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Lunatics and Laughter Day 19: Zombieland (2009)

zombielandtDirector: Ruben Fleischer

Writers: Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

trick-r-treattDirector: Michael Dougherty

Writer: Michael Dougherty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lunatics and Laughter Day 17: Slither (2006)

slitherDirector: James Gunn

Writer: James Gunn

Cast: Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker, Don Thompson, Gregg Henry, Tania Saulnier, Haig Sutherland, Jennifer Copping, Brenda James, Jenna Fisher, Lloyd Kaufman

Plot: Thesmall town of Wheelsy, South Carolina is in danger. A meteor has fallen to Earth. Local car dealer Grant Grant (Michael Rooker)’s relationship with his wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks) hasn’t been great lately, and he’s in the woods with a woman he picked up in a bar (Brenda James, as Brenda) when they come upon the meteor. A parasite infests Grant’s body, and the next day, he begins stocking up on meat. Starla returns home to find a lock on the basement. Grant is changing – odd sores appearing on his body, and intense discomfort in his abdomen. A pair of fleshy tendrils sprout from his chest and almost reach for Starla, but he makes up an excuse about leaving something at work and flees. He goes to Brenda’s home and abducts her.

Starla, meanwhile, reconnects with Sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion), a childhood sweetheart who never stopped carrying a torch for her. At home she finds Grant covered in bumps and sores. He claims it’s just a bee sting and the doctor has already treated him. She calls the doctor the next day, though, and he denies having seen Grant. Grant, meanwhile, has chained Brenda in a barn in the woods, and is bringing her huge bags of meat. Her stomach has become grotesquely distended, and she is ravenous. Bill and his deputy Wally (Don Thompson) pay Starla a visit. Brenda has been reported missing, and the neighbors saw Grant enter her house. Scared, Starla breaks the lock off the basement door to find a grotesque, flyblown nest full of animal corpses. Grant attacks her, but Bill and the cops return just in time to see his mutated form as he runs away.

Three days later Mayor Jack MacReady (Gregg Henry) is up in arms. Although he doesn’t believe reports that Grant has turned into a monster, he does believe he’s behind Brenda’s kidnapping and the rash of animal slayings that has sent the town into a frenzy. Bill rounds up a posse to stake out the next farm in Grant’s attack pattern, and Starla asks to come with him. Grant has mutated further, turning into a horrible, fleshy mass covered with tentacles, and the horrified police watch as he slays and consumes one of the farmer’s cows. Starla tries to reason with him, but when a deputy tries to play hardball, Grant kills the man and flees into the woods. They track him to the barn and find Brenda, now transformed into an enormous, pulsating blob. She explodes into a torrent of sluglike creatures that attack the cops, slithering into their mouths. Billy, Starla and a few others escape by covering their mouths until the slugs are gone, but most of the cops are down – alive, but comatose. The slugs converge on the farmhouse, where one attacks the farmer’s daughter Kylie (Tania Saulnier). Although it makes it into her mouth, she digs her fingernails in and yanks it out – but not before she has visions of its horrific alien homeworld. When she stumbles from the bathroom, she finds her parents and sisters have been taken by the hundreds of slugs overwhelming the house. She locks herself in her father’s truck as the slugs swarm over it.

Back at the barn Bill calls for help and tries to get the fallen cops outside. Wally wakes up and begins talking to Starla, saying he’s sorry and that he didn’t tell her because he was afraid she wouldn’t love him anymore. As the rest of the posse stands, it becomes clear Grant’s mind is controlling them all. Starla shoot Wally and rest of the Grant-zombies give chase. Back at the truck, the slugs have slithered away, but Kylie’s blood-soaked family is now trying to get to her. Bill saves her, but a horde of zombiefied people from nearby homes attack. Starla and MacReady run by, pursued by the zombies, and Starla slays another. The four survivors climb into Bill’s car and flee, while the zombies they leave behind cry Starla’s name.

Kylie explains what she saw when the slug attacked her – a creature that moves from planet to planet, consuming everything and turning what it doesn’t eat into part of its hive-mind. Bill calls his dispatch officer Shelby (Jenna Fischer) and tells her to call the CDC, but the slugs burst into the office before she has a chance. Instead, Shelby sends a zombie in a van to collide with Bill’s car. A horde of the zombies kidnap Starla. Bill and Kylie hide while one of the zombies gets MacReady. The zombies bring Starla and MacReady back to Grant’s house, and the thing that used to be Grant puts on some romantic music for a night at home with the wife. She approaches him as he continues to absorb the zombies into his own mass. She finds him in a twisted shrine to their marriage, surrounded by pictures of the two of them. She attacks as Bill and Kylie arrive, but Bill misses with his grenade. The creature stabs Bill, but he manages to get a tentacle jammed into a propane tank. Starla grabs Bill’s gun and shoots Grant, igniting the gas. As he dies, everyone taken by the slugs collapses. Bill, Starla and Kylie stumble out into the rising sun, surrounded by the bodies of the zombies, and begin to go down the road, planning to walk to the hospital in the next town.

Thoughts: If Eight Legged Freaks was a love letter to 50s-era giant animal monster movies, Slither is a tribute to that time period’s other great fear: alien zombies. Of course, the zombies of that time aren’t zombies as we know them today (that was largely a creation of George Romero in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead – virtually all zombie movies since have taken their cues from Romero). At the time, pretty much anything that turned ordinary people into mindless beasts or, even better, part of an alien hive-mind, could qualify. Slither fits in well with that brand of horror film.

It’s most certainly a Type-A horror/comedy, though. In terms of sheer gore, this movie far outstrips anything we’ve yet watched in this project. James Gunn (writer of the Scooby Doo films and the Dawn of the Dead remake, here making his directorial debut) is a product of Troma Studios, and it shows with horrific monster designs, highly realistic animals, and garbage bags full of blood and offal. Gunn pays his dividends to his alma mater in this movie. Not only is the story like something ripped right from a Troma film (albeit with a less campy tone and much better production values), but he works in a cameo by Lloyd Kaufman as a town drunk and even throws in a clip from The Toxic Avenger on Brenda’s TV screen. That’s only the obvious stuff, though. Less obvious, but still undeniably Tromantic, are some of the monster scenes. When Grant infects Brenda, for instance, the scene is surprisingly brutal, but shot in many ways like a sex scene, right down to the rhythmic gyrations one would expect at such a moment. It’s the sort of thing that’s either wildly funny or horribly disturbing depending on how you want to look at it. The part where Bill grapples with a zombie deer? Well, that’s just funny any way you cut it.

