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Freaky Firsts Day 7-Leprechaun (1993)

Leprechaun 1993Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Mark Jones

Writer: Mark Jones

Cast: Warwick Davis, Jennifer Aniston, Ken Olandt, Mark Holton, Robert Gorman, Shay Duffin, John Sanderford, Pamela Mant, John Volstad

Plot: In a delightful drunken stupor, Dan O’Grady (Shay Duffin) comes home to North Dakota from a trip to Ireland, and informs his wife (Pamela Mant) he took a Leprechaun’s pot of gold. That night, the Leprechaun itself (Warwick Davis) springs from Dan’s suitcase and shoves Mrs. O’Grady down the basement stairs. When Dan returns from hiding the gold, he holds up a four-leaf clover – which evidently has the same effect on Leprechauns as crosses to vampires or Kryptonite to Superman – and shoots it. He crates the Leprechaun and is about to torch it, but collapses, seemingly dead.

Ten years later – conveniently explained to us by a title card on the screen – Tory Reding (Jennifer Aniston and her original nose) and her father J.D. (John Sanderford) move into the old O’Grady house, Tory complaining as much as a spoiled debutante who ran away from her dentist fiancé at the altar and just can’t get the hang of life in the big city on her own. She runs into handyman Nathan (Ken Olandt), whose rampant sexism pretty much guarantees they’ll hook up before the end of the movie. In an effort to prove how tough she is, she elects to stay. She also attempts to ply Nathan with Kool-Aid in the basement and finds the crate, waking up the Leprechaun, which means the fact that there are at least seven movies in this franchise is entirely her fault.

The Leprechaun uses a child’s voice to trick Nathan’s evidently mentally-handicapped assistant, Ozzie (Mark Holton) into freeing him from the crate. Ozzie escapes to warn everyone, none of whom believe a word, because even the 12-year-old (Alex, played by Robert Gorman) thinks he’s an idiot. Still, when an unbelievably clear rainbow appears in the sky, Ozzie and Alex follow it to a rusted pickup truck with a gold piece on the front seat. At the house, the Leprechaun scratches Tory’s leg while hiding under the car, then hides in a tree so he can bite J.D., who will apparently stick his hand in any hole that he thinks has a cat in it.

The Leprechaun follows them to town, where J.D. is seeking medical help and Ozzie and Alex look to get their gold appraised. The Leprechaun kills the coin dealer (John Volstad), then rushes off in a toy car – really – until he gets pulled over and kills a cop, too. While he’s doing this, Tory proclaims her vegetarianism, setting up the image of them as being obnoxious and pushy that would last for at least 20 years. The house painting trio take her home and Nathan announces his intention to stay in the house overnight, as all paid house painters do. The Leprechaun finally attacks, catching Nathan in a bear trap and fighting with the whole group.

This happens a little more than halfway through the movie and is followed by a series of set pieces in which he attacks them, sets traps, and tries to get his gold back, because apparently this will make him more powerful. He reclaims the treasure, but has to return and attack again because there’s a single piece missing (which Ozzie swallowed earlier). This is followed by another series of set piece battles, each more humiliating than the last for the good name of the House of Davis.

Ozzie then remembers O’Grady, in a rest home since the stroke he had the night he brought the Leprechaun home, and they decide to seek him out and ask him how to kill it. This, of course, begs the question: If O’Grady knew there was a Leprechaun in the basement of the damned house, why was he selling it in the first place? And furthermore, isn’t that the sort of thing a realtor is required by law to disclose to the new owners? “Spider infestation, leprechaun in basement, total number of murders: 12?” Something like that.

Tory finds O’Grady mangled in the nursing home elevator. Bleeding and dying, he tells her the only way to kill a leprechaun is to put a freshly-plucked four-leaf clover on its body, rendering it vulnerable to more conventional means of killing things. She rushes back to the house, where there’s a clover patch (glowing green, as it turns out), and begins searching for a bit o’ luck. Nathan shows up to save her from the Leprechaun’s latest attack, and the adults continue looking for clover, leaving the child, Alex, to play with a bear trap in an empty barn while there’s a murderous pixie on the loose. He nearly kills the kid, but Ozzie lures him away by revealing the location of the last coin. Tory produces a clover – literally by saying “I believe” – and Alex shoots it down the Leprechaun’s throat with a slingshot. He disintegrates into slime and falls into a well, because at this point Mark Jones said, “what, you mean we need an ending?” But the Leprechaun climbs up once more, so Nathan knocks him back down, fills the well with gasoline, and blows it up in a fashion that would make the Mythbusters cringe.

Thoughts: Isn’t it amazing to think that there was once a time when Warwick Davis could get top billing in a movie over Jennifer Aniston? Even this one? My, what a world we live in.

Despite the fact that this is considered, in some circles, the gold standard of horror movie cheese, I’ve actually never seen it before. And boy, was the cheese factor evident. Warwick Davis wears a costume that’s basically Irish blackface for the entire movie, prancing around like a clown and engaging in antics that would make a circus clown blush. At about the time he rushes off behind Nathan’s pickup truck on a tricycle, Erin turned to me and said, “Do you think he ever regrets doing this?” I replied, “Well, he made five more of them, so if he did, the regret was outweighed by the paycheck.”

This is, in essence, a slasher movie, a kind of last gasp of the great 80s onslaught of brutal killers, and as such, it makes use of the tropes of the genre, including nasty traps and over-the-top set pieces. Unlike the Michaels or Freddies of the world, though, the Leprechaun has a bizarre predilection towards tiny automobiles, which of course makes perfect sense given his origin as a creature of Irish folklore and the fact that he’s 600 years old.

Due to his size, the closest real equivalent to the character in Who’s Who Among Movie Killing Machines would be Chucky, but that’s a comparison that only makes the Leprechaun pale. The first Child’s Play movie, back before they gave up on trying to be frightening and went straight for black comedy, at least had some genuinely creepy moments of a doll coming to life. It’s an image that freaks out a lot of people anyway, and the movie rolled with that, and as a result the battles between Chucky and his larger co-stars never looked nearly as silly as those between the Leprechaun and his. The first “fight scene,” such as it is, shows him clawing at Nathan’s ankle while Jennifer Aniston beats him over the head with a sick. And while this movie is, of course, pre-Friends, Aniston put for them same sort of performance she did every time that series wanted to show her being out of her element – flailing wildly and ineffectually, and frankly, comically.

This movie is trying to be darkly comedic, but fails on every level, primarily on the level that it’s just not funny. The gags are stale, the performances are weak, the characters are awful, and as much as I despise the cult of political correctness, even I start to feel uncomfortable every time Warwick Davis starts singing anything that includes the phrase “fiddle-dee-dee.” By the time he crashes through a fence and leaves a leprechaun-shaped hole behind, you’ve simply got to surrender the entire movie on the grounds that this bit can be wildly funny, but exclusively in old Looney Tunes shorts and that one scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Considering his Academy-award winning performance in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, it’s almost sad to see Mark Holton slumming it in this movie. To think that the man who played the chilling master villain Francis Buxton rolled into this film a mere eight years later, doing his worst impression of Lennie from Of Mice and Men and swallowing a gold doubloon because he utterly misunderstood the idea of “biting” when he thinks that will tell him if the gold is real… well, it’s just kind of pathetic.

I know this may draw fire from certain circles of horror fans, but this movie was simply awful. It’s easy to mock, at least, and could potentially be some fun as part of a bad movie marathon while your friends sit around and try to pull out their best Mystery Science Theater 3000 riffs on it, but that’s pretty much where the appeal begins and ends.

