Freaky Firsts Day 6: Screamtime (1983)
Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.
Directors: Michael Armstrong, Stanley A. Long
Writer: Michael Armstrong
Cast: Vincent Russo, Michael Gordon, Marie Scinto, Robin Bailey, Ann Lynn, Jonathon Morris, Dione Inman, John Styles, Bosco Hogan, Ian Saynor, Yvonne Nicholson, Veronica Doran, David Van Day, Dora Bryan, Jean Anderson, Gary Linley, Matthew Peters
Plot: Ed and Bruce (Vincent Russo and Michael Gordon) are in for a fun night of shoplifting VHS tapes and invading his “friend” Marie (Marie Scinto)’s apartment to watch them. This loose framing sequence brings us into a trilogy of horror shorts.
In the first film, “That’s The Way We Do It,” a penniless puppeteer named Jack (Robin Bailey) is told by his wife Lena (Ann Lynn) she’s taking her son Damien (Jonathon Morris) and moving to Canada. Damien, Jack’s stepson, begins to torment the old man, asking to set fire to his Punch and Judy dolls before they leave and saying Jack isn’t the man his father was. Damien attacks Jack during a show and sets fire to his puppet stage. His Punch puppet survives the blaze, seemingly comes to life, and delivers a savage beating to Damien. When her son doesn’t come home that night, a frustrated Lena finally gives Jack an ultimatum: her or the puppets. Naturally, that night, Punch takes care of her, too. Jack calls a doctor to tend to her, and confesses that he’s afraid of the puppet, who is now acting out his brutal puppet shows for real, and soon, the Doctor dies. The next day, Damien’s girlfriend (Dione Inman) comes to investigate, only to find Jack gone mad, acting out the Punch role. He chases her, falling into a garbage truck, and is crushed.
“Dreamhouse” is next. Newlyweds Tony and Susan (Ian Saynor and Yvonne Nicholson) move into a new house, where Susan begins seeing a boy circling their yard on a bicycle. The house, meanwhile, is a mess – electrical problems and a strange red substance that comes out in the water. Whenever she tries to confront the boy, he vanishes, and blood appears on a kitchen knife she was using to cut vegetables. Instead of running away like a sane person, Susan just keeps waking up Tony in the middle of the night to investigate the strange noises she’s hearing on top of everything else. As he’s gone, she sees a man with a knife prancing through the halls (literally prancing – he dashes past her bedroom door like a ballerina). She sees blood everywhere, a corpse in her bed, a bloody child on the bannister and – most horrific of all – a house painter. She finally calls a medium, Miss Burns (Veronica Doran) to investigate the house, but even she thinks Susan is nuts. Left alone in the house, Susan’s visions converse, and she’s forced to watch one of her ghosts as it slays some of the others. Tony is forced to commit his wife and sell the house. As he comes by to get something he left, he sees the new family, including a boy on a bicycle, a teenager painting a room… and he’s slain by a the killer in the back of his car.
Finally, there’s “Do You Believe in Fairies?” Gavin (David Van Day) is a motorcycle rider desperate for money. He winds up taking a handyman job for a pair of old women named Emma and Mildred (Dora Bryan and Jean Anderson), whose yard is awash in ceramic gnomes. As they interview him for the job, they ask an interesting question – if he believes in fairies. When he notices the large wad of cash Emma pulls his pay from, Gavin plans to rob the women. With his friend Frank (Gary Lindey) and his brother Tim (Matthew Peters), he sneaks into the house. Then the gnomes appear – dozens of the ceramic figures, all inside and giggling at them. When one of them, now full-sized, jumps on Tim’s back… well…, the tension isn’t exactly broken. In the yard, figures wrapped in white crawl from the ground to attack Frank (I don’t know what the hell those are supposed to be, Mummies maybe), while Gavin is faced with the horror of a beautiful girl in period costume who apparently can throw knickknacks with her mind. She winds up stripping his shirt off and making out with him, because why not?, before using her powers to stab him with lots of pointy things. Later, we see the old women hiring a new gardener, where they add the interesting tidbit that the girl who kissed Gavin is their ancestor, and she made a contract with the fairies that they could have the souls of her lovers as slaves.
As the framing sequence ends, a hand pops out of the TV and kills Ed, while Bruce is beaten to death by the Punch puppet. What the hell.
Thoughts: It’s sad that there isn’t really that much to say about what is, essentially, four movies. Michael Armstrong took three of his own unrelated short films and created a fourth to act as a way to piece them together. Unfortunately, none of them is particularly interesting, memorable, or well-made.
The first short, with the puppeteer, feels really by-the-book – you’ve got your poor, put-upon protagonist who is saddled with a miserable family and has to deal with their cruelty and indifference towards his own life. And what’s more, considering that Damian is an older teenager, one has to wonder at what stage of life Jack and Lena even got married. If the whole Punch and Judy thing was so reprehensible for her, why did she marry this guy in the first place? It doesn’t make sense from any sort of character standpoint.
Perhaps the best selling point of this short is the reveal that it’s Jack himself who is murdering people, and not the puppet. Although Anderson is anything but a competent director (more on that later), he does a fairly effective job of angling the camera so as to make it appear that Punch is supposed to be moving on his own. When the girlfriend sees that Jack has been manipulating the puppet all along, you remember suddenly that all of the shots concealed where Jack’s puppeteer would be, in the best Muppet fashion. You’re simply so ready for the movie to be a crappy supernatural horror film that it’s actually sort of refreshing that it turns out to be a crappy slasher film instead.
Then there’s “Dreamtime,” a short with a reveal that really forces you to scratch your head. Again, it’s a twist – instead of visions of the house’s horrific past, Susan was having visions of its horrific future. It’s an interesting idea that helps keep this from being just a standard haunted house story. That said, many of Anderson’s directing choices are so poor that it totally negates any chance for the short to build real momentum. The pacing is intolerably sluggish, and there are plenty of slow, interstitial shots that really add nothing to the story, the mood, the characters… anything. Plus, I know it was the early 80s, but Susan’s glasses… man. Lenses that would overwhelm the most doe-eyed Anime girl set in chintzy plastic frames that belong not in a classy British suburb, but in any of America’s finest trailer parks.
“Do You Believe in Fairies?” is set up like a morality tale – Gavin and his crew are pretty reprehensible, and you’re ready for just about any nasty thing to happen to them. But any hope you have of some sort of satisfying karmic retribution evaporates when Tim is attacked by the gnome. A diminutive actor in the stupidest, most stereotypical costume you could possibly imagine is not the way to jolt your audience into compliance with the acceptable social norms of your civilization. Frankly, the whole thing could have boiled down to our three crooks versus the Lollipop Guild from The Wizard of Oz and it would have been just as – if not more – frightening.
As if Anderson hadn’t worked hard enough to convince us he didn’t belong in a director’s chair, the short ends with Emma asking the new gardener, “Do you believe in fairies?” and then looking directly at the camera. All it was missing to achieve maximum cheesiness was a literal wink at the screen. It didn’t help that, cutting back to the framing sequence, Ed answers her before he’s strangled by a disembodied hand that has nothing to do with anything.
The framing sequence, the piss-poor attempt to tie all of this together into something cohesive, is perhaps the biggest mess of all. Starting with a shower scene that pretty much defines the word “gratuitous,” we then see Maria seduce Bruce for no apparent reason, then everyone dies for even less of a reason.
Is this film hopeless? I honestly don’t know. I watched this one alone, while Erin was at work, so it’s possible that I lost out on part of the experience of communally enjoying a crappy movie. The film does have some of the elements that make a really good bad movie too, including bad acting and terrible costumes. The problem is, I don’t know if it has enough of any of those things to make it worth watching. And frankly, having seen it once already, I don’t really feel compelled to test the theory. I won’t be revisiting this one, but if you choose to do so, I recommend getting some friends together before you start, and let me know if it’s more fun to watch it with them than I had watching this stinker by myself.
The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!
Freaky Firsts Day 3: The Frighteners (1996)
Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.
Director: Peter Jackson
Writer: Peter Jackson & Frank Walsh
Cast: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Jake Busey, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, Troy Evans, Julianna McCarthy, R. Lee Ermey, Elizabeth Hawthorne, Danny Elfman
Plot: Paranormal investigator Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) has a good racket going. His ghostly assistants Stuart (Jim Fyfe), Cyrus (Chi McBride) and the Judge (John Astin) “haunt” a house, and he goes in to “exterminate” them for a healthy fee. After the mysterious death of a recent client, Ray, (Peter Dobson), Frank learns of a rash of sudden deaths that appear to be heart attacks, but whose victims were in perfect health. Ray’s wife, Lucy (Trini Alvarado) turns to Frank for comfort, made a bit awkward by the fact that Ray’s ghost is right there. Frank witnesses a shrouded figure (a “Grim Reaper,” according to the Judge) murdering a man, whose spirit takes the light-filled corridor to the afterlife – a choice Ray and Frank’s ghosts failed to make when given the opportunity.
FBI agent Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs) is brought in to investigate Frank, now a suspect in the strange deaths. Dammers has suspected Frank for some time, ever since the mysterious death of Frank’s wife. She was found with the number 13 carved into her forehead – something that resonates with Frank, who saw 37 and 38 on the two most recent victims. When 39 is killed in the museum, Frank rushes in to investigate, and the Reaper cuts the Judge’s spirit in two. Frank tries to protect #40 – newspaper editor Magda (Elizabeth Hawthorne), but the Reaper gets her as well, and Frank is arrested.
Lucy’s investigation of the situation leads her to Patricia Bradley (Dee Wallace), who as a teenager was accused of being an accomplice of executed serial killer Johnny Charles Bartlett (Jake Busey). When she visits Frank in jail, “41” appears on Lucy’s forehead. Frank and the ghosts narrowly save her from the Reaper, but Stuart and Cyrus are “killed” as they escape. Frank believes he can stop the Reaper by killing himself, but Lucy instead places him in a hypothermic coma, freeing his spirit to roam. Dammers, meanwhile, abducts Lucy and takes her to a cemetery. Frank saves her from the Reaper, who turns out to be the ghost of Johnny Bartlett. He’s been collaborating with Patricia, trying to top the high scores of history’s worst serial killers.
