchise. None of these were planned as three-volume stories. These just happened to stop after three movies for various reasons – failure of the third installment, age or lack of interest in the principal actors, whatever. Despite that, these films frequently get packaged and marketed as “trilogies.” Even the Godfather franchise falls under this category.

Sometimes, though, fourth films get made after a series seems over, taking away even its faux “trilogy” status. Toy Story is currently in this category, but every time you turn around it seems someone is starting a rumor about Pixar working on a Toy Story 4. (Seeing as how the third Toy Story had perhaps the greatest ending of any animated film in history, I really think that would be a huge mistake, but that’s an argument for another time.) You can find DVD sets of the TransFormers films marketed as a “trilogy” even as the fourth film is under production, and I distinctly remember the Saw movies marketed as a “trilogy” even back when they were actively cranking out a new movie every darn year.

What’s more, we’ve entered the age of the drastically-delayed sequel, which is taking older films that used to fall into this category and turn them into longer franchises: Die Hard, Indiana Jones… these used to be called trilogies, then fourth films came out. The same thing will happen to Jurassic Park next year.

Remakes or spin-offs incidentally, do not take a film out of this category. They’re working on a Robocop remake, but they’ll still market the original as a trilogy. They marked The Mummy franchise as a trilogy because they can easily (and rightfully) ignore the Scorpion King films.

Evil Dead TrilogyEvil Dead is an interesting case, as the new film is being presented as a remake, while at the same time the creators are publicly talking about continuing the original series (with an Army of Darkness 2) and eventually making a film that would bring the two incarnations of the franchise into a collision course. After AoD2 and a new Evil Dead 2, they’re considering a film that would feature Bruce Campbell’s Ash meeting Jane Levy’s Mia in a film that – I feel comfortable saying – would finally force the American Film Institute to stop placing Citizen Cane at the top of its “100 Greatest Films of All Time” list. At any rate, doing this would make for seven films total… two Ash Evil Dead movies, two Army of Darkness movies (also starring Ash), two Mia Evil Dead movies, then whatever they would call the final film.

None of this is to make any particular claims about the qualities of any film in any given category. There have been bad “true” trilogies and terrible “retroactive” trilogies. Sometimes a trilogy in name only can have three fantastic movies (and by “sometimes” I mean “mostly in the case of the Toy Story films”). This isn’t about judging any film as superior to any other. This is all about a plea from me to use words the way they are intended. If it ain’t a trilogy, don’t call it one.

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!

2 in 1 Showcase Episode 286: A Weekend at the Movies

showcase logo full black2I don’t always post my pop culture podcast here at Reel to Reel, but when I do, you can bet it’s because there’s a lot of movie talk. In this week’s episode, my fiance Erin gives her opinion of the new 3D re-release of Jurassic Park, then I talk about the remake of Evil Dead and the DVD release of the horror/comedy John Dies at the End. If you enjoy my movie punditry, give it a listen!

And if you, like me, have a lot of overlapping fandoms in your personal geek wheelhouse, the rest of the episode concerns such subjects as the newest episode of Doctor Who, the upcoming Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show, and the passing of comic book greats Carmine Infantino and George Gladir.
2 in 1 Showcase Episode 286: A Weekend at the Movies

 

Lunatics and Laughter Day 11: Army of Darkness (1992)

army-of-darknessDirector: Sam Raimi

Writers: Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi

Cast: Bruce Campbell, Embeth Davidtz, Marcus Gilbert, Ian Abercrombie, Richard Grove, Bridget Fonda, Patricia Tallman, Ted Raimi

Plot: S-Mart employee Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) has had a hard time of it – finding the Necronomicon (Book of the Dead), awakening something terrible, getting attacked by zombie-like “Deadites,” being forced to kill his possessed girlfriend and chop off his own hand, and then getting hurled back in time to the middle ages. As the film opens, Ash recalls how he fell through a time portal (along with his car, shotgun, and chainsaw) and was taken into captivity by the soldiers of a warlord named Arthur (Marcus Gilbert). Although Arthur’s Wise Man (Ian Abercrombie) believes Ash to be a prophesied  savior, Arthur has him chained with the men of his captured enemy, Henry the Red (Richard Grove). As the captives are marched to a pit for execution, Arthur is attacked by a woman named Sheila (Embeth Davidtz) whose brother was slain by Henry’s men. Arthur blames Henry for loosing an evil upon the land, but Henry claims his men have fallen prey to the same beast. Arthur opens the pit and a captive is tossed in, blood erupting from the bottom. Ash tries to convince Arthur he’s not one of Henry’s men, but Sheila hurls a rock at him and he falls into the pit, where a Deadite awaits. The Wise Man throws Ash’s chainsaw into the pit and, his weapon returned, he escapes. He sets Henry free and uses his shotgun to intimidate Arthur’s men, into obeying him.