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

Freaky Firsts Day 6: Screamtime (1983)

Screamtime (1986)Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Directors: Michael Armstrong, Stanley A. Long

Writer: Michael Armstrong

Cast: Vincent Russo, Michael Gordon, Marie Scinto, Robin Bailey, Ann Lynn, Jonathon Morris, Dione Inman, John Styles, Bosco Hogan, Ian Saynor, Yvonne Nicholson, Veronica Doran, David Van Day, Dora Bryan, Jean Anderson, Gary Linley, Matthew Peters

Plot: Ed and Bruce (Vincent Russo and Michael Gordon) are in for a fun night of shoplifting VHS tapes and invading his “friend” Marie (Marie Scinto)’s apartment to watch them. This loose framing sequence brings us into a trilogy of horror shorts.

In the first film, “That’s The Way We Do It,” a penniless puppeteer named Jack (Robin Bailey) is told by his wife Lena (Ann Lynn) she’s taking her son Damien (Jonathon Morris) and moving to Canada. Damien, Jack’s stepson, begins to torment the old man, asking to set fire to his Punch and Judy dolls before they leave and saying Jack isn’t the man his father was. Damien attacks Jack during a show and sets fire to his puppet stage. His Punch puppet survives the blaze, seemingly comes to life, and delivers a savage beating to Damien. When her son doesn’t come home that night, a frustrated Lena finally gives Jack an ultimatum: her or the puppets. Naturally, that night, Punch takes care of her, too. Jack calls a doctor to tend to her, and confesses that he’s afraid of the puppet, who is now acting out his brutal puppet shows for real, and soon, the Doctor dies. The next day, Damien’s girlfriend (Dione Inman) comes to investigate, only to find Jack gone mad, acting out the Punch role. He chases her, falling into a garbage truck, and is crushed.

“Dreamhouse” is next. Newlyweds Tony and Susan (Ian Saynor and Yvonne Nicholson) move into a new house, where Susan begins seeing a boy circling their yard on a bicycle. The house, meanwhile, is a mess – electrical problems and a strange red substance that comes out in the water. Whenever she tries to confront the boy, he vanishes, and blood appears on a kitchen knife she was using to cut vegetables. Instead of running away like a sane person, Susan just keeps waking up Tony in the middle of the night to investigate the strange noises she’s hearing on top of everything else. As he’s gone, she sees a man with a knife prancing through the halls (literally prancing – he dashes past her bedroom door like a ballerina). She sees blood everywhere, a corpse in her bed, a bloody child on the bannister and – most horrific of all – a house painter. She finally calls a medium, Miss Burns (Veronica Doran) to investigate the house, but even she thinks Susan is nuts. Left alone in the house, Susan’s visions converse, and she’s forced to watch one of her ghosts as it slays some of the others. Tony is forced to commit his wife and sell the house. As he comes by to get something he left, he sees the new family, including a boy on a bicycle, a teenager painting a room… and he’s slain by a the killer in the back of his car.

Finally, there’s “Do You Believe in Fairies?” Gavin (David Van Day) is a motorcycle rider desperate for money. He winds up taking a handyman job for a pair of old women named Emma and Mildred (Dora Bryan and Jean Anderson), whose yard is awash in ceramic gnomes. As they interview him for the job, they ask an interesting question – if he believes in fairies. When he notices the large wad of cash Emma pulls his pay from, Gavin plans to rob the women. With his friend Frank (Gary Lindey) and his brother Tim (Matthew Peters), he sneaks into the house. Then the gnomes appear – dozens of the ceramic figures, all inside and giggling at them. When one of them, now full-sized, jumps on Tim’s back… well…, the tension isn’t exactly broken. In the yard, figures wrapped in white crawl from the ground to attack Frank (I don’t know what the hell those are supposed to be, Mummies maybe), while Gavin is faced with the horror of a beautiful girl in period costume who apparently can throw knickknacks with her mind. She winds up stripping his shirt off and making out with him, because why not?, before using her powers to stab him with lots of pointy things. Later, we see the old women hiring a new gardener, where they add the interesting tidbit that the girl who kissed Gavin is their ancestor, and she made a contract with the fairies that they could have the souls of her lovers as slaves.

As the framing sequence ends, a hand pops out of the TV and kills Ed, while Bruce is beaten to death by the Punch puppet. What the hell.

Thoughts: It’s sad that there isn’t really that much to say about what is, essentially, four movies. Michael Armstrong took three of his own unrelated short films and created a fourth to act as a way to piece them together. Unfortunately, none of them is particularly interesting, memorable, or well-made.

The first short, with the puppeteer, feels really by-the-book – you’ve got your poor, put-upon protagonist who is saddled with a miserable family and has to deal with their cruelty and indifference towards his own life. And what’s more, considering that Damian is an older teenager, one has to wonder at what stage of life Jack and Lena even got married. If the whole Punch and Judy thing was so reprehensible for her, why did she marry this guy in the first place? It doesn’t make sense from any sort of character standpoint.

Perhaps the best selling point of this short is the reveal that it’s Jack himself who is murdering people, and not the puppet. Although Anderson is anything but a competent director (more on that later), he does a fairly effective job of angling the camera so as to make it appear that Punch is supposed to be moving on his own. When the girlfriend sees that Jack has been manipulating the puppet all along, you remember suddenly that all of the shots concealed where Jack’s puppeteer would be, in the best Muppet fashion. You’re simply so ready for the movie to be a crappy supernatural horror film that it’s actually sort of refreshing that it turns out to be a crappy slasher film instead.

Then there’s “Dreamtime,” a short with a reveal that really forces you to scratch your head. Again, it’s a twist – instead of visions of the house’s horrific past, Susan was having visions of its horrific future. It’s an interesting idea that helps keep this from being just a standard haunted house story. That said, many of Anderson’s directing choices are so poor that it totally negates any chance for the short to build real momentum. The pacing is intolerably sluggish, and there are plenty of slow, interstitial shots that really add nothing to the story, the mood, the characters… anything. Plus, I know it was the early 80s, but Susan’s glasses… man. Lenses that would overwhelm the most doe-eyed Anime girl set in chintzy plastic frames that belong not in a classy British suburb, but in any of America’s finest trailer parks.

“Do You Believe in Fairies?” is set up like a morality tale – Gavin and his crew are pretty reprehensible, and you’re ready for just about any nasty thing to happen to them. But any hope you have of some sort of satisfying karmic retribution evaporates when Tim is attacked by the gnome. A diminutive actor in the stupidest, most stereotypical costume you could possibly imagine is not the way to jolt your audience into compliance with the acceptable social norms of your civilization. Frankly, the whole thing could have boiled down to our three crooks versus the Lollipop Guild from The Wizard of Oz and it would have been just as – if not more – frightening.

As if Anderson hadn’t worked hard enough to convince us he didn’t belong in a director’s chair, the short ends with Emma asking the new gardener, “Do you believe in fairies?” and then looking directly at the camera. All it was missing to achieve maximum cheesiness was a literal wink at the screen. It didn’t help that, cutting back to the framing sequence, Ed answers her before he’s strangled by a disembodied hand that has nothing to do with anything.

The framing sequence, the piss-poor attempt to tie all of this together into something cohesive, is perhaps the biggest mess of all. Starting with a shower scene that pretty much defines the word “gratuitous,” we then see Maria seduce Bruce for no apparent reason, then everyone dies for even less of a reason.