Frank awakens and, with Lucy, finds Barlett’s ashes, hoping to use them in the hospital where he committed his murders to condemn his soul to Hell. Dammers is in the hospital too, still obsessed with Frank, and Patricia is running through the halls with a shotgun. She kills Dammers and chokes Frank to death. As the corridor to the afterlife appears, Frank rips Patricia’s soul from her body, and Bartlett chases the two of them. He and Patricia are taken to Hell as Cyrus and Stuart reappear to reunite Frank with his wife. It’s a brief reunion, though, as his friends tell him it’s not his time yet, and send him back to Earth and Lucy… who now can see the ghosts too.
Thoughts: Early in his career, Peter Jackson made gooey gorefests like Dead Alive. Today he’s known for the visual effects and epic scale of Lord of the Rings. This film, made in-between those two eras, actually serves very nicely as a bridge between them. The sensibility of the movie feels similar to his early work: funny, while still carrying a sense of the macabre, like Ghostbusters with a more cynical edge. However, here he’s beginning to step aside from the practical effects of his earlier films towards the more high-tech visuals of today. This was 1996, of course, before it was virtually a requirement that every element of a film be soaked in CGI, back when actors had to literally appear on a set together, and Jackson at this early stage actually strikes a very nice balance between the two.
The plot isn’t particularly original – the serial killer coming back as an agent of death has been done before, and since, and better, and worse. And in fact, I think the stuff with the numbers is even a bit of a cheat. If Bartlett cared numbers into victims’ foreheads when he was alive, it seems to me that people would remember that little tidbit. Frank clearly knows who Barlett is the moment he sees his face, but he didn’t know enough about his killings to know about the numbers? I call foul on that one.
That said, the execution of the story is good. Michael J. Fox isn’t quite the slick wisecracker he is in a lot of his performances. He’s wounded and somewhat cold, still struggling with his wife’s death and trying to keep Lucy at a distance despite his attraction to her. His snark is mostly kept to a minimum, and even though he’s technically a con man, he doesn’t put forth the air of a snake oil salesman one would usually associate with that kind of a role. It’s always fun to see John Astin, but it’s kind of a shame that – of the three main ghosts – he was almost completely hidden under makeup. Without his distinctive voice, it’s unlikely that anyone would have recognized him.
The final confrontation, more than any other part of the movie, really shows the filmmaker Peter Jackson was going to become. The fight in the Bradley house, with Barlett leaping through walls and paintings, has a lot of real style to it. It’s CGI, yes, and you know it’s CGI, but it’s not such blatant CGI that it rips you out of the movie, like a lot of movies come across today. Once the action moves to the hospital, the tension is ratcheted up less by the ghosts and more by the two still-living antagonists, who seem in some ways to be even more dangerous. Maybe it’s because he’s a ghost or maybe it’s because he’s Jake Busey, but somehow Barlett’s deranged behavior isn’t nearly as disturbing as that of Dammers or Patricia.
On the sliding scale of horror and comedy, this film definitely leans more heavily on the horror side than Ghostbusters, and even more than Jackson’s own Dead Alive (although it is considerably less grotesque than the earlier movie). The ghosts feel like they came from a less wacky version of Beetlejuice. Combs, meanwhile, is impossible to separate from his character in the Re-Animator series, hamming it up similarly while playing a very different role in this film than those others.
This is a movie that’s been on my “to-watch” list for a very long time, a product of my appreciation for Peter Jackson and my love for Michael J. Fox. This month, I suspect, is going to be great for scratching movies like that off my list. It didn’t disappoint me at all.
The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!
Freaky Firsts Day 1: House (1986)
Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.
Director: Steve Miner
Writers: Fred Dekker & Ethan Wiley
Cast: William Katt, George Wendt, Richard Moll, Kay Lenz, Mary Stavin, Michael Ensign, Erik Silver, Mark Silver, Susan French, Curt Wilmot
Plot: Things have been better for writer Roger Cobb (William Katt). His marriage has fallen apart, he’s stuck working on a book about the Vietnam War nobody seems interested in reading, and the elderly aunt who raised him was found dangling from the ceiling in her big, lofty home, victim of an apparent suicide. Cobb returns to the house, where he has flashes to his son’s disappearance in the mansion’s pool some time earlier, the incident that led to his estrangement from his wife Sandy (Kay Lenz) and which Aunt Elizabeth (Susan French) chalked up to her house being haunted. Now alone, Cobb decides to stay in the house that has already destroyed his family to work on his book. As he wanders the house alone, he sees a vision of Elizabeth stringing herself up, warning him to leave before she leaps to her death.
The next day he meets his new neighbor, Harold Gorton (George Wendt, who surprisingly doesn’t offer to buy him a beer). The visions in the house persist until he’s assaulted by a bizarre creature in the closet – an ugly mass that looks like a melted wax figure with claws. Instead of running in terror like a sane person, he sets up video cameras and tries to make the creature reappear, embarrassing himself in front of the neighbor. Harold, thinking Roger is having war flashbacks, contacts Sandy to warn her. Things in the house begin coming to life – a huge mounted marlin, assorted garden implements, and so forth – and Roger arms himself. Sandy arrives just then to check on him, but he sees her as a monster and shoots her. When he realizes what he’s done, he hides her body, unaware that Harold heard the shots and called the police. He nervously dismisses them, feeding them a line about his gun going off while he was cleaning it. Once they’re gone, though, he finds Sandy’s body missing.
The Sandy-monster attacks again, taunting Roger about his missing son, but he manages to use the levitating garden tools to behead it, and… yeah, I know that sounds utterly ridiculous, but that’s what he does, and then disposes of the monster’s body in the backyard in a montage set to Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good.” The body parts keep coming back, though, even clinging to the child of his neighbor when he’s somehow tricked into babysitting. (The boy is nearly taken away by a pair of demonic creatures, but that’s really incidental to the plot.)
Telling him there’s a raccoon in his attic, Roger recruits Harold to help him confront the Thing in the Closet. Harold loses his grip, though, and the monster drags Roger through a portal into his own nightmares, the day in Vietnam when his buddy Big Ben (Richard Moll) was mortally wounded. He finds Ben, who begs Roger to kill him, but Roger can’t do it and flees back through the portal, where several hours have passed and Roger has gotten drunk, which never seemed to happen to him in 11 seasons of sitting in a bar every night. Finding a clue in one of his aunt’s paintings, Roger explores the house and finds his missing son, only to face a horrifying, skeletal vision of Big Ben. Ben’s ghost, it seems, has been behind Roger’s troubles, seeking revenge on his friend for leaving him alive and subject to the tortures of the Viet Cong before dying a brutal death weeks later. The two engage in a chase throughout the house, Roger finally triumphing and blowing up Ben with a ghost-grenade… just as the real Sandy arrives for a happy reunion.
Thoughts: Considering my love of 80s television, I’m really quite astonished that I’ve lasted this long on the planet without ever having seen a movie that starts the nigh-holy trinity of William Katt, George Wendt, and Richard Moll. That said, I’ve known of the existence of House (another Sean S. Cunningham joint) for as long as I remember watching movies. It was one of those horror movie staples on the shelves of the video store, the shelves I would browse even though I knew there was no way my parents would allow me to rent one of these movies and, instead, I’d walk out with Mac and Me or something else that I would be forced to shamefully admit on a blog almost 30 years later. On the first night of my “Freaky Firsts” experiment, when I told my wife I’d never seen it, she dove right in.
William Katt is one of those actors that’s almost impossible to divorce from his more famous roles – in this case, that of a teacher with an alien super-suit on the TV show The Greatest American Hero. Even keeping that in mind, he seems an odd choice to be playing a Vietnam vet in 1986. Admittedly, he was 35 years old at the time, old enough to have taken part in the war, but he has such a youthful appearance that I had to look up his birthday to convince myself he wasn’t pulling a Reverse Dawson.
This film is on the horror/comedy line, something I obviously enjoy. While balancing the creepy story, we get moments of pure slapstick, like Katt’s bumbling lawyer (Michael Ensign) almost shooting him with a harpoon gun and returning a sheepish “oops, did I do that?” look that would make Bugs Bunny proud. George Wendt, a man I will idolize until my dying day for his role on Cheers, brings his good-natured bumbling to the table the minute he appears on the screen, first badmouthing the previous owner of Katt’s house, then backtracking and trying to babble his way out when he learns she was Katt’s aunt. He spends most of the movie this way – trying earnestly to be a good neighbor, but at the same time fouling things up for Katt’s character in pretty much every way imaginable. Richard Moll, best known as the gentle giant Bull from Night Court, hams it up considerably as Big Ben, pulling a performance that’s equal parts manic and goofy.
The sillier aspects of the movie, in fact, go on much longer than I really expected. When Roger first walks away from the Thing in the Closet and the screen cuts to (presumably) the next day, when a truck full of camera equipment arrives, I looked at Erin and said, “Because you wouldn’t just get the hell out?” Before she could blame it on the 1980s, though, we’d already reached the point where Katt was bouncing through the house, into the yard, and shamefully trying to convince George Wendt he wasn’t crazy. And really, living as we do in a post-Big Mouth Billy Bass world, the mounted marlin flailing on the wall doesn’t really send shivers up my spine.
In some ways, the movie tries to do too much. The missing son subplot is sandwiched with the Vietnam flashbacks subplot, and together they sort of weigh down on Katt to the point where he comes across as a sad sack. One or the other tragedy probably would have been enough, and compounding them slightly disrupts that balance between horror and comedy. It’s not enough of an imbalance to ruin the film, but especially towards the end, you can start to feel the pressure of everything coming together, and not in an altogether satisfying way. The reveal of Ben as the big bad is a little disheartening as well, although part of that may simply be because… c’mon, it’s Richard Moll, and no matter how many tough guys he’s played, what child of the 80s doesn’t love that big lummox? More so, though, it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. Why target Roger instead of the people who actually killed him? And Aunt Elizabeth clearly thought her house was haunted for a long time – when exactly did he start targeting her? And why her instead of Roger? Sure, this was pure 80s diversion horror at its finest, but to see it fall apart so quickly under just a little scrutiny is somewhat disappointing.