The Wise Man tells Ash his only hope of returning home lies in finding the Necronomicon. He prepares for battle, making a mechanical hand for himself. Sheila gives him a blanket, hoping to apologize for her actions, but he rebuffs her at first. When it’s clear she’s upset, he instructs her to “Give me some sugar, baby,” and she sends him off with a kiss. The Wise Man gives Ash the words he needs to allow him to take the book safely: “Klatu Verada Nikto,” but the overconfident Ash refuses to repeat them more than once. He’s pursued by the dark forces from inside the book, who burst from a broken mirror as several miniature versions of himself, tormenting him in painful and amusing ways. One manages to to jump down his throat and sprouts from him as a full-grown “Evil Ash,” whom Ash manages to subdue, chop up, and bury. Ash makes his way to the stone altar where the Necronomicon awaits, but finds he has forgotten the Wise Man’s magic words. He tries to fake his way through it, but when he takes the book an army of skeletal Deadites rises from the earth. Evil Ash, now rotting and mutating, rises to lead them.

Returning to the Castle, Ash insists the Wise Man send him home as soon as possible. Before it can happen, a flying Deadite swoops in and takes Sheila captive. It brings her to Evil Ash, who is opening every grave to set free even more Deadites. When word of the army reaches Arthur he debates fleeing, but Ash is determined to stand and fight.  He convinces Arthur’s remaining me to stay, and sends an envoy to Henry the Red, hoping to recruit his army to their cause as well. The Deadite Army approaches, a now-possessed Sheila at Evil Ash’s side, and battle ensues.

Ash’s homemade gunpowder gives Arthur’s forces an early advantage, but the Deadites break down a gate and get inside the fortress walls. Just as it seems the living will be overwhelmed by the dead, Henry the Red’s forces arrive and turn the tide. Evil Ash and Sheila overwhelm the guards protecting the Necronomicon, but Ash manages to toss her over the side of the wall and face his counterpart. The two battle, and Ash defeats the monster and saves the book. The rest of the Deadites retreat, and Sheila is restored. Arthur and Henry make peace and the Wise Man gives Ash a potion that will send him to his own time, provided he can remember the magic words. He bids Sheila farewell and returns to his time and his home, working in S-Mart, where we see him telling the story to an unconvinced, unimpressed coworker. Suddenly, a customer transforms into a Deadite, attacking, and Ash grabs a rifle from the store’s case, blowing her away. It’s not too bad to be home.

Thoughts: The Evil Dead franchise (I covered the first film in the original Reel to Reel project) is a strange animal. The first film is a straight-up “Cabin in the Woods” sort of horror movie. The sequel, Evil Dead II, is a virtual remake of the first, copying the plot and largely ignoring the first film, but providing better special effects and a brand of dark comedy the first laughed. By this third installment, writer/director Sam Raimi decided to go for a full-blown comedy. Bruce Campbell’s Ash – a struggling everyman in the first film – had become a cool-as-ice balls-of-steel action hero capable of creating advanced robotic prosthetics with 14th-century technology. And yes, we love him for it.

Early in the movie Raimi ramps up the already-gory franchise to a truly comical degree, with a literal geyser of blood early. The violence, however, has a much more comical tone than in the first two films, and after that initial spout, there’s surprisingly little blood. A lot of that comes down to the monsters that make up most of the movie – rather than fleshy pseudo-zombies as in the first two movies, the majority of the Deadites this time around are reanimated skeletons – fun to break, but not much blood to spray at the camera. As Ash battles the stop-motion skeletal Deadites, there’s a nice feel of the Three Stooges meeting Jason and the Argonauts. Every bit of action is far sillier than would have been allowed in the earlier movies, in fact. The scene where Ash leaps into the air and snaps his chains aw on to his dismembered hand would be preposterous even in a more serious, Type-A horror/comedy. This movie rides the line between the two types – the basic plot is something out of a horror (or perhaps more accurately, medieval fantasy) film. The antics of Ash and the Deadites, however, are too broad to really place in the same category as Ghostbusters and the like.

