Monday, December 31, 2012

One day more with revolution, we will nip it in the bud!

I saw the touring production of Les Misérables in Boston earlier this year; while I was antsy towards the end of the three-hour production ("Bring him home already, dammit!"), overall I had a great time. The show is a big, sweeping, unapologetically melodramatic epic, an emotional rollercoaster set against the backdrop of revolution. Since then, I've been looking forward to Tom Hooper's film adaptation as the perfect overstuffed holiday movie - even when I can see their flaws and excesses, I'm a sucker for old-fashioned crowd-pleasers of the sort that would have premiered as roadshows (complete with overtures and intermissions) fifty years ago. Unfortunately, Hooper isn't the right guy for the job, directing a mega-popular Broadway musical as if it were a Very Important Art Film. His misguided approach in bringing Les Mis to the screen isn't enough to ruin the movie - the music and several of the performances are strong enough that it still basically worked for me - but I can't remember another time where I thought a movie was pretty good in spite of the direction.

One choice Hooper made that I did appreciate was the decision to record the vocals on-set rather than having his actors lip-sync to previously recorded tracks, as is usually the case with movie musicals. The effect is sometimes rough around the edges, but in a good way - I like that vocals that serve the performance were given more importance that technical perfection. When Hugh Jackman, as recently released convict Jean Valjean, sings early on about the mercy a priest has shown him and the change this has caused inside him, his singing is filled with "flaws" that would make your average theatre snob wince but which make the scene much more affecting. The fearlessness the actors show - this is as close to live theatre, in terms of acting without a net, as a movie can be - and the resulting immediacy has admittedly uneven results, but the overall effect is often exhilarating.

This is especially true in the movie's best scene by far, Anne Hathaway's goosebump-inducing rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream." Over the past few years, Hathaway has proven to be one of the best young actors around, crafting believable and empathetic characters even when the material she's working with is shaky. As the doomed factory worker Fantine, she's heartbreakingachingly vulnerable and openhearted, and her performance is as big as the material requires without ever feeling hammy or self-important (she would have been great in one of David Lean's late-career romantic epics). For "I Dreamed a Dream," Hooper wisely keeps his camera fixed on Hathaway without any cutaways or his typically mannered compositions (we'll get to that in a minute); most of the song is an unbroken close-up, and I found myself marvelling at Hathaway's precision and openness (probably the most important trait for any actor) even as I got a bit of a lump in my throat. In short, she crushes it and deserves every bit of praise and awards recognition coming her way.

But when Fantine exits the film, its shortcomings become more apparent. I liked Hooper's previous film, The King's Speech, but Hooper's more self-conscious directorial mannerisms - off-center compositions, excessive dutch angles, unmotivated edits - kept me from fully embracing it. I was hoping Hooper would tone it down with Les Mis, which demands a more sweeping, romantic aesthetic, but the in-your-face, show-offy direction is actually much worse here. There are scenes that have as many cuts as a Michael Bay action sequence for no apparent reason, and the overuse of askew close-ups makes the movie feel claustrophobic when what it badly needs is a sense of an epic canvas (the film's handful of wide shots work wonderfully). It's clear that Hooper has tried to make Les Mis gritty, covering his actors and sets in dirt, grime and shit (sometimes literally). But it's not gritty, it's a frigging Broadway musical - the approach Tim Burton took with Sweeney Todd, making it visually stylish but also knowing when to step aside and trust the material, is what this sorely needed.

Hooper's direction also frequently does a disservice to his actors, especially Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert. Crowe's singing isn't as bad as people have said - he's actually okay - but he's clearly working very hard to not suck, and the way that Hooper has blocked and shot Crowe's scenes, we can only see the effort, not the performance. This is a side note, but Javert is basically the worst inspector ever. He's obsessed with capturing Valjean, but he doesn't recognize his face on several occasions and only comes close to catching him when Valjean happens to be standing next to him. Maybe his inability to recognize a face is why he thinks he can successfully disguise himself and infiltrate the student protestors by putting on a hat? This is a nitpick, but the shoddy direction makes it easier to get hung up on this and other weaknesses in the original musical, particularly the completely lame romance between Fantine's daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and young revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Seyfried's got a good voice, but has almost nothing to do in the story - her eyes seem to be exclaiming, "Hi, I'm in this movie too!" It's no wonder fans of the musical tend to prefer Eponine (Samantha Barks) and her unrequited love for Marius; Barks is also very good, and her rendition of "On My Own" is another highlight of the film. Again, Hooper is smart enough to stop moving the bloody camera around and trust the performance. I wish he'd done that more - the film's battle sequences, in particular, are a complete mess.