On the other hand, it’s nice to see a movie old enough that a lot of the things we take for granted aren’t yet tropes. There’s a moment, for example, where Roger is fumbling with a bottle of medicine at the bathroom sink, and I was 100 percent convinced there’d be a ghost or a skeleton or some sort of creature in the mirror when he stood up. Not only wasn’t there one, but with my expectations averted, I was totally unprepared seconds later when Sandy arrived and turned into a monster.
This is really indicative of the kind of horror movies we had in the 80s – at least, the ones that hadn’t tuned into the slasher subgenre. Movies like this, like Gremlins, like Critters… even, to a degree, like Poltergeist, all drew on on-school horror elements, but mixed in comedic moments much more freely than filmmakers are usually willing to do today. Modern films, at least mainstream ones, are terrified to legitimately blend comedy elements with terror – we’ve got torture porn and PG-13 demons on the one hand, and on the other pure parody like the Scary Movie franchise. I not only liked this movie, I admire it for recognizing that horror and comedy can co-exist in a way that post-millennium movies refuse to do.
House is neither a horror legend nor a comedy classic, but it has enough traces of each that I sincerely enjoyed watching it. The Halloween season is off to a great start.
The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!
Gut Reaction: Paranorman (2012)
Directors: Chris Butler & Sam Fell
Writer: Chris Butler
Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Bernard Hill, Tempest Bledsoe, Alex Borstein, John Goodman, Hannah Noyes, Jodelle Ferland
Plot: Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) was born with a terrible gift – the ability to see and communicate with ghosts. The problem is, nobody believes him, except for his mysterious Uncle Prendergast (John Goodman), who has the same power. Prendergast warns Norman that a witch’s curse is about to overwhelm his small town unless he can stop it… but the spirits of the undead may not even be the worst danger – first Norman has to navigate a sea of school bullies, unbelieving townspeople, and parents who think something is wrong with him.
As always, this Reel to Reel is not simply a review, but a study of the themes and tropes of the movie. So fair warning: SPOILERS LIE AHEAD.
Thoughts: Last fall we got hit by not one, but three stop-motion films that seemed to be grasping for the young Halloween-lover’s moviegoing dollars: this, Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie. I wanted to see all three, so naturally, circumstances conspired to keep me from seeing any of them. Now that they’re rolling out on DVD, I’m making up for lost time.
From the basic description, it’s impossible not to see Paranorman as taking some of its lead from The Sixth Sense – both films are about young boys with the ability to talk to the dead and the earlier film is far too large a cultural milestone to imagine writer Chris Butler could have been unaware of it. It’s even less likely when you realize just how culturally aware this movie is – it’s full of tiny little jokes, tidbits and Easter Eggs that link us to the great horror movies of the past — gags about zombie movies, Norman’s friend Neil showing up in a hockey mask, and Norman’s phone having John Carpenter’s Halloween theme as his ringtone being some of the most prominent examples.
That said, this isn’t a problem for the movie at all. In fact, you could almost look at Paranorman as a sort of thematic sequel to M. Night Shyamalan’s breakthrough film. At the end of that movie, Haley Joel Osment’s Cole Sear character had started to make peace with his ability to talk to the dead and was attempting to use his ability to help spirits in need. Norman Babcock is at that point when this movie begins, but an unbelieving family and the fact that the town is aware of – but doesn’t believe in – his power helps make him a real outcast, perfectly positioning him to be the hero when the zombies hit the fan.
Chris Butler and Sam Fell are clearly drawing from the Tim Burton/Henry Sellick school of filmmaking. Although parents frequently forget, a lot of kids love the creepy and the macabre. It’s why Roald Dahl is still popular, why the Universal Monsters will never die, and why The Nightmare Before Christmas is still the most popular thing Tim Burton’s name has ever been associated with. Kids, however, don’t really want to be legitimately scared the way adults sometimes do. Kids want the trappings of horror around them, because it makes them feel older, like they can take it. Plus, that line between terror and laughter is really very slim. (I may have mentioned it before.)
The interesting thing about Paranorman is that it treads the line between an all-ages movie and an adult film very carefully, but not only in terms of the horror content. When Mitch (Casey Affleck) drop-kicks a zombie’s head, that’s a little gross… but part of my brain was still processing the moment a few minutes before when he was joking about his little brother Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) freeze-framing their mother’s aerobics DVDs, with a screenshot that leaves no room for interpretation as to what he’s looking for.
Like the horror, the comedy in this movie draws heavily from classic sources. Zombie hands chasing after people feel like they could have been dragged out of a Three Stooges short or an episode of The Addams Family. The mob violence calls to mind Frankenstein in the campier moments of the franchise, and the script even drops in a shout-out to Scooby-Doo. The action, on the other hand, evokes some of the great kids’ adventures movies of the 80s. We used to get movies like Explorers, like Monster Squad, like the greatest kids’ adventure of all time, Goonies, in which the young have to come together to fight the bad guy or save the day. I grew up in this mythical fairyland – it was called the 80s. Halfway through the movie, Paranorman takes a turn in this direction, when Norman and Neil are joined by their older siblings and the school bully, none of whom can afford to remain skeptical anymore, what with the actual hordes of the undead coming after them.
The way those characters come together, though, is pretty realistic. Norman’s sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) turns against him, even after they’ve all fought the monsters and know for a fact he isn’t just crazy. Alvin the Bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is still a jerk. Neil’s brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) is still a bonehead. In a lot of movies, these lesser antagonistic characters turn on a dime and join the heroes in the face of a greater threat (such as in the legendary Shakespearean drama Ernest Goes to Camp.) Things don’t go nearly so well for Norman, who really has only one stalwart in his corner, and when the story begins, it’s Norman who tries to reject Neil. The characters do come around eventually, of course, because that’s the sort of story this is, but it doesn’t come easily. They need real convincing, an idea that becomes more important at the climax when Norman confronts the witch and tries to talk her down from the monster she’s become to the little girl she once was.
The big moment for the film, the one where we really start to understand we’re in a complex world where nothing is black and white, is when Norman gets a pensieve-style glimpse into the sentencing of the witch Agatha Prendergast (Jodelle Ferland), who started all this in the first place when she cursed the people who condemned her. At this point, after an hour of running from the monsters, everything becomes clear. Agatha was a child when she was condemned – we’re not seeing a spell cast by a bloodthirsty witch, we’re seeing a tantrum being thrown by a scared, powerful child. Then the next domino falls – the zombies beg Norman to complete the ritual to put Agatha asleep again for another year… they aren’t out for blood, they just want the curse to end.
In truth, it takes a bullied, misunderstood child to comprehend what a bullied misunderstood child actually needs, and that’s as true in this movie as it is in real life.
Although rated PG, I would be hesitant to show this movie to some kids. The mass numbers of double entendre aside, a lot of the monsters and violence – although played for laughs – are perhaps a little too realistic for the littlest of them. If you’ve got a kid under 10, I’d recommend watching the movie yourself first to decide if you think your kid can handle it. If you’re older, though – if you’re from that demographic that loves Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice, The Munsters, this really is an excellent movie.
Don’t forget the first Reel to Reel movie 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!
Lunatics and Laughter Day 8: Beetlejuice (1988)
Writers: Michael McDowell, Larry Wilson & Warren Skaaren
Cast: Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton, Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones, Glenn Shadix, Sylvia Sidney, Robert Goulet, Annie McEnroe
Plot: Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) decide to a vacation at home, decorating their quaint New England house. On their way home from a shopping trip, Barbara swerves to avoid a dog and the two plunge off a bridge. Returning home, they are startled to find they don’t feel fire, they have no memory of how they got back from the bridge, and attempting to leave the house teleports them to a bizarre, horrific landscape full of enormous sandworms. They have no reflection, and a book is waiting for them: Handbook For the Recently Deceased. Adam and Barbara are dead.
Some time later a new family moves into their house: Charles Deetz (Jeffrey Jones), his wife Delia (Catherine O’Hara), and his cynical daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder). Delia, a pretentious would-be artist, begins to gut Adam and Barbara’s charming home, transforming it into a wild, gaudy funhouse with the help of interior designer Otho (Glen Shadix). Adam and Barbara try haunting the Deetzes to drive them from the house, but find the living cannot see them at all. Adam locks the attic, protecting his prized model train set from Delia and Otho. He uses the Handbook to open a portal to a “waiting room” full of other ghosts who have died in various grotesque ways. In the waiting room, the Maitlands learn that they must spend 125 years on Earth, in their house, during which they can contact their caseworker Juno (Sylvia Sidney) for help three times. As they wait, Lydia uses a skeleton key to open the attic, where she finds the Handbook. When the Maitlands finally meet with Juno, they find they’ve been waiting for three months and their home has been completely transformed. Juno tells them to study the Handbook for tips on how to haunt the Deetzes, but warns them not to turn to Betelgeuse, her former assistant, for help. She warns them not even to say his name, as saying it three times will summon him.
The Maitlands try again to haunt the Deetzes, but instead wind up revealing themselves to Lydia, who can see them. When they fail to scare her and she warns them that her parents aren’t likely to leave, they give in and summon Betelgeuse, or “Beetlejuice”. A quick interview disturbs Barbara, and she refuses his help. Their next attempt forces the Deetzes and their dinner guests to perform an impromptu dance to “Day-O,” but rather than scaring them off, they love it and try to convince the Maitlands to come out for another performance. With nowhere else to turn, they again summon Betelgeuse who turns up the haunting in earnest – transforming into a giant snake and attacking. Barbara prevents him from hurting Charles, but Beetlejuice has taken a liking to Lydia.