For sheer silly, though, nothing tops the battle with the mini-Ashes. This segment is full of pure slapstick, comedic moments that aren’t too far off from the antics of Home Alone, about as far from a straight-up horror movie as you can get. The only thing that keeps things even a little creepy here is Bruce Campbell’s attitude as he does battle with the miniatures, his face growing truly maniacal as he guzzles boiling hot water in the hopes of destroying one that forced itself down his throat. The rest of the scene spins wildly though different gags: Ash finds an eyeball growing on his shoulder and it’s goofy (although there is, to be fair, a nice dose of body horror in that moment), the eye begins sprouting into a second Ash and it gets silly again. If it weren’t for the unique charm Campbell brings to the character, the whole thing would be entirely too inane to give even a moment’s consideration.

That said, Ash truly is an iconic character, thanks mostly to this movie. One of the greatest horror/comedy moments of all time has to be Bruce Campbell’s “boomstick” speech, where he extols the virtues of shopping at S-Mart to a crowd of medieval screwheads (I quote him directly, of course) who live in a world where the fictional retail giant won’t even exist for another 700 years. If you know a movie fan who loves Bruce Campbell and you can’t figure out why, I can only assume you’ve never watched this movie.

The Army of the Dead itself is a pretty macabre sight. Raimi gives us a complex mixture of stop-motion skeletons, mechanical puppets, and people in costumes. Although it’s fairly easy to tell the difference between them, at this point you’ve bought so completely into the world in front of you that you don’t even care if the effects aren’t seamless, the greenscreen is obvious and the action is more like a live action Looney Tunes short than anything else. In fact, some of the more technically absurd moments are the most entertaining. Whenever one of the skeletons explodes in a sudden burst of white dust, you get a visceral thrill, and if you can watch a group of skeletons storming a castle with a battering ram without your inner 11-year-old thinking about how awesome it is, something is terribly wrong with you. By the time Bruce Campbell fights two Deadites with two different swords at the same time, you’re either a fan for life or you’re never going to appreciate what you’re watching.

I know a lot of people prefer this movie’s rather famous original ending, in which Ash is returned home via a magic sleeping potion, but he takes too much, sleeps too long, and awakens in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Thematically, it actually fits the trilogy pretty well. The first movie was unflinchingly bleak, the sequel only marginally less so. Ending the series with a completely hopeless climax would have been perfectly in character. That said, I’m kind of glad Raimi relented and gave us the ending he did. Maybe it’s just because I’m basically a positive person. Maybe it’s because I think Ash deserves a happy ending after everything he’s been through. Or maybe it’s just because the S-Mart finale gives Ash one last moment to be kick a little ass, I don’t know. All I know is that if the theatrical ending had never been filmed, we never would have been treated to Ash’s immortal “Hail to the King, baby.” And that would be a damn shame.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen: the eBook now available!

Reel to Reel - Monsters NO BLEEDLast year, you guys may remember that I spent the entire month of October watching and talking about assorted scary movies, chronologically tracing the evolution of horror films from the 1920s up until the present day. I really enjoyed that little project and I think a lot of you did too. And now, as Halloween approaches again, I’m ready to launch the next stage of that project, my new eBook Reel to Reel: Mutants, Monsters and Madmen.

This eBook collects the 35 essays I wrote last year, plus five brand-new ones written just for this collection. Over the course of this book, I look at how the things that scare us have grown and evolved over the last century, dishing on some of the greatest, most influential and most memorable scary movies ever made. This eBook, available now for a mere $2.99, is hopefully going to be the first in a series, in which I’ll tackle different cinematic topics the same way.

If you read the essays last year, check this one out and enjoy the new ones. If you haven’t read any of them, dive in now for the first time. And tell all of your horror movie-loving friends about it as well! After all, the reason I decided to write this book in the first place is because I wanted to read a book like this one, but I just couldn’t find one. The market is out there, friends. Help us find each other.

(And lest I forget, thanks to Heather Petit Keller for the cover design!)