The true expression of how warped Gunn’s sensibilities are (and I mean this as a compliment) is the finale. Grant – now a truly hideous creature – has Starla trapped in the house while dozens of zombies walk around calling her name and pounding on the walls, all to the dulcet tones of Air Supply’s “Every Woman in the World.” The disconnect between the music and what we’re watching on the screen is jolting, funny, and terrifying all at the same time. There’s a bit of genius there too – when Starla begins talking to Grant about how long he’s been alone, it takes you just a moment to realize she’s not really talking to him, she’s talking to the alien. It’s really well-scripted and well-acted, and all the blood and gore is just a bonus.

Grant Grant actually manages to transcend his stereotype a bit. He’s the big lummox, the sort of guy you expect to turn into the threat in these situations, but it’s worth noting that before the alien takes over his body he actually turns down the chance to cheat on his wife. That’s not something most characters of his type would do. Even after the parasite takes him, we see him try to resist. There’s real pain in his eyes when Starla looks at him covered in the bumps and sores, when he realizes she’s starting to see the monster inside him. He even protects Starla when the monster wants to go after her in the shower, and although he quickly finds an alternate victim, it’s hard to argue that his love for his wife isn’t genuine.

If anyone fits into the dumb beefcake archetype, it’s Mayor MacReady (a nice nod to another of Gunn’s obvious influences, John Carpenter’s The Thing). He’s rude, crass, and uses his obnoxious personality to cover a streak of cowardice. When Bill shoots him in the head after his transformation, it’s the sort of horror movie kill that makes the audience cheer with approval. He does, however, get some of the film’s best lines – lots of tasteless jokes and panicked exclamations (he’s never seen anything like this, and he watches Animal Planet all the time).

Fans of Firefly have long known Nathan Fillion has leading man quality, and this film helps get that across. He’s got a heroic, self-sacrificing nature, not quite as bold or bombastic as the characters he usually plays. When he drops a one-liner (and he does, frequently), it’s more likely to be dry and a little self-deprecating than any kind of braggadocio. The scene in the car, when he nervously tries to explain to Starla how he’s responsible for stopping up his mother’s toilet and then gets into an argument with MacReady over the definition of “Martian,” is one of the best bits of writing I’ve seen in one of these movies.

Besides MacReady’s name, Gunn continues the now well-worn tradition of peppering the film with references to other horror stories. The scene where the slug attacks Kylie in the bathtub is very reminiscent of Freddy Krueger’s attack on Nancy in the first Friday the 13th for instance, with other scenes calling to mind great bits from Night of the Living Dead, Return of the Living Dead, and dozens of other films. Even Kylie’s little sisters are caught reading R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books before they turn into monsters themselves.

Like Eight Legged Freaks, the downfall of this movie comes in the CGI. Four years later than the other film, the technology has improved. Individual slugs actually look fairly convincing. But when you see an entire swarm of the slugs, the visuals start to break down. The worst bit is actually the first time you’re sure you’re looking at computer effects, when Brenda explodes and the slugs rush out in a wave. It looks very much like a 90s video game at that point. Although the rest of the movie looks better, that one moment tends to taint your perception.

Both Gunn and Fillion have gone on to bigger projects in years past, with it recently announced that Gunn would helm Marvel Studios’ upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Although we probably can’t expect the level of guts and gore he gave us in Slither, this movie really shows without a doubt that he’s got a powerful, unique visual style and a good eye for creatures and practical effects. If he can polish off the CGI, that movie is going to look fantastic. Hopefully though, he won’t stay in that relatively safe realm of sci-fi for too long, because this movie proves very neatly he’s got great chops for horror.

Lunatics and Laughter Day 15: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

shaun-of-the-deadDirector: Edgar Wright

Writers: Edgar Wright & Simon Pegg

Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, Lucy Davis, Dylan Moran, Penelope Wilton, Bill Nighy, Jessica Stevenson, Peter Serafinowicz

Plot: Retail employee Shaun (Simon Pegg) is having a rough time. His job is a joke, his relationship with his stepfather Philip (Bill Nighy) is strained, and his roommate Pete (Peter Serafinowicz) has had it with Shaun’s best buddy Ed (Nick Frost) sleeping on their couch. If that wasn’t bad enough, a chance encounter with his friend Yvonne (Jessica Stevenson) reminds him that it’s his anniversary and he’s forgotten to book a table at a restaurant. He tries to convince his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) to join him for a fun-filled evening at their favorite pub, the Winchester, but Liz has wasted one too many night at the bar. She dumps him and he returns home where he has one more spat with an agitated Pete (who was bitten by a bunch of crackheads) before going to bed.

In the morning, a tired Shaun schleps down to the local convenience store and home without ever noticing the few people around him are acting strange – grunting, stumbling, and covered with blood. Returning home, he and Ed finally figure out something is wrong they are attacked. The reports on the news and the ghouls outside their house make the situation clear. Although neither Shaun nor Ed wants to say it, London is overrun with zombies. The friends fight their way clear with vinyl records and a cricket bat, getting past Pete before escaping. Shaun plans to collect his mother and Liz and hide out at the Winchester until the crisis has passed.

His mother, Barbara (Penelope Winton) is nursing Phillip, who has been bitten. Shaun reluctantly loads them into the car then heads to Liz’s flat, where she’s hiding out with her roommate Dianne (Lucy Davis) and Dianne’s boyfriend David (Dylan Moran). Although they are reluctant to go with him, the encroaching undead soon change their minds. As they flee, Phillip succumbs to his bite and they are forced to abandon the car, trapping him inside. They encounter Yvonne, who has gathered her own oddly familiar group of survivors and who is planning to find help. Shaun insists on following through his his own plan. When they reach the Winchester, they find it surrounded by zombies, and struggling actress Dianne gives the rest of the group a crash course in acting undead. Remarkably, the ruse works and they march through the army of zombies unmolested, until Ed’s mobile phone rings and blows their cover. They barely get to cover inside the bar.