The Maitlands are tasked with driving out the Deetzes – without Betelgeuse – before it goes too far, but Barbara is upset, not wanting to frighten Lydia. They go to her just before Betelgeuse tricks her into freeing him and tell her they want her family to stay, but Charles arrives with his boss, Maxie Dean (Robert Goulet). Charles wants to turn the house into a tourist attraction, and Maxie is still skeptical about the existence of the ghosts. Otho summons the Maitlands via a séance, in view of everyone, but they immediately begin to age and decay. Lydia turns to Betelgeuse to save them, but he’ll only do it if she agrees to marry him. She agrees, and he unleashes his madness on the living. He drives out Maxie and Otho, then summons a ghoul to perform the ceremony and marry him to Lydia. The Maitlands try to save her, but he banishes Adam to his train set and Barbara to the sandworm-plane beyond the house. Adam distracts him while Barbara steers a sandworm back into the house, devouring Betelgeuse whole. In the end, the Maitlands and Deetzes find peace with one another, living together in harmony, while Betelgeuse is sent to face the ultimate punishment for his crimes… he’s sent to the waiting room.
Thoughts: Tim Burton has had an interesting career, starting with shorts and cartoons that blended a twisted sense of humor with a macabre sense of story. Over the years he’s tapped into blockbuster franchises like Batman, ruined blockbuster franchises like Planet of the Apes, and tackled everything from Pee Wee Herman to Roald Dahl. To my way of thinking, his best work is done when he gets to create a whole world with his unique, bizarre perspective, and he’s never better than when it’s a world he conjures from whole cloth rather than an existing property. This is the first time he did it really well, before A Nightmare Before Christmas marked him as a master of this quirky, “safe” kind of horror/comedy mashup. This movie also allows him to practice his beloved stop-motion animation, a style he’d use much more in the aforementioned Nightmare (with director Henry Sellick) and, on his own, in The Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie. In anybody but an artist, you’d start to get worried if they focused on this sort of macabre style. Fortunately, for storytellers, sharing the bizarre is nice therapy.
This movie, more so than most others, treads the line between Type A and Type B very neatly. Although the plot isn’t “pure” horror, the way we saw with Ghostbusters, the gags are a little too gory and bizarre to classify it as a straight comedy either. An early scene with the ghosts attempting to haunt the Deetz family gives us a hanged woman, a missing face, bulging eyeballs and a decapitation – not exactly kid stuff. In the waiting room we see people who’ve been cut in half, a flattened man who was run over by a car, and plenty of other people whose violent deaths have marred them indelibly in death. We even get a nasty realization from the receptionist with her slashed wrists – suicides, in the afterlife, are sentenced to be civil servants. In many ways, this is big a departure from our other movies with dark situations and light comedy. The actual jokes in this story are far darker than in most of the films we’ve discussed so far. This is as true a Black Comedy as we have yet encountered.
The good news is, for all its darkness, the movie really is very funny. This was Michael Keaton at his peak, playing the sort of wild character he was known for at the time. (The irony is that finally escaping the stereotype, thanks to teaming with Burton on 1989’s Batman, somewhat crippled his career since then.) Oddly enough he isn’t even the main character here – like Julius Caesar, he plays a supporting role in his own eponymous story, and doesn’t even join the plot in earnest until 45 minutes into the film. But once he appears, the energy he brings to the film is undeniable. His “qualification” speech was, for some time, the stuff of quotable film gold, and his wild impressions and boundary issues seem natural and unforced.
Winona Ryder, meanwhile, did a lot of this sort of dark comedy earlier in her career (Heathers came out the same year), and attaching herself to the always-entertaining Catherine O’Hara was a great move. The two of them clash a lot in this film, with O’Hara’s Delia desperate to transform the Maitland house and Lydia desperate to save her friends. The regular stepmother/stepdaughter antagonism comes through here as well, as the two of them clearly clash on all points, putting Jeffrey Jones in the middle of the daughter he’s raised and the wife he’s a bit intimidated by. The women are nice foils for one another, with O’Hara’s considerable skills on display and Ryder developing her own talents next to her.
From a technical standpoint, the movie is incredibly impressive. The stop motion animation is good in and of itself, but the makeup, prosthetics, and animatronics that make up the ghosts and other creatures in and from the world of the dead are absolutely amazing. Burton has a bizarre, wild imagination that is so perfectly suited to this kind of story one almost wonders why he ever bothers to do anything else. The world he shapes for us is part carnival funhouse and part Halloween haunted house, with a bit of Looney Tunes cartoons mixed in for good measure. (Once Beetlejuice shows up full-force, he even starts throwing in cartoon sound effects.) The resulting world is horribly familiar, despite its complete alien nature. The finale, when a fully-powered Beetlejuice is allowed to run wild, is one of the most visually creative things I’ve ever seen in a horror/comedy, a perfect blend of grotesque imagery with pure, electric mania.
It was years since I watched this movie until I screened it for this project. In fact, I’d forgotten how much I liked it. I was 11 years old when it was released and, like many of the films of the 80s, it turned into a hot topic of discussion on the schoolyard for months after afterwards, then again when it hit home video. Kids in my class were just at that right age, understanding we were watching something somewhat subversive without taking us so far over the edge that we would wind up scarred for life. I’m really glad to see that this film, unlike so many of the others that we loved back then, really holds up all these years later. Although there’s always talk of a sequel (and for a while there was an actual, horrifying treatment for Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian floating around Hollywood), for the most part this movie has drifted out of public consciousness. It’s a shame – it’s a lot of wild, crazy fun, and just perfect for Halloween viewing.
Lunatics and Laughter Day 6: Ghostbusters (1984)
Writers: Dan Aykroyd & Harold Ramis
Cast: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, Annie Potts, William Atherton, David Margulies, Slavitza Jovan
Plot: A librarian in the New York is terrified by an apparition that levitates books and spits cards into the air. A team of university parapsychologists are called in to investigate the phenomenon: Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Dr. Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis). They find a fully-materialized ghost in the stacks, and when it attacks, they flee. Returning to the university, they find that they’ve being evicted for sloppy and inconsistent results, not to mention Venkman’s immature behavior. But Venkman has an idea: Ray and Egon are on the verge of developing a system to capture a ghost. Venkman convinces Ray to mortgage his family home to fund their new operation: the Ghostbusters.
The team buys an abandoned firehouse and sets up shop, but are initially low on clients. They finally get a break when contacted by a violinist named Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver). When Dana opens her refrigerator, she sees a bizarre temple with a hellhound that growls a name: “Zuul.” Although she is skeptical of the Ghostbusters’s credentials, she doesn’t know where else to turn, and she winds up bringing Venkman to investigate her apartment. Although he finds no evidence of ghosts, he makes a pass at Dana and vows to solve her problem.
They finally get a paying job when a swank hotel summons them to investigate a disturbance on the 12th floor. Using Egon’s new inventions – a proton pack to use as a weapon against the creatures and a trap to contain them – the three of them locate and capture their first ghost, a little green spudball that manages to slime Venkman before they take him down. Egon does give them one bit of safety advice while working: don’t cross the streams from your proton pack, as “it would be bad.”
Suddenly, the New York area is awash with reports of spectral activity and the Ghostbusters are swamped with work, rushing from one bust to another and becoming media darlings in the progress. They get so busy they hire more help, Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson). As they train him on the equipment, they get a visit from Environmental Protection Agency representative Walter Peck (William Atherton). Venkman refues to show him their storage facility, and Peck promises to come back with court order. Egon, meanwhile, is growing concerned that the amount of spectral activity in the city is growing to dangerous proportions.
Venkman goes back to Dana, telling her he’s found the name Zuul in his research: Zuul was a minion of a dark Sumerian apparition called Gozer. He convinces her to go to dinner with him so they can “discuss the case.” That night, a gargoyle on the roof of her building cracks open, revealing a living hellhound underneath. The beast attacks and pulls Dana into a glowing doorway. A second beast attacks and possesses Dana’s neighbor, the nebbishy Louis Tully (Rick Moranis). When Venkman arrives to pick Dana up, she is clearly possessed, asking him if he “the Keymaster.” She introduces herself as “Zuul, the Gatekeeper,” preparing for the coming of “Gozer the Destructor.” Louis, now calling himself Vinz Clortho, the Keymaster, bumbles through the city seeking the Gatekeeper. The police pick him up and bring him to the Ghostbusters’s firehouse, where Egon examines him.
The next morning Peck returns with the police, an electrical worker, and a court order giving him access to the basement. Although Egon and Venkman implore the electrical worker to leave their machines alone, Peck forces him to turn the containment facility off. The machines blow up, spilling all of the captured ghosts back out into the city, and Louis escapes in the chaos. Peck has the Ghostbusters arrested and brought to jail. While in their cell, Ray reveals that he’s been studying the blueprints of Dana and Louis’s apartment building and believes it was designed to act as an antenna of sorts, drawing ghosts to that spot. It was designed by a Gozer-worshipper who wanted to use it to cause the end of the world. The Keymaster returns to the apartment building, where he and the Gatekeeper ascend to the roof.
The Mayor (David Margulies) has the Ghostbusters brought to his office, where Peck accuses them of using hallucinogens and light shows to take advantage of people. Venkman convinces the mayor to let them out, giving them a police escort and national guard backup all the way to the apartment building, where the roof has transformed into Gozer’s temple. As the Ghostbusters reach the roof an enormous doorway opens, spilling light into the city and transforming Dana and Louis back into the Hellhounds. Gozer appears in the form of a woman (Slavitza Jovan). Ray tries to make contact, but when he makes the mistake of telling her they aren’t gods, she blasts them, nearly hurling them from the roof. (This results in one of the greatest lines, not only in movie history, but in western civilization. Don’t even pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.)
The Ghosbusters go on the offensive, but Gozer easily evades them and vanishes. Her disembodied voice tells them to choose the form of their destroyer. Although Venkman warns them to empty their minds, Ray is unable to draw a blank. Gozer plucks a form from his mind and the city is suddenly attacked by the enormous form of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Egon concludes the only way to reverse the portal through which Gozer came to New York is to cross the streams of the proton packs. The plan works, Gozer’s power is eliminated, and the boys, Dana, and Louis miraculously survive. The city proclaims them to be heroes. Which is great, even when you’ve got 22 stories worth of marshmallow to clean up.