Is this film hopeless? I honestly don’t know. I watched this one alone, while Erin was at work, so it’s possible that I lost out on part of the experience of communally enjoying a crappy movie. The film does have some of the elements that make a really good bad movie too, including bad acting and terrible costumes. The problem is, I don’t know if it has enough of any of those things to make it worth watching. And frankly, having seen it once already, I don’t really feel compelled to test the theory. I won’t be revisiting this one, but if you choose to do so, I recommend getting some friends together before you start, and let me know if it’s more fun to watch it with them than I had watching this stinker by myself.

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

Freaky Firsts Day 2: Detention (2012)

Detention 2011Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Joseph Kahn

Writers: Joseph Kahn & Mark Palermo

Cast: Alison Woods, Julie Dolan, Shanley Caswell, Josh Hutcherson, Joe Keane, Parker Bagley, Marque Richardson, Aaron David Johnson, Spencer Locke, Travis Fleetwood, Carrie Wiita, Tiffany Boone, Erica Shaffer, Walter Perez, Dane Cook

Plot: Head cheerleader Taylor (Alison Woods) doesn’t show up for school, as she’s been inconveniently murdered by a movie slasher named Cinderhella. Since she’s unavailable, the film instead focuses on Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell), a depressed young vegetarian whose suicidal tendencies start to flare up. She’s actually saved from an attempted hanging when Cinderhella attacks her, prompting her to fight her way loose. Unfortunately, nobody believes her, even though a fellow student was butchered just that morning.

Cinderhella turns up again at Riley’s house that night, but she again manages to escape as he (she? I think it might actually supposed to be a she) gets caught up in the neighbor’s swing set, then leaves her in a pool. She tries to convince hipster heartthrob Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson) that she’s not crazy, but instead somehow winds up on a double-date with him and her ex-best friend Ione (Spencer Locke), while she’s stuck with nerd-with-a-crush Sander (Aaron David Johnson).

There are several irrelevant scenes after this, including a football game in which the star player has flashbacks to his own conception (his father was a fly monster), and a fight at a party that wasn’t a costume party after all. That party ends with lunatic jock Billy (Parker Bagley) getting killed by Cinderhella, making us all hope she’s just getting started. Finally, three hours and 27 minutes into this 93-minute film, Riley and several of her friends are given Saturday detention. At night. During the Prom. For the crime of being at a party off-campus when one of their fellow students was killed. Then again, the principal is Dane Cook, so maybe that makes sense in his brain.

Oh yes, there’s also some time-travel, body-swapping, and a kid who has been in detention for 19 years. It’s… it doesn’t even make sense in context. But eventually, it leads us to our cast barricading the school library while Cinderhella tries to break in and kill them and a weird kid (Walter Perez) warns them that the world is going to end in 9 minutes 19 years ago and I think I just got a nosebleed writing that sentence. Riley uses a stuffed bear to go back in time and stop the apocalypse, which is evidently being caused by Clapton, or maybe Sander, or maybe Poppa Freaking Smurf for all I can tell at this point. (As they’re in 1992, my wife commented that the high school must be how “old people feel when they watch a movie about when they grew up and it’s all wrong.” “Baby,” I replied, “I think we’re the old people now.”) And they fix the timestream and… the principal is cool now… and… and… oh, and Cinderhella turns out to be Sander, who fights Clapton in a Mortal Kombat-esque sequence that leads into a Breakfast Club ending, and now I want to go somewhere and cry.

Thoughts: Detention’s inclusion in this list is the result of what I like to call “NetFlix Roulette.” My wife scrolled through the available horror movies with the intention of watching whatever it landed on, then did it again when the first winner was in black and white. I think she regretted this almost immediately.

Detention takes an interesting approach by starting with a character – Alison Woods’s Taylor – who is so thoroughly repulsive as a human being that you’re actually quite happy when the killer “Cinderhella” pops in and slaughters her after only a few minutes of her railing to the camera about how to be as pathetically shallow as possible. It’s actually a nice little bit with a decoy protagonist, although director Joseph Kahn takes it a little farther than is wise – two more minutes of Taylor and I may have turned it off and looked for another film to review.

After the admittedly satisfying death scene at the beginning, the movie then goes through a seemingly interminable sequence introducing our cast – a series of teenagers who are all miserable in different ways that are allegedly entertaining to watch, but in fact, just make them all seem pretentious as hell. Josh Hutcherson, for example, seems poised to be our hero, and therefore distinguishes himself by promising to start a blog where he dismisses any music popular enough for anybody else to have heard of and then argues the relative merits of Patrick Swayze as an action hero versus Steven Segal. Shortly thereafter, my wife started to announce, “Isn’t this supposed to be dying people? I want these people to die and nobody is dying.”

The film cuts around to assorted Family Guy-style aside scenes, frequently punctuated by title cards and weird on-screen commentary, such as assuring us that the movie Detention takes a firm stance against drunk driving, which is probably a relief to all the parents who were waiting for this particular movie to teach their children that valuable lesson. I’m all for metafiction – movies and TV shows that are, in fact, about movies and TV shows can be highly entertaining. But whereas something like Scream was both an interesting commentary on horror movies and an entertaining slasher film in its own right, Detention seems to have been generated by scrawling a bunch of pop culture references onto blank Cards Against Humanity cards, playing a few rounds, and then calling that a script. (I include casting Dane Cook as the principal in this category.)

This movie has many, many faults, but I think most of them can be summed up by comparing it to a shotgun. Joseph Kahn and Mark Palermo clearly intended to parody a dozen different things, but rather than figuring out what point they wanted to make and focusing in on it, they stuffed as many different things down the barrel as they could and shot at the wall, hoping something – anything – would hit the intended target. What they got instead of a hodgepodge of unfocused, uncoordinated scenes that don’t actually seem to mean anything. They aren’t funny enough to work as sketch comedy, and they’re certainly not cohesive enough to make for an effective scary movie.

In the end, Detention is probably one of the scarier movies I’ve seen recently, although not for any of the reasons the filmmakers probably intended. (If you want a movie that has a similar sensibility but is actually… y’know… good… I recommend John Dies at the End.)

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

Lunatics and Laughter Day 20: Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil (2010)

tucker-and-dale-vs-evilDirector: Eli Craig

Writer: Eli Craig & Morgan Jurgenson

Cast: Tyler Labine, Alan Tudyk, Katrina Bowden, Jesse Moss, Travis Nelson, Chelan Simmons, Christie Laing, Brandon Jay McLaren, Alex Arsenault, Adam Beauchesne, Philip Granger, Joseph Allan Sutherland

Plot: In the Appalachian Mountains, a group of college students takes a trip to the woods. They stop to get beer, encountering a pair of rednecks. One of the girls, Allison (Katrina Bowden) is startled by the appearance of redneck Dale (Tyler Labine), and the kids hustle back to their car. Dale admires Allison from afar, and his buddy Tucker (Alan Tudyk) tries to convince him to take a chance and approach her. His weak attempt to be friendly frightens the girls. Chad (Jesse Moss) ushers them back into the car, and they speed off. Dejected, Dale slumps back to his truck and Tucker urges him to find the courage to pursue what he wants. The boys are on their way to a “summer home” Tucker bought by the lake, with an eye towards fixing it up. When a beam slips from the ceiling and nearly hits Tucker in the face, they decide they’d better start on the repairs.