You can get the book now in the following online stores:

Amazon.com (for your Kindle or Kindle app)
Smashwords.com (for every other eBook reader)

And in case you’re wondering, the movies covered in this book include:

*The Golem (1920)
*Nosferatu (1922)
*The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
*Dracula (1931)
*Frankenstein (1931)
*The Mummy (1932)
*Freaks (1932)
*Cat People (1942)
*The Fly (1958)
*Peeping Tom (1960)
*Psycho (1960)
*Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Terror (1962-New in this edition!)
*Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
*The Haunting (1963)
*The Birds (1963-New in this edition!)
*Wait Until Dark (1967)
*Night of the Living Dead (1968)
*Last House on the Left (1972)
*The Exorcist (1973)
*The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
*Jaws (1975)
*Carrie (1976)
*Suspiria (1977)
*Halloween (1978)
*Alien (1979)
*The Shining (1980)
*Friday the 13th (1980)
*The Evil Dead (1981)
*Poltergeist (1982)
*The Thing (1982)
*A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
*Return of the Living Dead (1985)
*Hellraiser (1987-New to this edition!)
*Child’s Play (1988-New to this edition!)
*Misery (1990)
*Scream (1996)
*Ringu (1998)
*The Blair Witch Project (1999)
*Saw (2004)
*The Cabin in the Woods (2012-New to this edition!)

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 29: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

nightmare1Director: Wes Craven

Writer: Wes Craven

Cast: Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, Nick Corri, Amanda Wyss, Ronee Blakley, John Saxon

Plot: Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss) is being plagued by a dream in which some maniac with knives on his fingers is stalking her through a boiler room. The next day, she discovers that her friend Nancy (Heather Langencamp) has been suffering from similar dreams. Nancy and her boyfriend Glenn (Johnny Depp) come over that night to make her feel better while she’s home alone, but Tina’s boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri) crashes the party and coaxes Tina into her mother’s bed. Tina falls asleep and is again attacked by the man with the knives in her dream. This time, as she fights him in the dream-world, in the real world her body is tossed about the room, cut and broken, and she dies. Rod, the only witness, flees in terror, but is arrested the next day and charged with her murder. Nancy falls asleep in school the next day, and has a vision of Tina’s blood-covered corpse being dragged around the school in a bodybag. Nancy finds herself in a boiler room, pursued by the man with the knives, who introduces himself as Freddy (Robert Englund). In terror, she puts her arm against a hot pipe, the pain jolting her awake. Freddy attacks her again when she falls asleep in the bathtub, but she again manages to wake up in time. After a third dream-encounter, Nancy and Glenn rush to the police station to visit Rob, but at that same moment he has fallen asleep. Freddy hangs him in his jail cell.

Nancy tells her parents (John Saxon and Ronee Blakley) about the dreams, and they bring her to a doctor who observes her while she sleeps. She has a violent reaction to the dreams, cuts appear on her arms, and a white streak appears in her hair. In her bed, she finds the battered hat Freddy wears in the dreams. She confronts her mother with the hat and the name written in it, Fred Kruger, and Marge breaks down and tells Nancy the truth: Krueger was a child murderer in the neighborhood that escaped justice on a technicality. Marge and the other parents of Elm Street tracked him to his hideout in a boiler room and lit the place on fire, letting him burn to death. Now he’s back, seeking revenge on the children of the parents who murdered him. Marge, heavily drunk, locks Nancy in her house, and she is trapped across the street as Glenn falls asleep and is killed, sucked into his bed by Freddy, and then expelled back into the room as a geyser of blood. Setting up traps around the house, she finally allows herself to fall asleep. She manages to bring Freddy into the real world, where she leads him through her gauntlet of traps and eventually trapping him in the basement – on fire. As her father arrives, Krueger escapes the basement and kills Marge, drawing her blackened, burned corpse into the bed. Her father leaves her alone, and Nancy confronts him one more time. This time, though, she refuses to give in to her fear, breaking his power, and he vanishes. In the morning, we see Nancy and Marge step out into the sunlight as Glenn, Rod, and Tina drive up. Nancy gets into the car, but the top (with Freddy’s distinctive red and green stripe pattern) closes and drives them away.