Thoughts: The eighties, by my way of thinking, produced three truly great film franchises. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg gave us Indiana Jones. Robert Zemekeis and Bob Gale gave us Back to the Future. And Ivan Reitman and the boys gave us Ghostbusters. Here we are, nearly 30 years later, and the love of this franchise remains undiminished: a sequel and a beloved cartoon series spun off, we’re still seeing video games and comic books, and despite the fact that they haven’t seen the inside of a movie theater since 1989, it’s still one of the most popular Halloween costume choices a person can make. Dressing as a Ghostbuster brings the same cache and recognizability you get if you’re the Boris Karloff Frankenstein or Bela Lugosi Dracula. If you don’t love the Ghostbusters, you are objectively wrong.
To me, this is the quintessential A-Type of horror/comedy. Every beat of the plot is straight out of a horror movie – the opening scenes where the monsters are first identified, the building tension as they grow stronger and stronger, the situation worsening due to the stupid actions of an interloper, and finally a grand climax with the fate of the world at stake. The comedy isn’t slapstick, is rarely broad, and is entirely character-based. Ghostbusters is funny because Bill Murray, Dan Aykroid and Harold Ramis are funny, funny guys.
From the Marx Brothers to the Stooges, these guys have picked up on the comedic power of three by developing a trio of unique, highly entertaining characters. Venkman is all libido, driven by lust and impulse with little regards to the future, the idof the group. Egon is the ego, driven by logic and reason to the detriment of those same baser urges (he barely realizes the way Annie Potts’s Janine throws herself at him throughout the movie). Even in Egon’s rare moments of humanity, such as when he embraces a frightened Janine, he breaks away quickly, clearly uncomfortable showing even that minor hint of feeling.
You’d think this would make Ray the superego, but he’s hardly a balance between the other two. Although his character isn’t as pronounced as it would be in the sequel or the cartoon series, Ray is a sort of wide-eyed innocent, technically very knowledgeable and every bit Egon’s equal, but with a naivety and a love of simple things (like sliding down the fireman’s pole) that serves him well. Of course, this comes back to bite them in the ass when Ray is unable to empty his mind and accidentally chooses the Stay-Puft Man as the form of the destroyer, sent to annihilate New York City. It’s a great moment, in fact, as Mr. Stay-Puft marches down the street, the huge smile on his fluffy face, as he steps on and crushes everything and everyone. Way to go, Ray.
Ray is a child’s id, Venkman an adult’s. If there is a superego in the group (and even this is stretching the metaphor) it would be the mid-film addition of Ernie Hudson’s Winston – the everyman, the audience’s viewpoint character. Winston is the blue-collar guy in the group. He’s the one you can throw back a beer with, the one who is there so Egon can explain the technical stuff, but also to cut through some of Ray and Venkman’s crap. He completes the group in a very unexpected way.
All four of the Ghostbusters serve vital functions, both in comedy and in terms of relatability. We all want to be Venkman, most of us are more like Ray or Winston, but for my money the real underrated comedy gem of the team is Harold Ramis’s Egon. He has a sort of clinical distance, a way of looking at the world as though he isn’t really a part of it, that makes the movie. I was in elementary school when this movie came out, and I remember all the kids talking about Slimer, about the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, about Gozer slithering around in her skintight suit that looked like it was made of bathtub bubbles. But if I’m ranking the great moments in this movie, I look at the bit in the hotel when Egon, waving his PKE meter, casually scans a hotel guest, then gives him a little poke in the arm and walks away, clearly disappointed that he’s just an ordinary man instead of a walking corpse. The classic Twinkie metaphor is a close second, but that’s more due to Bill Murray’s brilliant delivery: “What about the Twinkie?”
The film also passes the true test of a memorable comedy: quotability. Aside from the aforementioned Twinkie line, we get such classics as “There is no Dana, only Zuul,” and “Yes it’s true, this man has no dick.” And If not for the Ghostbusters, how would we ever know the correct response if someone asks you if you’re a god? (Hint: “Yes.”)
There were a lot of great movies made in this time period, a lot of great horror films and a lot of great comedies. But here we are, all these years later, and people are still hoping for a third film in the series. Is it the tone of the film? The cast? The way that kids and adults alike can lock on to these characters and this story and enjoy it on totally different levels? I think it’s a combination of all these things, frankly. Whatever the reason, Ghostbusters has permanently chiseled a place in my heart. It’s a fantastic comedy, it’s an awesome monster movie, and it is simply put, one of my favorite films of all time.
Lunatics and Laughter Day 1: The Ghost Breakers (1940)
Writers: Walter DeLeon, based on the play The Ghost Breaker by Paul Dickey & Charles W. Goddard
Cast: Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, Richard Carlson, Paul Lukas, Willie Best, Pedro de Cordoba, Virginia Brissac, Noble Johnson, Anthony Quinn
Plot: On a rainy evening in New York City, Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard) packs to visit her great-great grandfather’s “haunted” island off the coast of Cuba, which she has inherited . Although the Cuban representative Havez (Pedro de Cordoba) tries to dissuade her from visiting, Mary is skeptical of the claims of ghosts on what he calls “Black Island.” Elsewhere in the hotel we meet radio “ghostbreaker” Lawrence Lawrence (Bob Hope), who reveals secrets, uncovers skeletons in the closet, and blows the lid off, as he puts it later, “family ghosts.” Larry is planning to leave for fishing vacation after that evening’s broadcast with his valet, Alex (a somewhat insensitive racial stereotype, by modern standards, played by Willie Best). When Mr. Parada (Paul Lukas) arrives to transfer the castle to Mary, he offers her a princely sum of $50,000 for the land. Before she decides on the deal, she receives a mysterious phone call from a man named Ramon (Anthony Quinn) warning her not to sell. The combination of the call and the offer simply makes her more determined to visit her grandfather’s estate. Left alone, she listens to Larry’s radio broadcast where he dishes on a mob operation.
When Larry returns, there are a series of shootings in the hallways and Larry believes he kills Ramon. Mary helps him hide as the police search the building, but he winds up in her trunk and is mistakenly sent to her cruise ship. Mary and Alex locate the trunk, but are unable to free Larry before he’s loaded onto the ship. In her room, Mary receives a letter warning her that death awaits her on the island. Alex helps Larry out and shows him a newspaper report about the shooting (remember evening editions? Neither do I) where he points out that Ramon was shot by a different caliber bullet– Larry couldn’t have killed him. Larry realizes someone is trying to intimidate Mary into avoiding the castle. As they discuss the situation on the deck, someone pushes a heavy potted plant over a railing, nearly killing the couple. They flee back to her stateroom, where the strain of the evening starts to show on Mary. When Alex arrives and says they can ride back to New York on a speedboat if they hurry, he refuses to leave, determined to help Mary. Before leaving the ship, Parada warns Larry about the castle, while Mary runs into an old acquaintance, Geoff Montgomery (Richard Carlson) who is skeptical of Parada and tries to warn her from dealing with him. Larry is excited when Parada tells him about a voodoo priestess on the island, one who allegedly has the power to create mindless zombies. (“You mean like Democrats?” Larry quips.)
That evening Geoff begins to romance Mary, who asks him to accompany her to Black Island. He refuses, fearful of the zombies. Mary is shocked when she believes she sees a ghost – Ramon, the murdered man. He introduces himself as Ramon’s twin brother, Francisco Mederos, who angrily demands information about his brother’s death. Larry and Alex, meanwhile, have taken a rowboat out to Black Island, where they encounter “Mother Zombie” (Virginia Brissac) and one of her zombies (Noble Johnson). They enter the house, where they hear noises that indicate someone else is there and find a strange painting that is the perfect image of Mary – her great-great-grandmother Maria. The two split up, and Alex observes a ghostly figure emerging from a trunk. Larry chases but only finds a skeleton. At the shore, Mother Zombie watches as Mary suddenly swims onto the beach carrying a waterproof bag with a dry robe. Inside, Larry and Alex hear Mary calling for them, but believe it’s a trick. She, meanwhile, hears voices telling her to run away before it’s too late – but runs right into the clutches of the Zombie. She flees, observed by the hidden Parada, who himself is captured by an unseen figure. Larry and Alex are attacked by the Zombie, hiding in a suit of armor, but before the creature can deliver a death-blow, they see the image of Maria Sebastian walk down the stairs. As it is distracted, Larry and Alex lock it in a closet and run to Maria – really Mary wearing her great-grandmother’s clothes after her own were ripped fleeing from the zombie. Mary notices the painting of Maria is pointing towards the crypt, and she and Larry investigate. In the crypt, Larry and Mary find Parada stabbed, stuffed in one of the caskets, bleeding to death. As he dies, he directs them to the organ in the crypt. Mary solves the puzzle, using the organ to open a hidden door that leads to an old mine beneath the castle. Francisco and Geoff both appear with guns, and Geoff shoots the gun from Francisco’s hand backing the other three against the wall. Geoff reveals that he was behind the threats and the offer to buy the castle, determined to gain ownership of an enormous vein of silver beneath the island. He’s about to shoot them, but the ceiling above collapses and clobbers him. A puzzled Alex looks down and says, “Boss, did I press the wrong button?”
Thoughts: At the top of his game, Bob Hope was one of the funniest human beings ever placed on the planet. He had a sly, sharp wit that was just this side of being truly subversive, and was just as likely to deliver a merciless zinger as he was to take a shot across his own rather prodigious nose. It’s not surprising, given the immensity of his library, that we start our march through the creepy comedy catalogue with him.