At the college students’ campsite, Chad begins telling his friends the story of the “Memorial Day Massacre.” Twenty years ago, a bloodthirsty hillbilly slaughtered a group of college students just like them. Chad comes on to Allison, but she rejects him and goes to her friends, who are skinny-dipping in the lake. Tucker and Dale, meanwhile, are night fishing. When Dale spots Allison stripping, he accidentally startles her and she falls in the water, hitting her head. They pull her from the lake, saving her life, but the other kids mistake the rescue operation for a kidnapping and flee in terror. In the morning, Allison wakes up in Tucker’s cabin, head bandaged, wearing one of Dale’s flannel shirts. As he approaches her, she’s terrified of him… until she realizes he’s just bringing her breakfast. She’s stunned to realize her friends abandoned her when they thought she was in danger, and finds herself slowly charmed by the gentle, sweetly awkward Dale, even giving him permission to call her Allie.

Chad plans an assault on the hillbillies, sending Chuck (Travis Nelson) to try to find the police and Mitch (Adam Beauchesne) to attack Tucker, who’s chopping wood with a chainsaw. Tucker accidentally saws into a beehive and begins to run, Mitch fleeing in a blind panic, impaling himself on a fallen tree and dying. The teens believe Tucker killed him. Back in the cabin, Dale and Allie start playing board games, Allie impressed by his knowledge of trivia and tells him of her plans to become a therapist. Tucker summons him to help outside, and the kids hide from them as they chat about Allison, mistaking their comments and Dale’s misspelled note (“We got yur frend”) for a threat.

Allie joins Dale in digging a hole for the outhouse, revealing she grew up on a farm and is used to hard work, while Tucker gets to work disposing of all the dead wood near the cabin in a huge chipper. (If you have paid any attention since the beginning of this project, you know exactly where this is going.) The teens attack, one of them spearing himself on the stick he planned to use to kill Dale and another leaping at Tucker and landing right in the wood chipper. Allison is accidentally knocked out. The boys bring her inside, believing the college students have entered into some sort of crazy suicide pact. Outside, the kids meet up with Chuck and the Sheriff (Philip Granger).

The Sheriff pulls up at the cabin just as Tucker and Dale get the remains out of the wood chipper. The Sheriff (understandably) doesn’t believe their story, and insists they take him inside to check on Allison. He accidentally triggers the beam that nearly hit Tucker earlier, and a board full of nails is drilled into his forehead. He stumbles outside and dies next to his car full of terrified teens. Chuck takes his gun and tries to shoot the rednecks, but forgets about the safety until Dale reminds him. Chuck winds up blowing his own head off. Chad manages to capture Tucker, dangling him upside-down from a tree and torturing him for being “pure evil.”

Allison wakes up and Dale tearfully says her friends are trying to murder his best friend and his dog. Allison starts to understand the misunderstanding and steps outside to calm her friends, but finds a package left on the stoop: a part of Tucker’s shirt with two fingers and a note from Chad, daring Dale to try to save his friend. Allison’s attempt to explain reveals she was afraid of Dale when she first saw him, and he blames himself for everything that’s happened. He asks her to tell her friends he never wanted to hurt anyone and sets out to rescue Tucker. He stumbles into a trap set by Chad, but the trap misses and he saves his friend. As night falls, Chad and Naomi (Christie Laing) sneak into the cabin. They find Allison alone and Chad begins pouring gas around the cabin, calling the boys evil freaks. Naomi accuses Allison of falling in love with her captor, Chad growing angry before Tucker and Dale arrive. Allie tries to make everyone talk things out, making Earl Gray tea (because Chad is allergic to Chamomile).  Chad reveals his mother was the lone survivor of the Memorial Day Massacre. Outside, the last two teens (Jason-Brandon Jay McLaren, and Chloe-Chelan Simmons) break in. They wind up setting the cabin on fire. The remaining teens, except Chad, are killed, and Dale crashes the truck trying to escape. When he wakes up, Allison is missing and Tucker too injured to go on. Tucker tells Dale he’s a better man than he knows, and that Allison sees it too, and sends him off to be the hero. He tracks Chad to a mill, where Allison is tied up. Dale cuts her free and they run, finding an attic with more newspapers and boxes of tea. The papers reveal that Chad’s mother was actually raped by the hillbilly killer… and the photo of the murderer looks just like Chad. Chad refuses to believe it and he slashes at Dale, but Dale hits him in the face with Chamomile tea. Chad staggers backwards and falls from the window.

The news blames the deaths of the college students on a deranged killer (Chad), and Tucker watches the report from his hospital room, where his fingers have been (mostly) reattached. Dale takes Allison out bowling that night. As he awkwardly tries to profess his feelings for her, she silences him with a kiss.

Thoughts: Being, as I am, from Louisiana, cinematic depictions of the south frequently infuriate me. While every geographic region has some legitimate stereotypes, the notion that being from the south automatically makes someone lackwitted or intolerant is personally insulting and as ignorant as anything the people who make those claims are upset about. And that is why I love Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil. On its face, the movie seems to play into all the backwoods hillbilly stereotypes. It soon becomes clear, though, that writers Eli Craig and Morgan Jurgenson had a totally different agenda with this film. Granted, Tucker and Dale could stand a few more showers and they may not be as refined as the Chads of the world, but they’re unrelentingly clever, hard-working, loyal, and brave. They are the salt of the Earth, and every death in the movie comes not at their hands, but because the college kids are far more stupid and intolerant than they accuse our heroes of being, and bring disaster upon themselves.

Even more so than most modern slasher movies, the death scenes are played for laughs, mainly because every single injury in the movie is either self-inflicted or Chad-inflicted. As it turns out, the only thing funnier than watching a teenager get hacked up by Jason Voorhees is watching a pretentious douche get hacked up because he thinks he’s being chased by Jason Voorhees.

The therapy scene is a great little double-punch. It comes across as a minor dig at the modern attitude of trying to talk through problems that may be beyond talking. Chad is clearly harboring deep, violent issues and it’s doubtful from the outset that there’s anything anyone could say to make him see reason. At the same time, it’s a great way to establish more of Chad’s character (he’s still a one-note villain, but now he’s a one-note villain with a motivation), and get some of the film’s funniest lines out all at once.

In terms of legitimate horror, there isn’t too much here. Some of the death scenes are a little gory and violent, but they’re never played realistically enough to get too horrified. Tucker and Dale are supposed to look disturbing at the outset, but that switch is flipped virtually as soon as they start talking. And while Chad makes for a solid villain, he’s never particularly frightening or intimidating. Tucker and Dale could easily take him out at any point if they weren’t trying to hold back, which they do either because they don’t realize they’re in danger, don’t want to hurt anybody, or are instead more concerned with protecting Allison.

In a strange way, this movie is a further deconstruction of the sort that began with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although it takes its inspiration more from the Last House on the Left or Texas Chainsaw Massacre school of terror. In Buffy, we watched as the typical horror movie victim got the upper hand on the monsters and became a superhero. In Tucker and Dale the reversal goes a step further, with the usual victim becoming the monster himself and the usual monsters becoming champions. It’s such a simple, brilliant change-up that it’s almost impossible to believe it hasn’t been done before. (Unless it has been done before. If it has been done, please let me know.)

Although I wasn’t sure what to make of this movie the first time I watched it, it won me over almost instantly. The change to the usual horror movie formula is fresh and entertaining. Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk are charming comedic actors that work really well together, coming across as a great movie duo. This is the newest movie on the list, receiving only a limited theatrical release and a DVD release earlier this year, so I won’t be surprised if a lot of you haven’t seen it yet. If you fall into that category, go to NetFlix streaming and stream the heck out of it, now, before your Halloween passes. It’s a great way to cap off the season.