In the Winchester, Shaun discovers that his mother has been hiding a bite of her own. He and David begin sniping at each other as Barbara struggles against the disease inside her, but when she finally dies and rises, Shaun puts her down with the rifle hanging over the bar. As they continue to argue, raw emotions are exposed: David is in love with Liz, something Dianne knows fully well, but she has been settling for what little affection he gives her. As they fight, the zombies overwhelm their barricades and pull David outside. Dianne snaps and rushes after him, being consumed as well. The last three break for the basement, but Ed is bitten on the way. Trapped, the three of them contemplate suicide, but before they can do anything, they find a secret hatch. Ed promises to cover Shaun and Liz as they escape. Biddign his best friend farewell, Ed can’t resist sending a fragrant flume of gas his way one more time. Making their way to the surface, Shaun and Liz are met by Yvonne, along with an entire army battalion that has arrived to put the zombies down. Six months later, Liz has moved in with Shaun and the world has adapted, using the zombies for menial labor and cheap entertainment. Shaun goes out to the shed to relax a little while, sitting down next to his best friend. Ed is now a zombie, but that doesn’t mean they two of them can’t continue to enjoy their video games.

Thoughts: I’ve said that Ghostbusters is my favorite horror/comedy and I stand by that, but damned if Shaun of the Dead doesn’t come in a close second. This film is a flawless combination of things that I love: emotionally honest characters, dry British wit, zombies, Bill Nighy… Any one of those elements is worthy of being loved, cherished, and having praise heaped upon them. Putting them together makes for one of the best horror/comedies ever made.

This film came in near the beginning of the current zombie wave, which has actually gone on much longer than I would have expected. It wasn’t the first zombie/comedy hybrid, but it was without a doubt the most effective, and I doubt the later entries into this subgenre (Fido and Zombieland, for example) would have enjoyed their respective success if Wright and Pegg hadn’t come along first and done such a remarkable job with this movie. The zombies themselves are played perfectly straight, a Type-A horror threat. In fact, they could have marched right off the set of a George Romero movie. In truth, if not for the sort of happy ending at the end of the film, one could easily make the meta-argument that it showed the British side of one of the many zombie apocalypses (apocalypsi?) that make him his own films. He himself was enough of a fan of Shaun that he invited Wright and Pegg to make a cameo appearance in Land of the Dead. (They played zombies.)

The zombie stuff works really well, and the comedy is near-flawless. Nick Frost’s Ed ranks up there with one of the great comedic bumblers. He slows down the group, makes poor decisions, and nearly gets them all killed several times. He’s like Gilligan – anybody in their right mind would have left him to die ten minutes after the zombies attacked. But for all his buffoonery, there’s some sort of inexplicable charm that makes you want to keep him around. It’s probably this, more than anything else, that helps him last right up until the very end. Let’s be honest, if Shaun had walked into the shed to reveal Pete or David chained to the wall, it would have just felt creepy. Watching him chide Ed for trying to bite him, though? It’s weirdly sweet.

Pegg himself is successful as the harried everyman, the ordinary guy who is in way over his head and needs to find a way to rise above it all if he’s to have any shot at survival, let alone getting the girl. It’s that status that makes him such a successful protagonist. Virtually everybody has felt like Shaun at one point in their life. It’s just that few of us are lucky enough to have a plague of the undead come along at just the right time to help us snap out of our funk.

Shaun’s character is just the beginning of these very real characters, though. David’s bitterness comes across as very genuine, and Dianne is a terribly sad character that you can wholeheartedly believe in. The moment of Phillip’s death is a remarkable one as well, turning a character that could have been a cartoon wicked stepfather into someone with genuine heart who just didn’t know how to express his feelings until it was too late. Liz is, if you’ll pardon the gender-specific term, the film’s straight man. She’s not particularly funny, but she allows Shaun and Ed to play off her rather well. The core of her relationship with Shaun, though, is one of true love and legitimate concern for their life. You never think poorly of her in the movie, never imagine her to be the sort of bitchy ex-girlfriend that a lot of movies would transform her into in order to make Shaun seem more heroic. I’ve come to realize that the truly great horror/comedies, whether they’re Type A or Type B, can fall into two categories: either they’re remarkably funny or surprisingly tender. Like Bubba Ho-Tep, Shaun of the Dead presents us with excellent characters that we really feel for. Their deaths aren’t just plot points or gags like in Eight Legged Freaks or Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Each major member of this cast has a role, a purpose, a meaning.

Not to say that it’s 100 minutes of zombies wrenching feelings out of you, not at all. The film is full of sharp running gags (Shaun has red on him, Ed is addicted to his phone, etc.) and Yvonne pops up just at the right time to lend some really successful levity just after Phillip’s crushing end. Shaun’s dream sequences about fighting to the Winchester are both really funny and highly relatable – unless you honestly expect me to believe you’ve never imagined your Zombie Apocalypse Contingency Plan beginning with thrilling heroics and ending with tossing back a cold one at your favorite hangout. Yes it has. You liar.

To put it simply, Shaun of the Dead is the perfect package of horror movie monsters, dramatic story beats, and rip-snorting laughter. If anyone tries to call it a parody of zombie movies, I feel the need to correct them right away. This isn’t a parody at all, this is a zombie movie. It just happens to be one where the prospective buffet left out for the undead is made up of some very, very funny people.

Lunatics and Laughter Day 14: Eight-Legged Freaks (2002)

EightDirector: Ellory Elkayem

Writers: Ellory Elkayem, Randy Kornfield, Jesse Alexander

Cast: David Arquette, Kari Wuhrer, Scott Terra, Scarlett Johansson, Doug E. Doug, Rick Overton, Leon Rippy, Matt Czuchry, Tom Noonan, Eileen Ryan

Plot: A highway accident causes a barrel of toxic waste to spill into a reservoir in the little town of Prosperity, Arizona, where the chemicals spread to a spider farm. The owner, Joshua (Tom Noonan) collects contaminated crickets to feed his beasts. A boy named Mike (Scott Terra) stops by for a visit, and Joshua shows him the various species of arachnid in his collection. After Mike leaves, Joshua notices some of his spiders have gotten loose. They suddenly attack and destroy him.

A week later, Chris McCormick (David Arquette) comes back to Prosperity after a decade away. His father owned the town mines, and he’s come home to stand against the mayor who wants to sell all the town property and relocate. Meanwhile Mike’s mother, Sheriff Sam Stroud (Kari Wuhrer), has uncovered the toxic waste barrel. On her way home, she pulls over a group of teenagers on dirt bikes, including her daughter Ashley (Scarlett Johanssen). She takes her home, warning her about her boyfriend Brett (Matt Czuchry), who also happens to be the mayor’s stepson.

At a town meeting Mayor Wade (Tom Rippy) tries to convince the people to sell their property to a company that wants to use their empty mines (to dump waste, but he leaves that part out). Chris insists his father saw a lode of gold in the mine before he died, and punches Wade, who orders Sam to arrest him. Sam, who shares a history with Chris, lets him go.  His aunt Gladys (Eileen Ryan) mentions that Sam is divorced now, and urges him to tell her the real reason he hated her husband so much he left town.