From the beginning, this film demonstrates how far afield certain comedies go. If you strip the movie down to its bare plot, it’s actually pretty dramatic – a reporter Is falsely accused of murder, flees from justice, and winds up in a haunted house. It could very easily be the set-up for a more traditional horror movie. The comedy comes not from anything in the situation or setting, but from the wonderfully funny performances by Hope and Best. Horror/comedies tend fall one way or another – either a dark story with funny characters (let’s call this “Type A” for the sake of discussion) or a pure comedy that plays with the tropes of a horror for its humor(“Type B”). While both sorts of film have strong examples (and we’ll discuss films from both categories before this little experiment is over), I find that the Type A movie is typically much more satisfying. (Virtually any “spoof” movie is in the Type B category, and as so many terrible spoofs have been made since Scary Movie jumpstarted that particular subgenre in 2000, I may be a bit unfairly biased against Type B. But at least I can admit it.)
The story is creepy, and the house is covered with cobwebs and dust, straight out of the pages of Better Haunted Homes and Gardens. The moment when the armored zombie slowly raises its mace over the head of the oblivious Larry is genuinely tense, and you’re afraid for him until Alex saves the day. No matter how tough the situation gets, though, Hope’s one-liners and Best’s witty retorts keep the mood light at all times. The best sequence, when Larry and Alex explore the mansion, is full of stuff like this – a distant sneeze prompts Hope to observe “The ghost has a cold,” for instance, and when the two commit the Scary Movie Cardinal Sin of splitting up, Larry tells Alex that, if he sees a couple of fellows running, let the first one go, because “That’ll be me.” Perhaps the greatest thing is how close to the vest the film plays the notion of the supernatural. These days, anyone trying to make a movie of this nature would feel the need to have Mary plagued by odd noises and startling images in the mirror practically from the beginning. Here, there’s nothing close to a confirmation the ghosts are real until Alex sees one in the trunk, almost exactly one hour into the film’s running time. (Okay, admittedly, we see the Zombie before that, but voodoo zombies aren’t the same thing we think of today, and even in this film can just as easily be explained as someone who is heavily drugged rather than someone under any some sort of legitimate magical curse.)
As a Type A, the film allows for more of a slow burn than many movies do today get to the genuinely frightening elements. It takes almost a half hour of the film’s short 85 minute running time to even get on the ship to Cuba, and the closest thing we’ve gotten to horror at this point are the brief allusions to ghosts in Mary’s castle, which she hasn’t even left for yet. The comedy, oddly, is also light, built primarily out of Hope’s quipping and his physical acting ability – the scene where Alex helps him out of Mary’s trunk, for example, is hysterical.
In fact, a lot of the movie is packed with red herrings and somewhat questionable moments that, in retrospect, are simple plot devices with no other value but to complicate the situation. The entire subplot regarding the mobster angry at Larry and Francisco seeking justice for his brother’s murder, in the end, amount to almost nothing. You could lift those characters out of the film entirely, come up with another explanation for getting Larry and Mary together (Larry was planning on a vacation, for Heaven’s sake, it would have been far more expedient simply to have him meet Mary on the cruise ship and get involved in her case when the potted plant is pushed towards her) and you’d still have essentially the same movie. Despite that, though, the movie doesn’t feel padded, and whips forward at a nice clip to the very entertaining finale.
As a rule, I try to not let cultural differences hurt my enjoyment of a movie too much. The 1940s were simply a different time, and I don’t really feel it’s fair to judge a film from that earlier period with the same standards as a contemporary film. That said, the portrayal of Alex frequently borders on the offensive. Although Willie Best gives a solid comedic performance, it’s based on the sort of minstrel show stereotype that, today, would get a film picketed from the moment it’s released. Alex is a clever character – frequently more logical and sensible than Larry, in fact – but it can be a bit hard to accept his cadence and intonation in the 21st century. Perhaps the worst moment is when a frightened Alex hides in a dust-filled clock, emerging covered with white powder and explaining that, when he gets scared, his “Al-bee-no blood shows through.” To his credit, though, Best also gets one of the film’s flat-out funniest moments, when Alex, at the end of his rope, knocks on the door to the closet where he trapped the zombie just to make sure it’s still there, then starts patiently pacing back and forth in front of one of the few things he can control.
To use the film’s age to its benefit, there is a degree of quaintness that makes it even more charming. The ease with which Larry is placed on the boat to Cuba is funny (the idea that anyone in 2012 could make it onto a ship that easily, let alone one to Cuba, is laughable). Hope’s Larry Lawrence is his typical charming screwball, particularly when he sees how shaken up Mary is by the whole affair and turns on some music, putting on a persona and dancing with her to cheer her up. The word today would be “adorkable” – he gladly plays the buffoon, but it’s purely for her benefit. Mary later calls him chivalrous, and when the obvious attraction between the two (who have only known each other for a few murder-obsessed hours) surfaces, there’s no trouble believing it.
Although the movie isn’t without its faults, it’s still a fun excursion with Bob Hope and well worth watching if you want lighter fare in the run-up to Halloween. The creepy moments are genuinely so, and the funny moments are as full of Hope’s timeless charm as any film he ever made.
Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 33: Ringu (1998)
Writer: Hiroshi Takahasi, based on the novel by Koji Suzuki
Cast: Nanako Matsushima, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rikiya Otaka, Yoichi Numata, Hitomi Sato, Yuko Takeuchi
Plot: A pair of teenage girls (Hitomi Sato and Yuko Takeuchi) are telling scary stories to one another, about a video tape that warns its viewer they will die in seven days, followed by a creepy phone call. One of the girls claims to have viewed the video a week ago, but then laughs it off as a joke. Minutes later, as one of the girls is alone, the television turns itself on… and there’s a flash of light. The scene shifts quickly to a television news reporter, Reiko Asakowa (Nanako Matsushima) interviewing a series of teenage girls about the urban legend of the deadly video tape. Her niece Tomoko – one of the two girls in the opening scene — and three other friends recently died all on the same night, their faces warped into a horrible visage of fear. The girl who was with her, Masami, has been sent to a mental institution and is afraid of television sets. According to the police autopsy, Tomoko and the others who died did so because their hearts simply stopped. Reiko discovers that Tomoko and her friends had vacationed in a cabin the previous weekend, and finds photographs of them with their faces blurred out. She goes to the cabin and finds an unlabelled video tape. She watches the tape, filled with bizarre and unnerving imagery and ending with an image of a well. When it ends, she’s startled by a reflection in the television, and the phone rings. She answers it and says, horrified, “One week,” then takes the tape and flees.
Scared, she summons her ex-husband Ryuki (Hiroyuki Sanada) and tells him the story of what happened. She makes him take a picture of her, and her face comes out blurred, confirmation that she has been cursed like her niece and the others. Although Reiko objects, Ryuji watches the tape, but says there was no phone call. The next day, Reiko makes a copy of the tape for Ryuji to study and try to trace the origin. Together, they begin to study the tape frame-by-frame, beginning to notice oddities about it. A woman is brushing her hair in a mirror at an angle that should reveal the cameraman, and garbled sounds over an image of a man with his face covered, pointing by the water, turn out to contain a hidden message. Ryuji tracks the clues to a volcano connected to a great psychic named Shizuko Yamamura, who committed suicide when she was accused of being a fraud. Before they can investigate further, Reiko finds that their son, Yoichi (Rikia Otaka), has watched the tape.
Ryuji and Reiko check out an inn run by relatives of Yamamura, where they find the mirror from the tape. Ryuji confronts Yamamura’s relative and sees a psychic flash of her daughter, Sadako, telepahtically killing the man who accused Yamamura of faking her abilities. Ryuju deduces that the tape was made by Sadako’s vengeful spirit, and that she is the one who killed the teenagers. With one day left for Reiko, they return to the cabin where the tape was found. Below the floor, the find the well from the video, sealed up. A vision informs them that after her mother’s death, Sadako was murdered by her own father and thrown into the well. They open it up and discover Sadako’s body. When Reiko’s time passes and she lives, they believe the curse is broken. The next day, though, as Ryuji is home alone, his television turns on by itself, showing him the well. Sadako climbs out of the well, then out of the television, and Ryuji dies of a heart attack, just like the others. Reiko realizes that finding Sadako’s body isn’t what saved her – the curse was lifted from Reiko when she copied the tape and showed it to Ryuji. To save Yoichi, she plans to have him copy the tape and seek out a new viewer, realizing this cycle can never end.
Thoughts: I only became aware of this movie after seeing the American remake starring Naomi Watts. And while I thought The Ring was a decent enough horror movie, I didn’t really think of it deserving status as a classic. But since it came out, the influence of its parent movie, Ringu, on American horror culture has become undeniable, so I knew I’d have to include this original in my horror project.
The footprints this movie left on the horror landscape are pretty enormous. For the past ten years, two of the most popular subgenres of American horror movies have been those films light on gore but heavy on supernatural scares (in other words, PG-13 horror), and those that remake foreign horror movies. Very often, those two subgenres overlap. On a purely personal level, I have to admit that stuff like this creeps me out a lot more than most other horror. Blood and guts, torture porn, demons in your dreams… I can take it all. But there’s something much more fundamentally disturbing to me about the sort of slow, impending doom this film promises – and delivers on. It might be that idea of knowing, of waiting… Sure, Jason may kill you, but most of the time you’ll never see it coming. With this killer, you’ll have a whole week to brood about it before she makes you literally die of fright. For a professional worrywart like me, I think that would be the far worse death.
But I digress. Whatever the case, after this movie came out we got nailed with films like The Grudge (another Japanese import-slash-remake) and films from France, Germany, and elsewhere in the world that tried to capture lightning in a bottle again. In Japan, there were two sequels (one based on a sequel to the novel, the other not) and a prequel, and in the US there has been one sequel so far with another one announced, plus remakes in other countries around the world. And that’s not even counting the number of “original” ideas produced in the last few years that tried for PG-13 terror. Some of them worked. Many of them did not. Even the American The Ring tried to ratchet up the horror in the wrong way, burying the first victim under horror makeup that made the scene more grotesque, but in a way less actually frightening than showing a natural expression of terror.