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 16: Behind the Mask-The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

behind-the-maskDirector: Scott Glosserman

Writers: Scott Glosserman & David J. Stieve

Cast: Nathan Baesel, Angela Goethals, Robert Englund, Scott Wilson, Zelda Rubinstein, Bridgett Newton, Ben Pace, Britain Spellings, Kate Lang Johnson

Plot: Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals), a journalism grad student, has found the perfect subject for her student film. Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel) was a child possessed by a terrible evil and murdered by an unruly mob years ago. Now, he has risen from the grave to terrorize the town of Glen Echo, Maryland. At least, that’s the story. Vernon, very much alive, has grown up idolizing the likes of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers, and today he’s working to join their ranks. He’s allowing Taylor and her camera crew to film him in the process of becoming the next great slasher killer. Leslie leads Taylor and her crew members, Doug and Todd (Ben Pace and Britain Spellings) to the old house where he lived before his “death.” Teenagers sneak out to the house every year on the anniversary of his demise, and this year, Leslie is planning to return.

But that’s a month away, there’s still a lot of work to do to prepare his “survivor girl’ – the one person he’s going to attack that’s going to survive to carry on his legend. Leslie stakes out waitress Kelly Curtis (Kate Lang Johnson). He waits for her to dump the garbage from the diner and sets up a quick scare for her. The burst of adrenaline from shocking Kelly goes throughout Taylor and the crew, and they and Leslie begin to bond. The crew visits Leslie’s friends Eugene and Jaime (Scott Wilson and Bridgett Newton). Eugene is a retired killer who has been a mentor to Leslie, Jamie his supportive wife. Eugene advises Leslie to make his preliminary strike against someone only loosely connected to Kelly, and he chooses a librarian (Zelda Rubinstein). He plants a fake newspaper article for Kelly to find implying a “great uncle” she never knew about raped Leslie’s mother, thus creating a connection between himself and his target, then waits for her to find it. After the librarian “explains” the article he slays her, but instead of chasing Kelly as intended, he’s interrupted by the sudden appearance of Doc Halloran (Robert Englund). Leslie is ecstatic: he has an “Ahab,” a good person who knows the killer and will stop at nothing to defend the innocent.

Despite Leslie’s insistence that they stay away from Kelly, Taylor visits her diner. Halloran is there, and he warns them that Leslie is not who he claims to be, that he’s from Nevada and is using a fake name. When Kelly approaches, nervous, Taylor and Todd flee. When they return to Leslie he’s enraged, shoving her into their van, but he calms down and promises to tell her everything she needs to know. He confesses he’s not Molly Vernon’s son, just using her name to build his legend, and that he understands if Taylor wants to leave. Reluctantly, she decides to see it through.

He takes her back to the Vernon farm to show her his preparations to the house, barn, apple orchard and mill. He’s made it easy to cut the power, put dead batteries in the flashlights, sabotaged the available weapons, set up rooms to be open to teens having sex and other places to make it easy to dispose bodies… it’s all about narrowing it down to just him and Kelly for a final confrontation. When the teenagers arrive, he even swipes a sparkplug from their car.

When a pair of Kelly’s friends begin having sex, Leslie starts his killing. Taylor and the film crew are suddenly unnerved, realizing how real the situation has become, and Leslie ushers them outside. He goodbye to them, knowing that at the end of the night he’ll be hiding, locked up, or dead anyway. Todd and Doug are ready to leave, but Taylor finds herself unable to stand aside and allow the killing spree to continue. They go into the house to warn Kelly and the others and, to their shock, find the “virginal” Kelly having rambunctious sex. Taylor is unable to understand why Kelly is behaving like just another victim instead of a Survivor Girl. With the teens’ cars sabotaged they rush to Taylor’s van, finding two bodies and an engine that doesn’t work. Taylor tries to urge Kelly to become the heroine Leslie wants him to be, but instead, she turns out to be the next victim. He chases the rest to the barn, killing Todd on the way, and Taylor realizes that Leslie had planned everything from the beginning. Kelly was never supposed to be the real Survivor Girl. Taylor was.

Halloran arrives, but neither he nor Doug – who confesses his love for Taylor – can stop Leslie. Soon he and Taylor are all that remain, racing through the apple orchard and playing out the final confrontation as planned. They arrive at the apple mill, where Taylor knows Leslie has planned the last showdown. Taylor traps him in the apple press and, with his head clamped down, he removes his mask and whispers to Taylor that he knew she was the one. With one final crank of the press, she crushes his head, then sets the mill on fire, weeping. She finds Doug and Halloran, still alive, and they watch the mill burn.

As the credits roll, Leslie’s charred remains are rolled into a police morgue. We watch and listen to his whispering voice. Just as the film ends, he sits up on the slab behind a hapless scrub. Just like the monsters he so idolizes, Leslie Vernon will rise again.

Thoughts: Although not as well-known as most of the other movies in this project, there was never any doubt for me that I would include it. I really don’t remember how I first discovered this little movie a few years back, but it instantly became one of my favorites. Like Shaun of the Dead, it’s ripe with meta-commentary on horror movies. Like Eight Legged Freaks, it manages to parody the genre it loves. But unlike either of these, it twists the entire world of the movie on its ear for a fantastic final act.

During the buildup, the movie comes across as a typical mockumentary. Leslie gives talking head interviews, Taylor follows him in his preparation and asks dozens of questions, and you quickly find yourself as charmed by Leslie as Taylor is. By all appearances, Leslie is a very warm, friendly, congenial young man. He shows great care for his pet turtles and is intensely proud of his enormous library, which is loaded with medical journals and books about escape artists and illusionists. He reminds me of a more gregarious Norman Bates – at the beginning of Psycho Anthony Perkins feels like a really nice (if somewhat browbeaten) sort of guy. Leslie has that same quality, with the added bonus of being funny and entertaining to boot. When the film turns later on and we realize that Taylor and her crew are, in fact, his targets, the effect is shocking. Leslie is a remorseless murderer. The entire movie is about following him as he plans his murders. And yet, when he suddenly starts murdering our heroes, we are shocked and horrified, as if there was no way we could have seen this coming. There’s a brilliance here that is almost impossible to quantify.

Eugene is a very good addition to the cast, allowing the (real) filmmakers to put out commentary on the state of horror movies and of fear itself. The sort of things he says actually make a lot of sense if you filter them through a real-world prism and consider the words as film criticism instead of the actual words of a killer. He comes across as a pretty typical character type – the old pro who’s upset because things just aren’t as good as they used to be. If it weren’t for the fact that he’s talking about cold-blooded murder, he’d be like somebody’s grumpy old uncle.

If you want more horror movie commentary, the extended sequence where Leslie describes the way the killing spree is supposed to go down is going to delight you to no end. Leslie taps into every psychological theory and trope used in the construction of horror movies, pounding home things like imagery, the importance of gender roles in the weapons used and in the Survivor Girl’s metamorphosis into a heroine, and probably a dozen other things I’m forgetting, even though I’m literally typing this paragraph while watching the scene. There’s just too much for me to keep in my head. Glosserman and Stieve could teach a graduate class in the psychology of horror.

A lot of the more lighthearted stuff doesn’t even come from the story or the characters, but from little Easter Eggs the filmmakers throw in for those who know where to look. The references to Freddy, Jason and Michael are obvious, and Robert Englund’s sizable role is a lot of fun. But people wondering where they’ve seen the librarian before would do well to check out Zelda Rubinstein in Poltergeist, and most people won’t even realize the Elm Street resident Taylor tries to talk to is Kane Hodder, the man who played Jason Voorhees more times than any other. Other things, smaller things, litter the background of the film, all of them there to make you laugh if you know where to look.