Thoughts: If you’ll recall, I was less than impressed with Wes Craven’s first entry in this experiment, Last House on the Left. Twelve years later, he more than redeemed himself with this horror classic. Freddy Krueger was a game changer for slasher movies. For the most part, previous films about some madman stalking people were grounded in reality. Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Leatherface and the sort were all human, if a bit hard to kill. It was Freddy that brought slashers into the supernatural, and a large number of the imitators that have come since then have embraced the supernatural elements wholeheartedly. Even some of those psycho killers that preceded Freddy made the switch to supernatural after a few movies, some successfully (Jason Voorhees became a Superzombie in Friday the 13th Part 6 and never looked back), and some not (there have been a few attempts to make Michael Meyers possessed by a demon or some other rot, all of which wound up simply undermining the character).

The modern slasher is often pictured as some maniac killer who dies and returns to a semblance of life in some hate-fueled quest for blood, and this is where that comes from. Even Tim Seeley’s excellent comic book series Hack/Slash uses this as its core – this series focuses on a “Survivor Girl” who gets pissed and decides to start hunting supernatural slashers, many of them creepy enough to stand right next to Freddy or Jason, and on one memorable occasion even encountering the maniacal Chucky from the Child’s Play series. Without this vision from Wes Craven, it wouldn’t have happened.

Also like many other films on this list, we get a great argument for the use of practical effects over CGI. The 2010 remake of this movie tried some of the same gags using computers, and they just weren’t as effective. When Freddy leans through the wall at Nancy, Wes Craven simply had Robert Englund pushing against a rubber membrane to terrifying effect. The remake went CGI, and it looked terrible. The fountain of blood in Johnny Depp’s death scene? Again, something that just wouldn’t look as good with computerized blood as good old-fashioned red corn syrup (or whatever they used).

It’s not just the quality of the effects, though, it’s how creative Craven is at conjuring up images that seem like something that would come straight out of a dream, like the centipede that comes from Tina’s mouth or the stairs melting away beneath Nancy’s feet. Even now, the image of Tina’s bodybag being dragged around the school by some unseen force is among the creepier images I’ve seen in a movie. It’s this kind of imagination that makes the movie work, that and the fact that Craven taps into one of the most primal fears a person could have. Regardless of age, sex, religion, or culture, everybody sleeps, and everybody dreams. That moment when you’re asleep, you’re the most vulnerable, but we survive by knowing that nothing that happens in a dream can actually hurt us. For Nancy and the others, Craven takes away that last bit of security, creating some genuine terror for the characters. Nancy is now living in a world where she has to sleep or go insane, but the moment she falls asleep she knows she can be attacked by a madman.

Nightmare helps to reinforce a great number of horror tropes. The first victim, Tina, dies immediately after having sex: we have slasher-as-morality police. Nancy’s parents don’t believe her at first: the clueless authority figures. Then, it turns out Nancy’s mother knew the truth all along, while her father still resists the truth: the useless authority figures. And then there’s Nancy herself, one of my favorite horror movie Survivor Girls. Sure, Laurie Strode is the prototype, but for my money Nancy Thompson is the character all girls who want to survivor horror movies should aspire to be. Laurie shows guts, but she’s largely reactive. Nancy investigates, hunts the killer, even going so far as to lay traps for him, and when she returns to the series in A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors (the best of the film’s many sequels), she has evolved considerably. She uses her trauma to help other people, and makes the transformation from Hero to Mentor figure, something which very few horror movie characters ever get a chance to do. Even though Nancy dies in that film, she dies with a purpose, escaping that much-hated “survivor dies in the first five minutes of the sequel” plague that hit so many of her peers.

If I may tangent a moment here – the scene of Nancy booby-trapping the house evokes the similar scene Craven used in Last House on the Left. Exactly why Craven saw fit to use such a similar sequence in two different movies, I don’t know, but it works much better here. In Last House it felt silly, reminding me of nothing so much as Home Alone. Here, possibly because Nancy has already proven herself as a true survivor, it works.

Freddy himself breaks the mold of the monolithic, quiet slayers we saw in Leatherface, Michael Meyers, and Jason Voorhees (once he took over his franchise from Mommy). Freddy is a smaller figure, slender, and wiley. He isn’t quite the chatterbox he would become in the sequels, but he’s already taken to taunting his victims – both verbally and physically – as part of his game. And it is a game to him, make no mistake. Michael and Jason are driven to kill by their respective madness. In a way, Freddy is scarier. He kills because it’s fun. Robert Englund raised this character from a one-note killer to a horror legend, the kind of character that took over the franchise and that audiences actually started to root for after awhile. That’s a testament to his skill as an actor and the charm of the character, but whenever someone starts to cheer for Freddy, I feel somewhat compelled to point out that the guy wound up in this predicament in the first place because of that whole “molest and murder small children” thing he had going on there.