The film, like many great horror movies, builds its terror slowly. After the opening scene there’s much discussion of the tape and a few deliciously creepy images of one of the dead girls, her face frozen forever in terror, but it’s still nearly a half-hour in before Reiko finds and watches the tape herself. Even after that, much of the film plays out more like a procedural instead of a horror movie, with Ryuji and Reiko playing detective and occasionally getting psychic images to remind us that this is, in fact, a ghost story at heart.
As I’ve been saying from the beginning, terror is cultural. What one society deems frightening may not hold true elsewhere, and cultural differences may derail attempts. The scene where Reiko finds the tape amongst a rental shelf at the cabin is accompanied by a creepy musical sting and a zoom in, but as I can’t read anything written on any of the tapes, the effect at that point was lost on me. Similarly, the tape itself uses a lot of words, which worked when I watched the American version, but have less of an impact when I needed to look down at the subtitles to see what creepy caption I was supposed to be scared of. (Incidentally, this may be the only place where the American version was inarguably more effective to me, but that wouldn’t be true of someone who understands Japanese.) It also should be pointed out that the expectations of a movie studio in the US are quite different from those in the rest of the world. The scene where the murder victim is found in the remake is a brilliant, special effects-laden scene clearly intended to make you believe that the characters have completed some noble quest and ended the evil of the spell, even though this turns out to not be true. Not so much in this version – the well scene is dark and creepy as anything else. We get Reiko actually cradling the skeleton, hair sloughing off it, slime flowing from the sockets like tears… it’s downright gross. Yeah, there’s also a skeleton in the American version, but in this case, I’m going with the Japanese version. It may not work quite as well in terms of a fake-out, but it maintains the feel of the movie much better.
Perhaps the best trick the movie pulls, though, is the way Reiko saves herself. It’s a horrible idea, that a person’s salvation can only come at the expense of some other innocent person. How many people could do it – knowingly put someone else in mortal danger in order to save their own lives? Even more importantly, how many people would be strong enough to resist? It’s a chilling idea to end the movie on, and it survives the film in a way many of the other elements do not: in the Saw franchise. Jigsaw forces his victims to do terrible things to themselves or someone else to survive, and it isn’t a stretch at all to believe Ringu (or one of its remakes, sequels, or other successors) was weighing on the minds of the screenwriters when they came up with that concept.
Finally, I’ll chime in with the obvious question that one almost feels compelled to ask. Culture isn’t dependent only on place, but also on time period, and even though this film is a mere 13 years old, technology has advanced at a remarkable rate since then. You’ve got to wonder, in a world of DVR, DVDs, Blu-Ray, movie downloads and digital photography, if the basic premise of this film would work if they tried it today. It would, I think, there’s a simple enough undercurrent of fear here, but it would be fun to try to work out the mechanics of such a thing.
While Ringu was changing horror overseas, a tiny little production was about to hit the States in an enormous way. Tomorrow, we tackle The Blair Witch Project.
Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 27: Poltergeist (1982)
Writers: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, Mark Victor
Cast: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O’Rourke, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Zelda Rubinstein, Richard Lawson, Martin Casella, James Karen
Plot: The film begins simply enough, with a television playing the national anthem and going to static (reminding us of those quaint days when television stations actually went off the air). As her father Steven (Craig T. Nelson) sleeps in front of the TV, little Carol Anne Freeling (Heather O’Rourke) wakes up, walks to the flickering TV, and begins to speak to it. The next day, the family’s pet bird dies, and mother Diane (JoBeth Williams) is forced by Carol Anne to give it a proper cigar box funeral. The older children, Dana (Dominique Dunne) and Robbie (Oliver Robins) are nonplussed by the loss of the bird. Robbie is, however, disturbed by the gnarled tree outside his bedroom window. The next night, when a storm scares Carol Anne and Robbie into their parents’ bed, the static appears on the television and again summons Carol Anne. This time, a spectral hand reaches out of the screen and rattles the room, waking up the Freelings and prompting one of the most famous lines in scary movie history: Carol Anne’s, “Theeeeeey’re here!”
The next day, Diane begins to notice strange phenomena around the house, such as a spot on the kitchen floor that sends objects sliding across the room. The fun evaporates, though, when Robbie’s gnarled tree comes to life and snatches him. As Steven and Diane try to save their son, the closet blows open with an intense white light, and little Carol Anne is sucked in and vanishes. After a frantic search for the girl, the family hears her voice coming from the television set. Steven turns to a group of paranormal investigators for help. The investigators: Ryan (Richard Lawson), Marty (Martin Casella) and Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) find the children’s room in a state of chaos – the bed spinning, objects hurtling through the air, the closet glowing.
The investigators believe the events to be the work of a poltergeist instead of a traditional haunting, which means it could stop at any time and the missing Carol Anne – whose voice they keep hearing coming from… somewhere – could vanish forever. With a time limit, the family and investigators grow more desperate and begin conducting experiments to find the girl even as her disembodied voice cries for help. Steven discovers from his boss, real estate developer Mr. Teague (James Karen) their house was built on the remains of an old cemetery. They send the other children away and bring in a medium, Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein), who believes the spirits in the house are attracted to Carol Anne’s “light,” and thus are keeping her captive. There’s a demon, “the Beast,” using her to restrain the other spirits, who don’t realize they’re dead and flee the Light that would send them to the next world. Tangina proves that the portal in the closet eventually comes out in the Freelings’ living room, and Diane ties herself to a rope and plunges into the abyss to find her daughter. When he realizes Tangina is trying to use Carol Anne to force the demon into the light, Steven pulls on the rope and finds himself face-to-face with the Beast. With the creature distracted, Diane and Carol Anne fall free, and Tangina declares the house “clean.”
The family decides to move (because people just don’t have the guts to stand up to a supernatural infestation anymore). In their last night in the house, Diane is left alone with Robbie and Carol Anne. Robbie is attacked by a demonic clown doll and the Beast assaults Diane, preventing her from getting to the children. As the closet begins to transform, Diane rushes outside for help and falls into the muddy pit the family had dug for a swimming pool, only to find herself facing the rising corpses of the graveyard Steven’s company built over. Diane makes it back into the house and gets the children away from the closet, but the corpses – and their coffins – begin rising everywhere as Steven and Teague arrive. Dana gets back from her date just as the rest of the Freelings escape, and the house itself implodes in front of the whole neighborhood, disappearing in a flash of light. Exhausted, but together, the family checks into a hotel for the night… and Steven shoves the television out onto the balcony.
Thoughts: Like The Exorcist and, to a lesser degree, The Shining, Poltergeist makes childhood a target of the supernatural. That idea is something that comes back on us time and again over the years, and with good reason. Childhood is supposed to be the time of innocence, the time when we’re protected from the nasty things in the world by Mommy and Daddy. Even when you’re an adult, seeing a symbol of innocence corrupted by a monster can terrify you. The filmplays on our fears by tapping into a very normal situation – a standard suburban family – and throwing it into the grip of something horrible. And Hooper and Spielberg work hard to make this family as typical as possible, while still showing off a little geek cred – the younger Freelings’ bedroom is rife with posters for Sesame Street, Star Wars and Alien, there’s a Los Angeles Rams helmet in the corner, Nelson’s character reads a biography of new president Ronald Reagan, and so forth. This is a film that wears its early 80s time frame as a badge of honor. (There’s so much Star Wars, in fact, you’d suspect the producer was buds with George Lucas or something.)
Speaking of the producer, there are stories that Spielberg had a much heavier directorial influence than the filmmakers admitted (and, in fact, probably only skipped directing it himself because he was busy with E.T. at the time). Spielberg’s fingerprints are all over the movie. Yes, technically it’s a supernatural horror flick, but the tone of the story and the quality and type of the special effects all fit in very neatly with the Spielberg sci-fi films of the time period. This movie doesn’t look like The Shining, it looks like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This isn’t a bad thing, though. So much horror – even great horror – tends to have a very similar flavor to it. It’s refreshing to see a Spielberg come in every once in a while and tell a ghost story that doesn’t feel exactly like every other ghost story out there.
That said, although the movie is a lot of fun, it’s fun in the way that a lot of 80s family adventures are: you watch the film, you think how awesomely authentic the portrayal of the children are, and you wish you could experience the cooler moments of the story. Granted, this movie doesn’t have as many moments a person would actually want to experience as, say, Goonies, but it’s hard today to find this PG-rated fright flick actually scary. In fact, it’s very much the kind of ghost story a parent could feel comfortable sharing with some children. (I’ve got to stress some children here – let’s face it, there are kids who get nightmares at the slightest provocation, and this movie would most definitely give them that provocation. But if you’ve got a slightly older child that has proven he or she can handle a little bit of a scare, this movie would be okay.)
Once the film does start going for more traditional scares, it can be a little cheesy. The scene with the maggots bursting from a raw steak isn’t bad, but a few seconds later when Marty starts peeling his face off, it’s terribly obvious that you’re looking at someone ripping make-up from a mannequin head – the hands clutching at the face don’t even look like they’re coming from the proper angle. It jerks you out of it. Later on, when Robbie gets attacked by the Clown doll, it’s really effective – Hooper got a nice fake-out by making you expect to see something under the bed. But that doesn’t make the doll itself less cheesy. Other scenes seem to want to mine a little bit of comedy – when Steven’s boss visits him to find out why he hasn’t been coming to work, Steve’s efforts to prevent him from noticing the ghostly goings-on are a little funnier than they probably need to be.
It’s the last third of the film that’s the scariest and the most effective. Once Tangina enters the picture, the intensity increases significantly and you start to fear for the rest of the family, the child, and the investigators throughout the house. Tangina’s actually a magnificent creation – she’s Yoda with a southern accent, (ah – Star Wars again) making Steven and Diane do whatever they need to do to get their daughter back, up to and including threatening her, growing angry with her, and manipulating her into laying a trap for the Beast. She’s an awesome character that helps the film work, serving the same function as Father Merrin in The Exorcist (in fact, many of the scenes where the parents and investigators try to tap into the spirit world evoke a much more special-effects heavy version of The Exorcist). She’s the Mentor, even if she’s a Mentor who doesn’t show up until late in the game, and she brings just the right touch of awesome to make the movie work. The climax – except for the clown doll – is also great. The corpses bubbling up out of the pool are creepy as hell, the telescoping hallway adds to the feeling of hopelessness and desperation that Diane has to defeat, and the effects on the gaping maw of the closet… scary stuff. We’re getting into Spielberg-Gremlins here. (And in fact, some of the fleshy appearance of the portal is very similar to what Spielberg and Chris Columbus would do in that other little monster movie a couple of years later.)