Sam gives Ashley a stun gun to protect herself while Mike follows spider tracks to the mines, noting that they appear to have grown to enormous size. Hitchhiking home, he’s picked up by Chris, who has been sending miners to look for the lode his father found, at the same time trying to avoid deadly pockets of methane. Mike shows Chris a segment of a huge spider leg he’s found, admitting he fears the spiders are growing and have hurt Joshua. Chris, of course, doesn’t believe him, because “they never believe the kid.” Back in the mine, Chris’s employees are attacked by the giant beasts. Their next attack is on Wade’s ostrich farm, gobbling up birds whole. Local crank radio host Harlan Griffith (Doug E. Doug) starts reporting on stories of pets and other animals being devoured by some sort of creature, which he believes to be an alien.

Ashley, in the desert with Brett, uses the stun gun when he tries to pressure her into sex. She takes his truck and leaves him with his friends, just before the spiders attack. Brett manages to escape into the mines, where he finds several of the miners still alive, webbed into coccoons. Gladys is in the mines as well, through a shaft that opened up into her basement. Chris goes after her, finding an enormous spider leg, and rushes to Sam’s house to talk to Mike. While a puzzled Sam watches, the two of them begin to calculate just how big the spiders are. Down the hall, one of the giants climbs into Ashley’s bedroom. When she screams, Sam and Chris burst into the room and she kills it.

With the phone lines down, Mike suggests they go to Harlan’s radio station and broadcast a warning. They fight their way past the spiders to the station and Sam tells the townspeople to arm themselves, urging them to gather at the mall to make a united stand. With the spiders in force, the people flood the mall and lock themselves in. Their only hope to call for help is Wade’s cell phone, but Chris and Harlan have to climb the antenna on the roof to get a signal. Everyone else raids the mall for weapons. Chris calls the army, but they ignore him, believing it to be a prank call. As he screams at the phone, the spiders begin to punch through the gates protecting the people inside the mall.

The townspeople escape the overrun mall by fleeing into the mines and Chris tries to lead them to an exit. Instead, they find the methane pocket, and Wade and other living people, cocooned to be fed to the queen. Chris tells Sam how to find the way out while he continues to search for Gladys. Before he leaves her, he tries to explain why he left town, but she already knows: his father told her Chris loved her, he knew her husband was cheating on her, but didn’t want to break up her family. She kisses him, tells him to make it up to her later, and they run. Chris finds Gladys, and the vein of gold his father found… but the enormous spider queen is there as well. Afraid to shoot his gun because of the methane, Chris uses advice Mike gave him earlier and spritzes the spider with perfume, driving it back so they can escape. Outside, Sam and Mike fuel the generator that powers the mines, sparking it to life with Ashley’s stun gun. The electricity lights the gas and Chris and Gladys just barely an explosion, which roasts the spiders in the mines, along with the toxic waste Wade had tried to hide, destroying his property in the process. As the cleanup begins, Chris and Sam hold each other, and she tells him she’s glad he came home.

Thoughts: Fear evolves over time, with each generation drawing on the context of its own world to create the things it fears the most: witches in the 17th century, Nazi domination during World War II, trans-fats in the year 2012… but in the 1950s, the big fears were nuclear power and the Soviet Union, which somehow melded in a series of movies where small animals mutated into giant ones and terrorized teenagers and scientists who all smoked pipes. Eight Legged Freaks is a tribute of sorts to that subgenre of the monster movie.

I’m not sure if it says anything about horror/comedies specifically, but looking at David Arquette again certainly brings to mind certain things about Hollywood in general. Just ten years earlier, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Arquette was cast as the punk teenager. By Scream in 1996, he was the punk teenager’s older brother. Now, in 2002, he’s the love interest to the punk teenager’s mother. Either the years were not kind to him, or Hollywood has tacitly admitted he was really too old to play those other parts in the first place. (If he made another movie with Scarlett Johanssen today, ten years later, I’d bet you even money he would be her love interest rather than her mother’s. Hollywood is weird.)

The sweet-natured, awkward character he plays here isn’t all that different from his character in the Scream films, but it happens to be the sort of character he plays very well. You show me David Arquette playing kind-hearted and a little dorky, and I’m totally on board. I rather liked Scott Terra as Mike as well. He’s the sort of kid who could easily turn into an obnoxious know-it-all, but he’s balanced much better than that. Instead, he comes across as a particularly young example of the one sane man in a room full of lunatics, and the moment when Chris recognizes that and implores the townspeople to “listen to the kid, for once,” is a good little meta-commentary on horror movies and a nice character moment for them all. It’s only made stronger by the fact that most of the people actually do listen.

The monsters themselves, to be frank, could have looked better. The movie uses a lot of CGI, and not great CGI at that. It really would have served the film much better to use campy puppets or models, truly embracing its B-movie roots. When the spiders start crawling out of a miner’s mouth, all I can see is a man standing there, jaw agape, while someone sitting at a computer Photoshops lots of little spiders all over his face. It’s even worse when the giant spiders attack the kids on dirt bikes. In broad daylight, the effects team can’t even rely on the cover of darkness to hide just how weak the computer animation actually is. On the other hand, the movie does use practical effects to show an ostrich exploding, and there’s literally no way to complain about that.

The bad effects really hurt the overall charm of the film, and there’s a lot of it. The plot has an old-school B-movie feel, while the production values (aside from the CGI) are pretty good. I also give the filmmakers credit for using a variety of different spiders throughout the film. There are dozens of different looks and feels of creature in this movie, and while I don’t have nearly enough ichthyologic knowledge to tell you how accurate any of the spiders are (in either appearance or behavior), they at least made an effort, which is more than you can say for a lot of movies. There are plenty of good comedic moments here too. The scene in the mall, when the townspeople grab baseball bats and pitchforks and crossbows and hockey masks and suit up for war, is a nice sort of statement on small-town fortitude. Sure, there turn out to be a few cowards in the group, but many of them stand and fight true, getting out some good quips and solid action (CGI notwithstanding) in the process.

And composer John Ottman deserves every shred of credit one can muster for making a creepy version of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” the core of the movie’s musical score. Every time the strains of that tune begin to play, it’s impossible not to smile.

I really want to love this movie, and there are a lot of parts of it that are wonderfully fun. This is actually a case where I wish they could somehow remake the movie with cheaper special effects. The filmmakers overreached, tried to make an A-movie out of a delightful B-script, and it falls a little flat as a result. I do like this movie, I like it a lot, but if only director Ellory Elkayem had stayed true to the cheesy roots of the film, it could have been a classic.