I am not, to be honest, a big fan of the ending of the movie. The ambiguity of Nancy’s final confrontation with Freddy doesn’t quite work. We’ve seen other films in this project with ambiguous endings that worked very well – Ash’s final scream in The Evil Dead, or Joan Crawford’s lingering mortality in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? But here we get the feeling that Wes Craven (who didn’t have sequels in mind when he wrote this script) wanted to make it more definitive, and give the film more of a down ending, while the studio (New Line Cinema, which until this point had only been a distribution company and was actually producing its first film) wanted things a bit more open-ended. As a result, we have something that leaves the movie feeling unfinished, and as the second film in the series (in my opinion the worst film in the series) doesn’t touch upon Nancy or her fate at all, except to find one of her old diaries, the audience was left wondering until Craven returned to help write the story for Part 3. And that, frankly, isn’t very satisfying.

Although he made many more horror movies, it’ll be another 12 years before we see Wes Craven turn up in this project again. As for now, the 80s seemed to be the era of things returning from the dead. Aside from Freddy and Jason, the zombie film really seemed to hit its stride in this era, and one of the more memorable of the entries in that group comes up next. Join us tomorrow for Return of the Living Dead.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 26: The Evil Dead (1981)

evil-deadDirector: Sam Raimi

Writer: Sam Raimi

Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, Hal Delrich, Sarah York

Plot: Five college students head out to a cabin in the woods, looking for a short getaway. From the very beginning, though, the trip seems to be in trouble. The bridge they have to take is crumbling and their car almost gets stuck. The cabin isn’t in any better shape than the bridge itself. And something, some presence in the woods seems to be watching them for some malevolent purpose. Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), while sketching an old clock, finds her hand seemingly possessed, and draws a crude image of a book with a face on it, then sees a trapdoor rattling in the corner. She dismisses her experience and returns to her friends, where her brother Ash (Bruce Campbell) lightens the mood with a stumbling toast that’s interrupted when the trapdoor is thrown open. Ash and Scott (Hal Delrich) investigate the cellar, finding some horrific artifacts, including an ancient book wrapped in human skin and inked in blood, The Book of the Dead, and a tape recorder. When they play back the recording, they hear a message from the cabin’s previous occupant – an archeologist who was studying the Book of the Dead and the demons it can summon. The voice on the tape recites an old chant and a horrible light glows from beneath the ground. Horrified, Cheryl storms off. Ash is left alone with his girlfriend, Linda, and gives her a necklace with a magnifying glass pendant. Cheryl, believing she’s being watched, walks out alone into the woods (a stupid move that girls in horror movies had been doing for years and would keep doing for years to come), only to be attacked by a demon in the trees. (Literally, in the trees.) She demands Ash drive her back into town, but the bridge they used on the way in has been destroyed. Returning to the cabin, Cheryl suddenly transforms into a “Deadite” – possessed by a demon, possessing strange power. She attacks, stabbing Linda with a pencil and throwing Ash into a shelf before Scott manages to lock her in the cellar. Shelly (Sarah York) is next, transforming and attacking Scott, and he kills her to save himself.

Scott wants to leave the injured Linda behind and look for a way back to town, but Ash refuses, so he wanders off alone. Linda’s injury spreads, transforming her into another Deadite, and Scott reappears, horribly wounded by something in the woods. While the possessed girls taunt them, Scott tells Ash there’s a trail in the woods. The girls suddenly become themselves again, but when Ash goes to free Cheryl, she breaks through the floor and tries to strangle him. He escapes and drags the again-possessed Linda outside, and returns to find that Scott has died. The girls attack and Ash kills Linda. Remembering that Shelly didn’t stop until her body was completely dismembered, Ash chains up Linda and is about to cut her up with a chainsaw when he sees her pendant. Grief-stricken, he carries her outside to bury her intact, but she reanimates and attacks him again; he finally beheads her. Returning to the cabin, he finds that Cheryl has escaped and arms himself with a shotgun. As he barricades himself in, Scott reanimates and Ash loses the gun. He gets free of Scott as Cheryl breaks in, and the two Deadites try to hold him down and kill him. Ash manages to use Linda’s necklace (which somehow, miraculously appeared at the right time) to grab the Book of the Dead and hurl it into the fireplace. The two Deadites deteriorate before his eyes, collapsing into piles of gore. As the sun rises Ash – broken, battered, and covered in blood – stands up, alive and victorious. But as he steps into the light, something else approaches… and attacks.