In the end, we still get the expected Spielberg feel-good ending, but that’s okay. This is a scary movie, but not in the same vein as most of the others we’ve watched. This is a chill for everyone, something that parents and kids can watch and both hold on to each other a little tighter.
From the warmth of the family to the cold of Antarctica – tomorrow we see the return of John Carpenter to this list with a sci-fi classic – his 1982 remake of The Thing.
Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 24: The Shining (1980)
Writer: Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson, based on the novel by Stephen King
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Joe Turkel
Plot: Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a desperate writer, takes a job as the winter caretaker to a mountain resort hotel. Jack and his family – wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) — move to the hotel for the long, isolated winter months, during which there will be little or no contact with the outside world. Even before arriving at the hotel, Danny (via his imaginary friend, “Tony”) has visions of a pair of horrifying twin girls and a river of blood gushing from an elevator. The family makes the long drive to the hotel and meets the outgoing staff, including the chef, Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers). Halloran senses Danny has a psychic gift, and reveals to the boy that he shares the same power, something Halloran’s grandmother called “Shining.” Halloran tells Danny that the hotel has its own “shine,” including some bad memories, and warns him to stay away from room 237.
After a month in the hotel, Jack is struggling with his writing and thirsting for alcohol (he’s been fighting his alcohol addiction since it previously cost him a teaching job and nearly his marriage, when he hurt Danny in a drunken stupor). Fortunately, while the hotel is well-stocked with food for the winter, there’s no booze left in the Overlook. A storm rolls in and knocks out the phone lines to the hotel, and Danny’s visions grow more horrific, while Jack’s behavior grows more surly, abusive, and erratic. When Wendy finds bruises on Danny’s neck she blames Jack, driving him to the hotel’s ballroom, where a friendly bartender ghost (Joe Turkel) pours him his first drink in months. Wendy suddenly bursts in, saying that Danny told her his wound was really the act of a crazy woman in Room 237. Jack investigates the room, seeing a dead woman rising from the bathtub even as Danny – and far away in Miami, Dick Halloran – has horrible visions of the same. Jack lies to Wendy, reporting that the room was empty and that Danny must have bruised himself.
Jack returns to the ballroom, now full of ghosts in a full-on 1920s soiree, and goes for another drink, only to encounter the ghost of a previous caretaker, who advises Jack to “correct” Wendy and Danny. Halloran decides to return to the Overlook, flying in to Denver and renting a Snowcat to get there. Wendy discovers the “work” Jack has been doing – page after page of nothing but the phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” She knocks him out and locks him in the pantry, but learns he damaged their own Snowcat, making escape impossible. As Jack returns, Danny escapes, but Wendy is unable to follow him. He hides in the kitchen as Halloran arrives. Jack kills the old man, and Danny’s scream as he “feels” the death alerts him to the boy’s location. Danny flees into the hotel’s hedge maze and Jack follows him, but Danny manages to trick his father by backtracking over his own footprints. When Wendy arrives, fleeing the ghosts of the hotel, she and Danny take Halloran’s Snowcat and run for safety, leaving Jack to freeze to death in the maze. As the film ends, we see an old photograph of Jack, smiling… in a hotel party from 1921.
Thoughts: The statement I’m about to make will firmly divide everybody reading this, so let’s just get it out of the way quickly: I don’t like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. And the thing is, it’s not because I don’t think it’s a good movie – it is, for many reasons I’ll discuss in the next few paragraphs. The reason I don’t like it is because I think it’s a poor adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. I understand that it’s necessary to change some elements of any book when you make it into a movie – some things that work on the printed page just flat-out don’t work on the screen. I get it. But as the sort of person who always comes down on the side of the original storyteller, I think it should be the job of the filmmaker to at least capture the spirit of the original as much as possible. Kubrick took the skeleton of King’s novel and twisted it around, the ending in particular, to make something far more bleak and pessimistic. The amazing thing about King is (with a few exceptions, most of them written under his pseudonym of Richard Bachman) he’s actually a pretty optimistic writer. Good usually wins in his stories, although evil is rarely fully defeated, and the hero usually has to pay a pretty devastating cost. But he ends things with a grain of hope. In the novel, the story ends with Jack Torrance managing to overcome the demons that have him in their grip long enough to blow the Overlook Hotel’s massive boiler unit, destroying the hotel and sacrificing his own life to save his family. The way Kubrick ends the story, with Torrance freezing to death as he tries to kill the son he’d professed such love for earlier, strips the story and the character of Jack Torrance of any element of good he had. If he had done that with his own characters, that’d be fine. Doing that with someone else’s character, to me, is practically a crime.
Okay, enough of that. Let’s talk about why this film is considered to be a classic by many people. Kubrick was a very effective visual storyteller. Even though he downplayed the supernatural elements in favor of having the sense of danger emanating from Jack (were it not for the telepathic moments with Danny and Halloran and Wendy’s brief encounters with the ghosts at the very end, you could almost dismiss everything as the product of Jack’s insanity), he did managed to craft a very expressive Haunted House story, along with all the necessary tropes. The characters are completely removed from outside help – in their case by geography and, once winter comes, weather. Even when Halloran attempts to come in to help out, he has to get a snowmobile and winds up getting killed for the effort. The supernatural elements are introduced fairly early, then used as part of the story’s very slow build-up, with some characters ignoring their existence and others showing a particular sensitivity to the ghosts of the hotel.
The story does lose a point for going with the rather clichéd “Indian Burial Ground” excuse for the hotel’s nasty disposition, but there’s at least a theory that Kubrick tried to use that to make a statement on the plight of the Native American. It’s kind of a strained metaphor, but if you squint really hard and tilt your head a little bit to the left, you can sort of make it out. The other cliché is much more on-the-nose, though. When Jack makes his way to the ballroom, he actually offers his soul for a beer, verbally, out loud, in case the Faustian elements could possibly be lost on the audience. Then again, when Lloyd the Ghost Bartender pours him a drink, he gets bourbon instead. Perhaps this was a subtle cue that the contract wasn’t entirely fulfilled? That Jack – at this point in the story – was still in rudimentary control of his own destiny? Perhaps I think about this a bit too much?
The hotel itself is nearly perfect – a gorgeous, classic-looking setting that changes very easily to a place of sheer terror. The film has a very slow build – we’re over a half-hour into the 144-minute running time before the Torrance family is finally left alone in the hotel, and with the danger implicit therein. Even once we’re alone, Kubrick uses slow techniques to build the tension, such as the long steadicam shots following Danny as he roams the hallways on his Big Wheel bike or the images of Wendy and Danny wandering the hotel’s hedge maze, juxtaposed with the terminally blocked Jack as he wanders the hotel itself.
King reportedly was against the casting of Jack Nicholson, on the grounds that audiences familiar with his role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would anticipate him going crazy too early. That may be the case, but he still plays the descent into madness well, if a bit too abruptly. Once he starts going loco about 45 minutes into the movie or so, he’s on a pretty straightforward plunge. Again – and I apologize for harping on this – this is a problem for me. We rarely get the sense that Jack is fighting his descent, or that he’s trying to cling to the love of his family. The scene where he tells Danny how much he loves him could have been played as a man who wants terribly to fight back the darkness, and is losing. It’d be a tragic scene in that case. But instead, you get the feeling right away that at this point he’s already completely Looney Toons and he’s going through the motions, even as the madness creeps through his eyes. To Kubrick’s credit, the next scene does show him waking up from a dream, horrified at the vision of himself murdering Wendy and Danny. It’s a rare moment where Jack is legitimately the victim of horror instead of the source. Later, in the ballroom, Jack bemoans Wendy’s lack of trust, claiming he’d never harm Danny and confessing to the one time Danny was injured by him – a “momentary loss of muscle control” when he yanked the boy up too hard by the arm. Again, this is an attempt to humanize Jack a bit, make him less of an out-of-control outlet for evil, and it’s appreciated. It would just be appreciated more if we saw some of that when he was actually with Danny.
Shelly Duvall – who was by many accounts brutalized by Kubrick on-set to get the performance he wanted – works as a woman who is clinging to a dying hope, then sees it shatter. Danny Lloyd is okay – not particularly memorable amongst the pantheon of child actors but not particularly offensive either. And Scatman Crothers? Hell, there isn’t anything in the world that couldn’t have been made 83 percent cooler by the addition of Scatman Crothers. In truth, I’ve always felt the Halloran character was somewhat wasted in this story – after a fairly epic run where it seems like he’s going to play the cavalry, he instead dies moments after entering the hotel, serving no purpose other than to reveal to Jack where Danny is hiding and to provide a second Snowcat – which, once Jack is dead, is kind of unnecessary. He’s a great character, and gets thrown away pretty much for nothing.
The pop culture footprint of this film is enormous, of course, and I don’t just mean that one SimpsonsHalloween episode that parodies it. Danny’s refrain of “Redrum” and the steady typing that gives us “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” have both become milestones, shortcuts to demonstrate horror in parody. Images like the blood flowing from the elevator and the frozen Jack in the hedge maze, too, are iconic at this point. Although perhaps the most recognizable moment of the film – Jack bursting through the door with a fire axe and exclaiming “Here’s Johnny!” was an ad lib by Nicholson on the set. It’s funny how things like that can happen – a moment of playfulness by Jack Nicolson makes it into the nightmare highlight reels for the next 30 years.
Moving on, it’s time to get to some of the real boogeymen of the 80s, the characters that kept my generation up at night (either scared or laughing, I’ll leave you to be the judge). Tomorrow we look at the first Friday the 13th.