Lunatics and Laughter Day 13: Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)

bubba-ho-tepDirector: Don Coscarelli

Writer: Don Coscarelli, from the short story by Joe Lansdale

Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce, Heidi Marnhout, Bob Ivy

Plot: In Mud Creek Texas, there’s a quiet little nursing home called Shady Rest with a few extraordinary residents. Sebastian Haff (Bruce Campbell) lies in bed bemoaning how his grand “plan” went horribly wrong. As he feeling sorry for himself, his roommate loudly expires in the bed next to him. That night, a woman is attacked in bed by a huge scarab beetle. After the beetle bites her, a horrific man appears in her bedroom. Down the hall, Sebastian sees her being dragged past his door, asking for help. Thinking it’s a dream, he goes back to sleep, and the next morning, she’s found dead.

Sebastian wakes up to find a young woman going through his deceased roommate’s belongings. Callie (Heidi Marnhout), the man’s daughter, starts throwing things out, and Sebastian asks if he can keep some of them. He’s dismayed that she hasn’t been to visit him in the three years since he’d come to the home, and he wonders if his own daughter would visit him if she knew he was still alive. His nurse (Ella Joyce) comes in and he insists she call him by his given name. He doesn’t go by Sebastian Haff anymore – he’s Elvis Presley. The nurse insists he’s an old Elvis impersonator who has had mental problems since he came out of a coma years ago. Elvis claims he traded place with the real Haff, an Elvis impersonator, after he decided he was tired of the manufactured thing his managers had turned him into. Elvis isn’t Shady Rest’s only celebrity tenant, though. His friend Jack (Ossie Davis) claims to be John F. Kennedy, victim of a conspiracy. Jack says his brain was tampered with and his skin dyed black in order to get him out of the way years ago. Even Elvis is skeptical of Jack’s story.

That night, when Elvis wakes up to go to the bathroom, he sees a scarab the size of his hand. He manages to kill it and goes to Jack’s room, where his wheelchair-bound friend is lying on the floor facedown. He’s alive, but confused, saying he saw someone “scuttling” through the hall, someone he believes the conspiracy sent to finish him off (possibly Lyndon Johnson). As he thinks about the bugs, about Jack, about Callie, Elvis starts to feel an energy he hasn’t had in years. For the first time in years, something interesting is happening.

The next night, Jack wakes Elvis up to show him bathroom graffiti that turns out to be Egyptian hieroglyphics. Jack tells Elvis that, the night before, his strange assassin tried to suck out his soul, and he believes there’s a connection. Elvis finds a book that indicates the creature may be a mummy, one that survives by eating souls, but can’t last long on “small souls,” souls of people who have little joy for life. The nursing home makes for the perfect place to feed without drawing suspicion. As the lights start to flash Elvis steps into the hall and encounters the mummy – a gnarled, ancient man in cowboy attire (Bob Ivy). Their eyes lock and Elvis sees moments of the mummy’s life. As it walks away, another resident comes out of his room and dies of a ruptured heart. Elvis and Jack take comfort in the knowledge that the mummy failed to consume the old man’s soul.

The next day Elvis tries to track the mummy, finding his way to a creek nearby. In the water, he finds a submerged van near a bridge, and recalls the mummy – from its own memories – being lost in a van crash. Jack meets him later with research that indicates there was a mummy stolen from a museum years ago by a pair of crooks in a van, on the night of an incredible storm. Although Jack wants to adopt a defensive strategy against the monster, Elvis persuades him to go on the offensive. Suited up and armed, the old men prepare for battle. When the mummy appears and tries to suck out Jack’s soul, Elvis douses it with lighter fluid and sets it ablaze. Jack implores him to “take care of business,” and dies. Elvis climbs in Jack’s wheelchair and charges, battling the mummy to the edge of the creek. He lights the mummy on fire again, and it plunges into the water, inert. Too wounded to go on, Elvis Aaron Presley dies as what he always only pretended to be in his movies: a hero.

Thoughts: By the time Bubba Ho-Tep came out in 2002, ten years after the final Evil Dead/Army of Darkness film, Bruce Campbell had legitimately ascended to the status of a cult hero, even if he’d never had any real mainstream success. It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, much of the mainstream public still is unaware of his sheer awesometude. On the other hand, he’s largely avoided making any tremendous suck-fests (largely, not entirely), because he has a lot of freedom to pick movies that really speak to him. This utterly, utterly bizarre film fits that bill perfectly.

At its core, this movie has all the hallmarks of a Type-B horror spoof: Nursing Home Elvis and Black JFK team up to fight a mummy. How could that be anything but a goofy farce? But in fact, although the characters and performances are very funny, the movie is surprisingly grim, from the unending pallor of death around the nursing home to the thoughtless, sometimes cruel things the residents do to each other. An early scene features a woman stealing a tin of cookies from a friend in an iron lung, a crime for which she is targeted by the scarabs. It’s actually a neat sort of twist on the classic horror-as-morality-play motif. The characters who fall victim to that trope are usually teenagers. Seeing an old woman chosen to be struck down for her sins is an interesting change of pace.

With the horror played straight, it’s largely up to Campbell and Davis – and the ludicrous nature of their situation – to provide the comedy. Campbell’s voiceover narration does a lot of the heavy lifting in that regard. His commentary on the world around him, his feelings about being an old man, and his regret over how his “new life” went so terribly wrong, are actually pretty amusing. The flashbacks that show him trading places with Haff are entertaining as well, if they’re left somewhat unclear as to exactly how real they are. The film doesn’t bother to explain whether our heroes really are who they say they are, or if they simply suffer the delusions of old age, and I’m rather glad they don’t. Confirmation would make the film almost too ridiculous to be believed, while busting the myths would just make them sad figures. The ambiguity is practically essential for the film to remain entertaining.

Coscarelli makes liberal use of the comedy factor in seeing older characters throw around toilet humor. Elvis is constantly concerned with a growth in a private area under his pants, and is overjoyed when it starts to show a little life while his nurse applies ointment. The discussion of the mummy itself is ripe with scatological commentary (pardon the pun). It’s all justified in that it works for the purposes of the story, but one can’t help but get the impression it was structured in such a way as to wring out a few extra laughs by the juxtaposition.