There are nice tricks on the technical side of the movie as well. Whenever we see one of Leslie’s “attacks,” we switch from the videotaped “mockumentary” style to a more traditional film stock, complete with a musical score, coverage, and all of the other techniques common to movies that don’t fit into the “found footage” subgenre. The “real” scenes grow progressively longer, until the finale, when the movie drops the comedy and the commentary and turns into a straight-up horror movie, with Leslie hunting down Taylor, the true survivor girl.

Towards the end of the film, things begin spiraling through a litany of emotions. Jamie reveals that she was once Eugene’s Survivor Girl, which makes you ask a dozen questions about how the hell she ended up married to him. Taylor and Leslie have a soft, somewhat disturbing conversation as he puts on his makeup and prepares for the evening, and the way he begins sobbing, claiming to be happy at the sudden culmination of his life’s work… it’s eerie. Even now, though, even though we’ve already seen him kill one person for real and watched his plans to kill a dozen more, there’s an unnerving humanity to him that feels somehow honest and wrong at the same time.

I’m also a fan of the visuals of the movie. The “real” segments are high-quality and well-shot, and I love the design of Leslie’s costume and mask. He’s the sort of character that kids should be dressing up as for Halloween every year – creepy mask, shredded clothes, an easy prop weapon to lug around with him… Well, maybe if the sequel ever gets made.

Sadly, the Kickstarter campaign to fund the already-scripted prequel/sequel didn’t succeed, and plans are currently in limbo. The filmmakers and cast – including Robert Englund – are all willing to return to the world of Leslie Vernon, and so is the small but dedicated fan base. So perhaps you’ll allow me to play advocate for a moment. If you’ve read this far into Lunatics and Laughter, I’m willing to bet this is exactly the kind of movie you’d be into. Unfortunately, you also probably never saw it. Do yourself a favor and hunt down the DVD or call it down from NetFlix. It’s a great movie that has everything you love about horror in a unique, incredibly entertaining package. Join us in Leslie’s legion, and help us bring Before the Mask: The Return of Leslie Vernon to life.

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.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 32: Scream (1996)

screamDirector: Wes Craven

Writer: Kevin Williamson

Cast: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courney Cox, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Skeet Ulrich, Jamie Kennedy, Drew Barrymore, Liev Schreiber, Henry Winkler, Roger L. Jackson, W. Earl Brown

Plot: At home alone, a girl named Casey (Drew Barrymore) gets phone calls from a mysterious stranger (voiced by Roger L. Jackson). Although friendly and flirtatious at first, the caller starts to get angry and violent, finally revealing that he’s outside her house and he’s got her boyfriend taped to a chair. He forces her to play a sadistic horror movie trivia game for her boyfriend’s life, but she gets a question wrong (it’s a question that you, dear reader, should be able to answer correctly if you’ve been paying attention to this little experiment) and Steve is slashed. Casey tries to run, but is caught by a cloaked figure in a Ghost-faced mask who stabs her and leaves her dangling in the trees for her parents to find.

The next day we encounter Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), one of Casey’s classmates, who is having trouble dealing with the upcoming one-year anniversary of her mother’s death at the hands of a man named Cotton Weary (Live Schrieber). At school the next day, Sidney’s friend Tatum (Rose McGowan) tells her about the murders, and the media descends upon the campus. Sidney and Tatum’s boyfriends, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard) are overly enthused about the killings, while their film buff buddy Randy (Jamie Kennedy) mocks their cavalier attitude. That night, the killer calls Sidney, claiming to be outside her house. She is saved when Billy arrives, but when he drops a cell phone, she thinks he’s the killer (remember, kids, this was before every person on the planet had four phones in their pants). Tatum’s brother Dewey (David Arquette), a police deputy, arrives and arrests Billy. As Sidney leaves the police station, she is accosted by Gail Weathers (Courtney Cox), a TV reporter who built her career with a hurtful expose about the murder of Sidney’s mother. Sidney punches Gail and goes to Tatum’s house for the night, since her father is out of town. (What is it with horror movie parents who leave town when their kids are being stalked by murderers? Craven pulled this in Nightmare on Elm Street as well.) The next day, Gail and Sidney are confronted again, Gail espousing her theory that Cotton is innocent of Maureen Prescott’s murder, and further suggesting the new killer is related to her case. Billy, meanwhile, is released from jail when an examination of his phone records proves he didn’t call Sidney that night. As she broods, the killer attacks her at school. She escapes, but Principal Himbry (Henry Winkler) cancels all classes until further notice. Unfortunately, Ghostface doesn’t obey school hours – Himbry is his next victim.

Gleeful over the school cancellations, Stu throws a horror movie party at his house. Just about everybody is there, including Gail and Dewey, watching the place in the news van through a camera they hid in the living room. Tatum goes to the garage for more beer, and winds up encountering – and being killed by – Ghostface. Billy and Sid retreat to Stu’s parents room (again, where are the parents?) and she confesses she’s terrified of turning into a “bad seed” like her mother, who was having an affair with Cotton. As they “make up,” downstairs Randy schools the crowd (and the audience) on the rules of surviving a horror movie:

  1. Never have sex.
  2. Never drink or do drugs.
  3. Never, ever, ever, under any circumstances say, “I’ll be right back.”

Naturally, all the rules are being broken all over the place.

The party empties out as the kids discover Himbry’s death, and Randy is left alone. Upstairs, the killer strikes, stabbing Billy and coming after Sid. She tries to run, but he seems to be everywhere, and she winds up climbing onto the roof and falling to the ground. She flees to the news van, where she and Gail’s cameraman (W. Earl Brown) watch the killer creep up on Randy… then run when he hears Sid screaming 30 seconds earlier. The camera is on a delay – one that turns out deadly for the Kenny the Cameraman. Sidney returns to the house, where Dewey staggers out, a knife in his back. Randy and Stu appear, both accusing the other of being the killer, and Sid locks them out of the house, where Billy is staggering around, bloody but alive. He opens the door, lets Randy in, tosses out a Psycho quote and shoots the film geek. Stu comes in through the side entrance with a voice-changer, and Sid finally realizes the game: Billy and Stu have both been killing, taking turns slaughtering their friends. Billy admits it’s all been a revenge game – Sid’s mother had an affair with Billy’s father, which is why Billy murdered Maureen and framed Cotton, and why he’s targeting Sid now. Stu produces Sidney’s father, tied up, who they’re planning to frame for their crimes, leaving the two of them as the heroic survivors, but they’ve got to injure each other first to make it convincing. Billy stabs Stu too deep, though, and he begins dying of blood loss. Gail arrives with a gun, but she’s forgotten to turn the safety off, allowing Billy to disarm her and knock her out. While the killers are distracted, Sid vanishes. She leaps out wearing the mask, stabs Billy with an umbrella, and then battles Stu, finally smashing his head with a TV showing the finale of Halloween. Gail, Randy and Dewey turn out to be alive, but Billy pops up and attacks again. Gail takes him down, though. This time, she remembers to turn the safety off.

Thoughts: Believe it or not, this is the first film on this entire list that I saw when it was actually a new movie. Like I said waaaaaaaay back in the introduction, I never really watched scary movies when I was a kid. In college, my buddy Jason got me to give them a try, and this was one of the earliest. As such, I didn’t quite know all of the tropes and jokes this film is crammed with. But it shows you just how powerful these elements of storytelling have become that I still got enough of them to not only understand this movie, but really enjoy it.

Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven really did usher in a new era of movies here. After Scream, cinemas were deluged with a new wave of  teen horror films and slasher flicks that tried to imitate the rapid fire dialogue and self-referential nature of the movie while completely missing the heart. What they didn’t seem to get is that the filmmakers were doing the greatest kind of parody: the kind made by people who genuinely love that which they lampoon and, at the same time, create a masterful example. The film is full of references to other horror movies (including Wes Craven’s own back catalogue), and contains a now-legendary discussion about the “rules of horror movies” that we’ve been discussing in this project all along. Whether it was Craven or Williamson who’s responsible, the movie is packed with comments about Nightmare on Elm Street, including a Wes Craven cameo wearing a Freddy Krueger mask. Then of course, there’s the greatest Nightmare reference of all: Skeet Ulrich really looks like a young Johnny Depp in this flick.

Craven doesn’t flinch from acknowledging the works of other horror masters, though – the key question in the first scene is a Friday the 13th reference, and The Exorcist’s Linda Blair makes an uncredited cameo as a reporter. We also see numerous Halloween references, including the kids watching that movie on the night of the party, Ghostface giving Sidney a “head tilt” oddly reminiscent of that Michael Myers gives one of his victims in the original film, naming Billy Loomis after Dr. Sam Loomis (who, in turn, was named after a character in Psycho – it’s the circle of life, people) and the highly metatextual exchange when Randy (played, remember, by Jamie Kennedy) yells at Jamie Lee Curtis that the killer is behind her… while the killer is behind him.

Randy, by the way, is a fantastic character. He’s smart, terribly funny, and full of self-referential humor before lesser filmmakers overused it to the point where it’s gotten tedious. Jamie Kennedy was great in this part – what the hell happened to him?

Anyway, back to other horror movies. The problem was, too many of the imitators took Randy’s “rules” as some sort of iron clad set of commandments, and any creativity they may have displayed evaporated. Scream, instead, used those rules as a framework, then layered a particularly clever and rich mystery on top of them. It was a really long time since a horror film succeeded by causing the audience to question whothe killer was or which characters they could trust. This film works as a horror movie that brings in a nice element of comedy as well, but I don’t think it gets the credit it deserves for bringing real mystery back to horror. The fear at the end of the film, during the four-way standoff with Sidney, Randy, Billy and Stu, comes from the fact that Sidney has no idea which of these three boys she can trust (and the totally innocent Randy almost pays for it with his life).

While the body count isn’t enormous in this movie, especially compared to other slashers and gorefests like the Saw films, the kills are really very memorable. Casey’s death was shocking, as the movie was heavily promoted as a Drew Barrymore film and nobody expected her to die in the opening scene, and Tatum’s murder via garage door opener is pretty darn clever. It really makes you want to be careful never to get Kevin Williamson or Wes Craven mad at you.

Ghostface, as a character, is a great addition to the pantheon of horror movie killers. Even though seven different characters have worn the mask in four different movies (as of this writing), it’s almost as if they’re wearing a single character’s entire persona. No matter who Ghostface is, his style of attack is the same, the way he can pop out of anywhere like a damn ninja, the way he takes legitimate damage when his victims fight back but he keeps coming anyway. And the way he never talks in person makes it all the creepier, because unlike Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, you know he can talk. Get him on a phone with a voice changer and he chatters away like a talk show host. But in person, he’s the strong, silent, stabby type.

This film really has one of the great horror movie finales. Lots of movies have a sort of battle of wits in the end between the murderer and the Survivor Girl, but Halloween and Friday the 13th eliminated the pool of potential victims far too early. The great thing about this finale is that once the killer shows up at the party, there are still plenty of people around, and any one of them could be a victim or a murderer. In fact, the only thing that exonerates some of them from being a suspect is getting killed themselves. This, of course, wasn’t the case for Billy Loomis. It’s also notable that the film has a lot more survivors than we’re used to in horror movies. Not only are there two killers, but Survivor Girl Sidney is joined by survivors Gail, Dewey, and Randy. In fact, except for Randy (killed off in memorable fashion in Scream 2, not in a cheap “get ‘em in the first reel” way like I’ve said so many times I hate so much) all of the survivors of this movie have made it four movies into the franchise. That’s got to be some kind of record.

As great a movie as it is, the fact that it was so cutting edge at the time leaves it looking a little dated now. The fact that Billy even had a cell phone was enough to make him a suspect at this point. And of course, the stacks of videotapes (and the fact that Randy works in a video store) both seem kind of quaint already. Plus, y’know… landlines. Phones with cords. Wow. How did we ever live?

Tomorrow we’re going to head overseas for one more trip this month. It was a Japanese film that not only launched an American remake, but a host of imitators and a host of American remakes of imitators. Let’s take a look at Ringu.

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

nightmare1Director: Wes Craven

Writer: Wes Craven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 25: Friday the 13th (1980)

friday01Director: Sean S. Cunningham

Writer: Victor Miller

Cast: Betsy Palmer, Adrienne King, Harry Crosby, Laurie Bartram, Mark Nelson, Jeannine Taylor, Robbi Morgan, Kevin Bacon, Ari Lehman, Peter Brouwer

Plot: Camp Crystal Lake: a typical place of fun and frolic for children during the summer… and a typical place for the teenage councilors to engage in various acts of debauchery. Such was the case in 1958, when a pair of the councilors were murdered while having sex — the scandal shut down the camp, seemingly for good. Flash forward to 1980. Crystal Lake has earned the name “Camp Blood” among the people of the town, but a young girl named Annie (Robbi Morgan) is hitchhiking there to begin preparing to re-open. On her way, Annie learns about the camp’s history – the murders in ’58, the drowning of a boy in ’57, a series of tragedies and mishaps with no explanation. The rest of the councilors arrive (including a young Kevin Bacon) and begin pitching in on the repairs to the run-down cabins and facilities. One of them, Alice (Adrienne King) has a history with the camp’s new owner Steve (Peter Brouwer) and is unsure she wants to stay, but he convinces her to give it one more week before making up her mind. Annie, is picked up by a green jeep, but the driver races right past the camp entrance. Annie flees, but the driver captures and murders her. Unaware of this, the rest of the teens go about the equally-important tasks of fixing up broken stuff and engaging in copious sexual activities and the frequent smoking of “the pot.” During a rainstorm that night, a shadowy figure begins picking off the teenagers one at a time – an arrow here, an axe to the skull there, usually in moments right after they’ve engaged in some sort of unwholesome behavior.

Eventually, we’re down to two survivors – Alice and Bill (Harry Crosby). With the power out, the two begin investigating the camp, finding the bloody murder weapons and, eventually, the corpses of their friends. Bill is killed with an arrow to the face, and Alice is left alone, terrified. When a Jeep pulls up, she runs out of the cabin, thinking it’s (the now-dead) Steve. Instead, she finds Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer). She tells Alice the story of a boy named Jason who drowned because the counselors that should have been watching him were having sex. Jason was her son, and today – Friday the 13th – is his birthday. Alice realizes Mrs. Voorhees has been killing her friends as some sort of mad retribution for her son’s death. Alice escapes, finding even more corpses, and getting caught in a game of hide-and-seek with Mrs. Voorhees. In the film’s climax, Alice beheads the old woman with an ax, seemingly putting an end to the horror of Camp Crystal Lake. Or does she? Even after she is rescued, Alice still has horrible dreams… not of Mrs. Voorhees, but of little Jason, rising from the water of the lake to exact his revenge.