Thoughts: To be perfectly, frank, this isn’t a masterpiece of a movie. Sam Raimi is still very raw as a director at this point, with ineffective angles and stiff performances from his actors. But the film is significant nonetheless in that we can see the germ of greatness in here. Raimi, who has gone on to do a great many very good movies, was cutting his teeth at this point, and was learning the basics of telling a story. Campbell was not yet the tongue-in-cheek master of camp that he would later become.

Some scenes, in fact, are downright awkward. The scene where Ash pretends to be asleep to give Linda the necklace, for example, includes a weird game where the camera keeps doing close-ups of Campbell and Baker’s eyes while she tries to decide if she’s going to take the box and keeps feigning sleep, while watching her at the same time. It’s supposed to be sweet, but even for the audience, it’s kind of uncomfortable. And while that feeling fits in with the rest of the film very well, in this scene it somewhat undermines the intent.  Ash himself has a long way to go before he becomes the badass we know from Army of Darkness. When Shelly attacks, he’s actually paralyzed with fear, leaving Scott to take care of dismembering her himself.

But one thing that was effective right away was the mood. Raimi managed to put together scenes that combined shadow, nice tricks of the camera, and haunting music to make you feel that the characters’ fear was justified, even if it wasn’t presented in a flawless manner. There are several moments where the viewer is placed in the eyes of the Evil itself, as it zooms in on the characters, watches them from the woods, and otherwise stalks them.

By the time we reached the sequel, 1987’s Evil Dead II, both Raimi and Campbell had improved dramatically. In fact, the sequel is little more than a more successful remake of the original – it tells the same story, but injects it with superior storytelling, a healthy dose of black comedy, and a much stranger ending, making it a true classic of the horror/comedy mashup genre. (If and when I do the follow-up to this project about horror/comedies, you can bet Evil Dead II will occupy a place of honor.)

That’s not to say that none of the scenes work, though. The scene of Cheryl’s “possession” (which, let’s be honest, is a nice way to say she’s “raped by a bunch of freaking trees”) is horrible in all the ways the filmmaker wants. Considering that so much of it is dependent on our ability to believe that the branches and sprigs that are wrapping themselves around her body are acting of their own accord and not being manipulated right off-camera by a guy in a sweaty t-shirt, it looks very convincing and pretty horrifying. In fact, the makeup and gore effects on the whole are very well-done. There’s also some impressive stop-motion animation at the end, as the book burns and the two Deadites decay.

Speaking of them, the Deadite makeup is instantly frightening, and the scene where she stabs Linda with the pencil is convincing as all hell. And man, man is there a lot of blood in this movie. Every wound, every cut, every scrape absolutely gushes, and it all looks real enough for me. It multiplies when Ash hides in the cellar – pipes drip with blood, electrical outlets, blood flows into a lightbulb, drips down the lens of a movie projector… Raimi must have spent half his budget on corn syrup and food coloring. This does, however, lead to some amusing continuity errors. At one point, Ash bashes the possessed Cheryl’s hand in the door and it explodes with blood – in the next shot he slams the door shut and the door and frame are totally clean. Similarly, the pattern of gore on Ash’s increasingly dirty face and clothes changes noticeably from shot to shot. It’s a small thing, but when you notice it, it takes you out of the film.

The ending of the film is particularly – if justifiably – bleak. Ash, who has managed to survive all the horror around him – is attacked once more as we cut to black. Raimi’s philosophy for the movie, he says, was “everything dies,” and if he had stopped here, that would have come across very well. Of course, in the sequels we learn that not only does Ash live, he rules. But that’s neither here nor there. If nothing else, we owe this film and Sam Raimi an unending debt of gratitude for giving the world the awesomeness that is Bruce Campbell. And even though you know the forthcoming remake has both Raimi and Campbell’s stamp of approval, there’s just no way it capture the thrill of watching Ashley Williams become one of the great cult movie heroes.

After spending a couple of days in the woods, let’s get back to civilization… a nice little house in the suburbs. In a film called Poltergeist.