One of the few bits where the laughs fall flat comes from the pair of hearse drivers who arrive after each death. The first one is treated fairly straight, but the next one comes with jokes about the smell of the corpse, and by the final time they appear it’s an outright comedy of errors, as they drop the body and stumble into the bushes. Sandwiched, as it is, between two fairly intense scenes, it’s no doubt intended to be a little light comic relief, but as Coscarelli just made us feel a sense of honor for the body they’re transporting (it’s the man who died naturally and escaped the mummy), treating him as a slapstick prop just feels wrong.

I give Coscarelli some slack, though, for the way he manages to pull some genuine tenderness out of these two truly absurd characters. The friendship between them feels honest and genuine, even if you suspect they’re both totally off their rockers. The scene where Elvis asks Jack what Marilyn Monroe was like in bed would feel crass in most other cases, but instead, it comes across like a bonding moment between two old soldiers, and it makes us believe in both of them just before they’re about to risk their lives to stop the monster. By the time Jack dies, it’s actually heart-wrenching. When Elvis dies a few minutes later, his last words are simultaneously funny, sad, and absolutely perfect: “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

On paper, even as a spoof this movie would sound like a ridiculous, unbelievable, unworkable jumble of big ideas that can’t possibly work in concert. Somehow, though, Coscarelli wrings out a clever, entertaining, and impressively emotional film, one of the deepest movies we’ve yet encountered here in Lunatics and Laughter. That’s not the sort of thing I would have expected, and it’s surprises like this one that make this project worth doing.

Lunatics and Laughter Day 12: Bride of Chucky (1998)

bride-of-chuckyDirector: Ronny Yu

Writer: Don Mancini

Cast: Brad Dourif, Jennifer Tilly, Katherine Heigl, Nick Stabile, Alexis Arquette, Gordon Michael Woolvett, John Ritter, Michael Louis Johnson

Plot: A police officer steals a bagged item from an evidence locker, bringing it to a mysterious woman (Jennifer Tilly) in a parking garage. The woman, Tiffany, kills him and retrieves from the bag the shattered remains of the “Good Guy” doll, Chucky, possessed by the spirit of serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif). As she stitches the doll back together, she begins a ritual to restore it to life. Although her first attempt seems unsuccessful, she uses a pathetic wanna-be Goth named Damian (Alexis Arquette) to help bring him back. Chucky, you see, was her boyfriend for years before he died… and he was violently jealous. With Damian trapped, the doll returns to life and slays him. Tiffany is dismayed when she learns the ring she found in Chucky’s house after he died was not an engagement ring, as she suspected, but just another bauble stolen from one of his victims. Angry, she refuses to continue with the plan to help Chucky regain a human body and locks him up.

Elsewhere, we see a young man named David (Gordon Michael Woolvett) pick up a girl named Jade (Katherine Heigl) for a date. David is just a ruse, though, a clean-cut young man her uncle Warren (John Ritter) doesn’t object to. Once they leave the house, she jumps in the back seat of David’s car, where her boyfriend Jesse (Nick Stabile) is waiting. They’re busted when a beat cop, Norton (Michael Louis Johnson) pulls them over and Jade’s uncle – the Chief of Police — shows up to take her away.

The next day, Tiffany moves a crate with Damian’s corpse out of her trailer and asks her neighbor – Jesse – for help loading it into her car. She flirts with him, but he resists, telling her he’s seeing someone. Tiffany asks him to “treat her right” and leaves. When she returns she has a surprise for Chucky – a Bride Doll she places into his cage to mock him. He uses the ring she places on the doll to cut through his wooden bars and, as she relaxes in a bubble bath, pushes in a television and electrocutes her. As she dies, Chuck repeats the voodoo ritual that trapped him in the doll 10 years ago, placing her spirit into the Bride Doll.

Chucky tells her their only hope of getting human bodies is by means of an amulet that was buried with his real body ten years ago, but they have no way of getting to the cemetery in New Jersey. Tiffany calls Jesse and offers him a thousand dollars to pick up a pair of special dolls from her trailer and transport them. Before he leaves, he goes to Jade’s house and begs her to run away with him. She agrees, and as she rushes to pack, Warren tries to find a way into Jesse’s van. Chucky prepare to stab him, but Tiffany urges him to get more creative. When Warren enters the van, he stumbles into a trap the dolls prepared, riddling his face with nails. The teens, unaware that Warren’s body is in the van, are pulled over by Norton. As he calls the station, the dolls sneak out, light his gas tank on fire, and blow up his car. Jesse and Jade floor it, each suspecting the other of killing Norton and afraid the media is going to pin his death on them.

Despite this, they swing through a wedding chapel in Niagara Falls. Tiffany grows more nostalgic over the prospect of a wedding. Chucky starts to apologize for getting them into the situation, but everything goes crazy as a still-living Warren pops out. As Jade and Jesse are nervously married, Chucky chops up Jade’s uncle with a knife. Jade joins the fun later, butchering another couple at the hotel who steals from Jesse and Jade, and Chucky goes mad with love. The next morning the bodies are found by a maid (Kathy Najimy in a weird cameo) and Jesse and Jade panic and flee.

They’re met by David, who knows each of them have been suspecting each other of killing the people in their wake, but David is convinced there’s a third party: Warren. That theory is shattered, though, when he finds Warren’s body hidden in the van. Now afraid that one of his friends is a killer, he takes Warren’s gun and demands they pull over, revealing the body. The dolls reveal themselves, pulling out guns. Terrified, David stumbles into the street and it pulverized by an 18-wheeler. The dolls demand Jesse starts driving. The plan is revealed now – they want to place their spirits into Jesse and Jade’s bodies.

On the radio, a news bulletin says that Charles Lee Ray’s fingerprints were found at the scene of one of the “Jesse and Jade” murders, and that Ray’s body will be exhumed. As they continue towards New Jersey in a stolen camper, Jesse and Jade stir a little discord between the grotesque couple. While they argue, the teens take advantage and shove Tiffany into the oven and Chucky out the window. The camper crashes and the teens barely get out. Jesse takes Tiffany hostage as Chucky takes Jade and forces her to take him to the cemetery. The men force each other to let the women go, and Chucky throws a knife at Jade, but Jesse takes it in his back instead. Tiffany distracts him, taking his knife and stabbing him in the back, too touched by Jesse and Jade’s love to destroy it. The dolls fight, Chucky stabbing Tiffany. Jesse knocks the doll into Ray’s open grave and Jade guns him down. A cop who’s been pursuing them arrives in time to see Chucky’s death and lets them go, swearing no one will believe it. Moments later, Tiffany begins screaming, her stomach twitching… and a little baby doll spurts out in a gout of blood.