Thoughts: Friday the 13th certainly didn’t invent the trope of using a slasher killer to exact vengeance on the sinners of the world (typically teenagers). We’ve seen it in several movies so far – Last House on the Left, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Halloween, for example. But Sean Cunningham’s movie – and its endless chain of sequels – raised that idea to an art form. While the murderer (Mrs. Voorhees in this film, Jason in the sequels) is clearly a lunatic, there is an element of schadenfreude to the deaths of the teenagers who were engaged in Naughty Behavior: sex, drugs, even a game of strip Monopoly. On the other hand, the film subverts this concept slightly as well – at least one of the councilors, Brenda (Laurie Bartram) dies because Mrs. Voorhees plays upon her best instincts, imitating a child in the storm and calling for help, then murdering the girl when she tries to come to the rescue.

Considering how ubiquitous Jason Voorhees has become in common culture, it’s really easy to forget that he wasn’t the killer in this first film (and even easier to forget that his signature hockey mask didn’t show up until part three). So casting your brain back to 1980, when the movie first came out and nobody knew about it, the idea that the killer could be an old lady was pretty shocking. Having been weaned on to the slasher through those movies I mentioned before, where the killer was always a hulking, brutish man, it was nearly impossible to see the revelation coming. Cunningham increases the tensions by showing many of the death scenes in the killer’s point-of-view, or from other angles that hide her true identity. Looking through the eyes of the murderer, you never suspect it’s a woman, making the final reveal even more effective. Granted, some of the fleeting glimpses we see of the killer slashing seem to imply that Mrs. Voorhees has a serious case of Man Hands, but that’s something we can live with for the sake of a great revelation.

I’ve mentioned musical scores a lot over the course of this experiment, and I think that’s important. Music is an extremely effective way to set mood, and whether it’s used properly can make or break a film. Harry Manfredini did it well here. We do get moments of rambling, good-time music (such as when the councilors are on their way to the camp), but that’s reserved for scenes where such a mood is appropriate. When things get serious, so does the music – creepy and chilling, with a chanting undercurrent that’s supposed to echo the madness in the mind of the Voorhees family: Ki-ki-ki-ma-ma-ma… You hear that six-syllable chant in any circumstance and it calls to mind a series of murders in the woods. (In the woods in the rain. How often have we seen characters in these horror movies die during nasty weather? It’s like nature itself is sending down the killer’s fury in their final moments.)

This movie definitely takes more care with its characters than most of the sequels would do. Many of the subsequent Friday movies (and slasher movies in general for that matter) would reduce the pool of potential victims to a group of caricatures at best, with only the main Survivor Girl or Hero Boy getting even a cursory attempt at development. In this early effort, most of the characters are at least given an opportunity to stand out from the others. Granted, we don’t necessarily like them all – we’ve got the obnoxious prankster frequently making a fool of himself, for example – but that’s not a bad thing in a movie like this. You root for the characters you like, you have a brief, visceral thrill when the characters you hate get stabbed through a mattress. Alice, as expected, turns out to be our sole survivor, which again is a common horror trope today. Sadly, the sequel also participates in one of the horror tropes I like the least: starting a franchise horror movie by killing off the survivors of the previous installment. I hate that – it makes the character’s struggle in the previous film seem pointless. (For other particularly egregious examples, see Alien 3 and, worse of all, Halloween: Resurrection, which committed the unforgivable sin of killing off the greatest Survivor Girl in horror movie history, Laurie Strode.)

Speaking of Survivor Girls, Alice again manages to maintain the tone established by Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween. She’s the “good girl,” even though she’s clearly had a sexual relationship with Steve in the past. In a way, she’s the “reformed girl” – she’s rejected him, although she hasn’t completely discounted the possibility of a reconciliation, but at the same time she’s trying to be part of the group. Even then, she doesn’t partake in the sort of devilish behavior that marks her friends for death. Even in the strip Monopoly game, she’s the only one still fully clothed when a burst of wind blows the door open and calls it quits.

In the early part of the movie, writer Victor Miller spends a lot of time on little scenes that don’t really add to the story – one of the councilors nearly drowning, the girls freaking out over a snake in their bunk, and so forth. This may have been intended to come across as building the tension, making us worry that the killer is going to choose that moment to strike, but few of those cases actually achieve that particular goal. There may be some parallelism – Jason drowned in the lake, the knife they use to kill the snake is similar to one used by Mrs. Voorhees, and so forth – but even that may be giving the movie a little more credit than it really deserves.

Things pick up really quickly once the bloodbath begins, though. At the 40-minute mark, less than halfway through the picture, we pan up from the bed where Jack and Marcie (Bacon and Jeannine Taylor) are having their fun only to see prankster Ned (Mark Nelson) lying with a slit throat. We didn’t see his death explicitly, so the exposition of his body is a shocker. These days, I don’t know if a filmmaker would be unable to resist showing him getting cut and ruining the shock, but in this case it works perfectly and sets the tone for the rhythm of chase sequence/death sequence that makes up the rest of the film.

Kevin Bacon’s death is particularly effective – he’s lying in bed, having just had himself a little teenage sex, when a hand reaches up from underneath and grabs him. He’s held in place and a point juts from his throat, erupting in a fountain of blood that reveals an arrowhead being driven into him from underneath. As far as horror makeup effects go, it’s extremely well done, looks very realistic, and kicks off the murder spree.

Mrs. Voorhees herself, once revealed as the killer, can come across a little hokey at times. In a way, she’s a reverse Norman Bates, speaking for her dead son as though he’s compelling her to commit the murders. The intent could easily have been that she was simply a woman driven crazy by her son’s death, although the dream sequence at the end seems to imply that even at this early stage, Miller and Cunningham were thinking of sequels, and the way “Jason” pops out of the lake at Alice hints at a shred the supernatural even there. Whatever the case, listening to Betsy Palmer talk to “herself” – first in Jason’s little boy voice than in her own – isn’t as effective as the assorted voices Alfred Hitchcock used for Norman Bates’ Mother during his own legendary run as a serial killer. The ending itself is also a bit too extended – Mrs. Voorhees is revealed as the killer with nearly 20 minutes left in the film, and only one potential victim left. The cat-and-mouse game that follows probably could have been more memorable if it was quicker, but instead you’re just left waiting moment after moment for the inevitable final confrontation.

The fake-out at the end works pretty well, though. After she kills Mrs. Voorhees, Alice drifts out onto the lake in a boat. We see her next in the morning as the police arrive, and we hear some music that seems to indicate the nightmare is over… until a decaying corpse leaps from the water and pulls her under. It seems like the terror is beginning again, but Alice wakes up in the hospital. Did Jason really attack, or was that just a dream? It’s clearly a sequel hook, in retrospect, but if there had never been another film (a laughable notion now) it would have been simple enough to write this off as the last moments of terror trying to resolve themselves in Alice’s dreams.

The franchise that eventually grew from this relatively simple film is remarkable. It starts off as a very down-to-Earth, effective creepy film about teenagers starring in their very own campfire horror story. Later on, we get a supernatural killer, a Superzombie if you will, that cannot be destroyed and winds up with a link to Hell. It eventually leads the way to Jason X, where the character is cryogenically frozen, thawed out in the future and kills a space station.Quite a long way from Crystal Lake, isn’t it? Still, the legacy of the original continues today, and if nothing else, the original Friday the 13th gives a bunch of actors who never really worked again an easy link in the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game.

We’re staying in the woods tomorrow, this time to a cabin that, itself, is a gateway to Hell. Join us for The Evil Dead.