Thoughts: The original Child’s Play movie was an earnest effort at a scary movie about a murderer who took over the body of a creepy little doll and went on a killing spree. Like I said in the eBook edition of Reel to Reel: Mutants, Monsters and Madmen (totally available on Amazon.com for just $2.99, you guys), it never quite worked for me. It was a little too ridiculous, a little too silly, and eventually, the filmmakers came to agree with me. By this film, fourth in the series and the first to drop the Child’s Play banner and begin marketing it via Chucky himself, they realized it wasn’t as scary as it should be and decided instead to play it for laughs.

The movie, and the franchise, takes a sharp turn in this film. It’s the first time the movie abandons the concept of a child possessing the abandoned doll in favor of the new adventures of Chucky and Tiffany. I’m guessing this was a practical concern – putting a child in danger makes for good drama in a horror film. It’s a little tasteless to do the same if you’re trying to make a joke out of the whole thing. But hacking up teens and adults? That’s fair game for a few good chuckles.

Let’s face it – if one murderous doll is hard to take seriously as a movie monster, two of them are virtually impossible. Once Tiffany is inside her doll as well, it’s like watching some horrific version of It’s A Small World. The jokes start flying fast and furious as well – Tiffany tells Chucky she wouldn’t be with him if he had G.I. Joe’s body, she sits around reading Voodoo For Dummies… there are moments where the film trends dangerously close to becoming a flat-out spoof.

There’s an odd sort of visual transition here as well. In order to make Chucky less frightening, they make him more menacing. Tiffany’s crude stitch job has become the de facto image for Chucky, replacing the pristine and far creepier Good Guy doll look he started with. We also start getting a lot of good visual gags as well. My favorite bit is at the police evidence room at the very beginning, where we see a couple of familiar masks, a chainsaw, and a bladed glove. I’m not sure if this was an actual effort to join the fun of smashing horror movie killers together (something people had been calling for since Freddy Krueger’s surprise cameo in 1993’s Jason Goes to Hell) or just a little treat for the fans, but it was a cool visual moment for someone like me, someone who lives off looking for the connections and influences amongst these films. If that isn’t enough for you, though, Yu pulls out the most blatant homage in Tiffany’s death scene. The movie she’s watching in the bathtub as Chucky roasts her? The universal classic Bride of Frankenstein. The Easter Eggs keep coming after that, with references to Hellraiser and others sprinkled in throughout the film. (It’s worth noting, by the way, that Ronny Yu would go on to finally marry the two biggest franchises of the 80s in 2003′s Freddy Vs. Jason.)

Perhaps a less inspired choice was the decision to insert cartoon sound effects into the moments of violence. The same thing happened a few times in Army of Darkness, but as that was more of a cartoony sort of violence, it didn’t really bother me. The violence in this movie is much more graphic, though. Using a sound clip that sounds like it came out of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon when Chucky rips out Damian’s piercings in a bloody fountain, though… well now, that’s different. Fortunately, they don’t maintain that for every kill. The moment where Tiffany slays the couple in the hotel room by shattering the mirror over their waterbed and letting the shards rain down on them is the equal to any good horror film. We lose the horror, though, and go into just plain bizarre a few seconds later when the dolls consummate their relationship. Pretty much the only way to absorb the tender way in which the scene is filmed is to keep telling yourself it’s just a parody, just a parody, repeat it until it’s over, just a pa– oh god the dolls are talking about condoms.

In the weirdest way, the movie kind of follows the track of a romantic comedy. Chucky and Tiffany are reunited after a long absence; they’re torn apart by a misunderstanding, and slowly find each other again. It would almost be sweet if it wasn’t for the fact that they’re a pair of murderous dolls. There’s also a weird sort of statement about gender roles here. Chucky keeps trying to force Tiffany into the 50s domestic housewife stereotype, which she seems perfectly willing to do until someone points out to her that it’s kind of demeaning. Then, once we’re down to the two couples in the climax, the two men take the two women hostage in order to battle it out. On the other hand, the ladies get the upper hand in the end – Tiffany thwarts Chucky and Jade is the one to blow him away.

Like so many of the horror movies of this past, this one is often talked about for either yet another sequel or a remake. I have to be honest, although I haven’t seen the final film in the series (2004’s Seed of Chucky) I’d rather they continue the story on the track they’re on, because I really get more enjoyment out of the franchise when they’re cracking wise about how ridiculous their situation is and how goofy horror films in general tend to be. This is definitely a case where going back to the beginning would cost us something in translation.

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

army-of-darknessDirector: Sam Raimi

Writers: Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lunatics and Laughter Day 8: Beetlejuice (1988)

beetlejuiceDirector: Tim Burton

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 7: The Toxic Avenger (1984)

toxic-avengerDirectors: Michael Herz & Lloyd Kaufman

Writers: Lloyd Kaufman & Joe Ritter

Cast: Mitch Cohen, Andree Maranda, Jennifer Babtist, Cindy Manion, Robert Prichard, Gary Schneider Dick Martinsen, Pat Ryan Jr., Kenneth Kessler, Patrick Kilpatrick

Plot: Welcome to Tromaville, a small suburb of New York City, and the number one dumping ground for toxic chemicals in America. Melvin Ferd (Mark Torgl) the janitor at a local health club, is constantly tormented by a group of club members, including Bozo (Gary Schneider), Slug (Robert Prichard), Wanda (Jennifer Babtist), and Julie (Cindy Manion). They decide to teach him a lesson, with Julie luring him into a locker room just as a truck full of exposed barrels of toxic waste parks outside. She tricks him into putting on a pink tutu and poka-dotted leotard, and he is humiliated in front of the club’s customers, fleeing through a window and landing in the toxic barrels. People continue to mock him as the chemicals burn through his skin and Melvin, now burning alive, stumbles home and sits in a cold bath, where he transforms into a hulking brute of incredible size and strength.

A group of drug dealers, meanwhile, try to buy off a cop (O’Clancy, played by Dick Martinsen) who refuses to cooperate. Before they can castrate him with his own gun, a huge man (Mitch Cohen, voiced by Kenneth Kessler) appears and savagely kills two of the criminals (well… kind of savagely, the fight itself is actually played mostly for laughs), leaving a mop across their faces. Mayor Peter Belgoody (Pat Ryan Jr.) is horrified by the murders… mostly because the dead criminals were some of the best dealers in his employ.

The Monster – a mutated Melvin, of course – shocks his own mother into a dead faint. Despondent, he makes his way to the Tromaville garbage dump and constructs a crude home for himself there. Later, a group of criminals robs a Mexican restaurant, killing a bystander and a seeing-eye dog belonging to a blind woman named Sarah (Andree Maranda). The crooks’s leader, Leroy (Patrick Kilpatrick) is preparing to rape her, when the Monster Hero appears and fights them, ripping an arm off the would-be rapist and sending the customers fleeing in terror. The Monster beats the crooks and finishes them off in the restaurant’s kitchen. He goes to the sobbing Sarah and she begs him to help her home, where they begin to become friends. Given new confidence, Melvin begins a one-man war on crime, battling pimps, drug dealers, and other criminals, and saving lives along the way. The newspapers begin to run stories about the “Monster Hero” of Tromaville. Belgoody sends his men to hunt the monster down.

Melvin and Sarah fall in love, and he takes her back to his junkyard hideout to live. He returns to the health club, attacking Julie in the locker room. Minutes later he finds Bozo and Slug, fresh from beating an old woman to steal her car. He hurls Slug from the car and sends Bozo through a series of crashes, burning him alive but leaving Melvin unharmed.

Things go bad when Melvin kills a little old woman in a dry cleaner’s shop, turning people against the Monster Hero. Ashamed, he goes home and tells Sarah the truth about who he is and what he has done. They decide to leave town, and Belgoody rejoices… until he discovers the old woman was the leader of a slavery ring. Belgoody covers it up and sends the cops out to hunt the Monster. They find him and Sarah in the woods, and the town assembles outside their tent, torn between people who want to protect the monster and Belgoody and his men who want to kill him. The townspeople stand in front of Melvin to protect him, soon joined by O’Clancy and the rest of the cops. Belgoody opens fire, but the bullets bounce off Melvin. He stalks Belgoody to his limo and rips his guts out, literally. The townspeople applaud the vicious murder, Melvin kisses Sarah, and all in Tromaville is well once again.

Thoughts: It would be impossible to get through a month of horror/comedy without touching upon the films of Troma. Lloyd Kaufman’s legendary low-budget B-movie studio has become synonymous with campy sci-fi and monster flicks, and how better to represent them than with this, their flagship property?

Buoyed by the likes of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz built this film (and, for that matter, their entire film studio) on the premise of the “So Bad It’s Good” movie. Whereas older movies – the sci-fi and horror clunkers of the 50s and 60s – made an earnest attempt at making good movies and simply fell short, Kaufman has no such delusions. From the beginning of the movie the acting is terrible, the script laughable, and the special effects and graphics absurdly cheap, even by 1984 standards. Watch the quality of this film compared to Ghostbusters and you’d swear that Toxie’s debut is at least ten years older, instead of both films coming out in the same year.

The film’s absurdity doesn’t just come from the effects and acting, though. Kaufman sets out to be as deliberately offensive as possible. There’s an early scene where one of the punks and his girlfriend recite a litany of racial slurs and other negative stereotypes, ranking them on a point system for running them over with a car, before finally deciding to target a kid on a bicycle (children under 12 being worth maximum points). They hit the kid once, then back over him to crush his head, stop, and take pictures. The sympathies of the audience are swinging wildly at this point. You hate the gang for doing it, which is how you’re supposed to feel, but by the time the girls whip out the Polaroid camera, you’re pretty much ready to hate the filmmakers as well.

toxic-crusaders

Our hero, ladies and gentlemen…

(It is worth noting, at this point, that the Toxic Avenger films eventually spawned a children’s cartoon show. I doubt most of the moms who let their kids sit through it would have been thrilled if they saw this particular sequence.)

Kaufman actually triples the genres he plays with here. His heavy layer of goofy comedy is draped over a plot that draws upon nuclear-mutant themed monster movies and wraps it around the skeleton of a superhero origin story. No superhero has ever been so ridiculous, though – even the drivers of the truck that gives us the “toxic” part of the hero’s name comment on how ridiculous it is for them to drive around with open, sloshing barrels full of chemical sludge. Belgoody is also an extreme stereotype of a villain. It’s hard to believe even the most corrupt politician in a serious film would think he could get away with dumping toxic chemicals literally twenty feet away from the city’s drinking water. Even Belgoody’s gang is comical – it’s a patchwork of stereotypes, containing a street hood, a Capone-style gangster, and representatives of just about every crime stereotype there is. The notion is preposterous enough to remind us that this film takes place in, at best, an exaggerated reality, where all of the elements that make up monster movies and superhero films have been amplified to a ridiculous degree.

At times, the movie starts to outsmart itself. The toxic reservoir scare, for instance, is played up as though it will be a major plot point, perhaps even the Big Evil the hero will battle in the film’s climax. That isn’t what happens, though – it’s mentioned once and then abandoned as Belgoody’s resources are turned exclusively towards seeking out the monster. Most of the villains are portrayed as one-off as well – the theatrical mob Leroy leads is all killed right away, for example. Even the moments where Melvin confronts his tormentors seem like they’re worked in simply to tie off those dangling threads while we’re waiting to get back to the real plot, such as it is.

Kaufman picks up on a lot of sources, with Melvin’s transformation smacking of the Incredible Hulk and his relationship with Sarah echoing both the friendship Frankenstein’s monster shared with the blind (Gene Hackman in the Mel Brooks version) and the longtime romance in the Fantastic Four comics, in which the mutated Thing finds love with blind sculptor Alicia Masters.  He even picks up on a few slasher tropes – Melvin’s fatal confrontation with Julie comes complete with a silhouette shot of the monster approaching her with a pair of menacingly raised scissors. It sends images of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees across the brain, until you remember that this is your hero.

Sarah takes us to the extremes of broad comedy, knocking over an entire rack of canes and smacking Melvin accidentally, playing up on pretty much every joke you could think of making about the blind. Although not as bad as the scene with the racial slurs, this starts to tread close to the line of being offensive as well. And true to form, Kaufman doesn’t care at all. In a way, it’s almost a liberating thought. When you see so clearly that you’re dealing with somebody who doesn’t give a damn what you think of him, you manage to stop giving a damn and concentrate more on the actual content of what you’re watching.

Is it cheap? Yes. Is it exploitive? Oh yeah. Is it ludicrous? To be kind. But like the makers of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Lloyd Kaufman and his Troma team have never attempted to take themselves seriously. They know what they are, they know what their audience expects, and they deliver it as effectively (and as cheaply) as they possibly can. It will never make for great cinema, but nobody can deny that this is a film studio that consistently meets its goal, artistically. It’s easy when you set the bar so low.