Probably the film's biggest missed opportunity is that, at a time when the global economy is fragile and, just last year, student protestors were being pepper-sprayed by cops, there's never any attempt to give the story any contemporary relevance. I was struck by the connection when I saw the musical, and amused by the idea that it was being performed in a theatre where the cheap seats were $70 and much of the audience probably didn't make the obvious connection between 19th-century France and the world we live in now. The movie could have been both a crowd-pleaser and a broad rabble-rouser, but for all its artistic pretensions, it doesn't feel like Hooper put much thought into what the musical is actually about. As I said, it still works because of the music and the obvious commitment of its performances (Hugh Jackman deserves a lot of credit for basically carrying the movie on his shoulders). It'll probably satisfy fans of the musical, but I can't help imagining how much better it could have been.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Novecento, Nosferatu, Gran Torino

I finally found time over the weekend to fill out my answers to the most recent quiz at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, this one administered by the stern but well-liked Professor Chipping. I realized I've been taking Dennis Cozzalio's quizzes for five years (and known him through the series of tubes for about the same amount of time); I always look forward to them, even as life necessitates that, rather than filling them out in one sitting, I carry the questions around with me, returning to them when I've thought of just the right answer. In many ways, I actually prefer doing it this way. Anyway, it's been a pleasure as always, and I highly recommend you head over to SLIFR and check out the many terrific answers to the quiz.

1) What is the biggest issue for you in the digital vs. film debate?

As others, including our host, have pointed out and discussed at length, it would have to be the availability of 35mm prints for art houses, independent cinemas and especially repertory screenings. The squeeze the industry is putting on smaller theatres to convert or die will inevitably result in a lot of smaller cinemas going under, which can only result in more screens devoted to the blockbuster of the week and less screens for more eclectic film programming. This is especially true with repertory cinemas, which will have fewer choices for the forseeable future. Here in New England, I dread seeing the great programming of theaters like the Brattle and the Coolidge affected by the digital conversion, although it appears so far that they’ve been able to use creative means – the Brattle recently borrowed John Landis’ personal print of Schlock – to keep their calendar as diverse as ever.

2) Without more than one minute’s consideration, name three great faces from the movies

Jack Elam

Sissy Spacek

Jim Broadbent

3) The movie you think could be interesting if remade as a movie musical When I was in high school, some friends and I ran our own theatre company (Rushmore wasn’t far from our reality). Once we were having a meeting about what play we should stage next, and a trenchcoat-wearing occult aficionado in the group piped up with “Let’s do Blade as a play!” We laughed at the time, but as the suggestion has stuck with me all these years, I have to admit that it would at least be interesting. Sadly, we never had the audacity to try it, although I remain proud of our production of Barton Fink.

4) The last movie you saw theatrically/on DVD, Blu-ray, streaming

Theatrically: Lincoln. A great movie and, as a Spielberg film, surprising in many ways. And so many outstanding beards!

On Blu-ray: 3 Women, as puzzling and hypnotic as ever.

5) Favorite movie about work

The Shining and The Conversation are two great movies about characters who spend too much time on the job. But for a movie set in a traditional workplace, I’d go with Secretary.

6) The movie you loved as a child that did not hold up when seen through adult eyes

I saw Hook on the big screen when I was seven years old, and I was completely enchanted; it was the first movie I asked to see a second time, and if you’d asked me back then, I would have told you it was as good as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. When I saw it again as an adult, I realized how overproduced and flat much of it is. I still can’t help having some affection for it, though, and Dustin Hoffman and Bob Hoskins are still terrific. And John Williams’ score is one of his best; it deserves a better movie.

7) Favorite “road” movie


8) Does Clint Eastwood’s appearance at the Republican National Convention change or confirm your perspective on him as a filmmaker/movie icon? Is that appearance relevant to his legacy as a filmmaker? Clint’s movies have always reflected his politics, but even movies with overtly conservative elements like Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino are strong enough films that they make a case for virtues like self-reliance (and his obvious contempt for people on welfare) without ever feeling didactic or one-sided. He should probably sit out the next RNC, but he’s a great director, and I don’t want to only watch movies that confirm the correctness of my own politics. I still like Bat Out of Hell, too.

9) Longest-lasting movie or movie-related obsession

I can’t wait to see Room 237, as daffy as some of the theories it presents about The Shining might be. I first saw the film over 20 years ago, and I think about it almost every day. I’ve read volumes about it, and I’m still capable of being sucked into a 5,000-word essay or 60-minute YouTube video analyzing the film at a moment’s notice.

10) Favorite artifact of movie exploitation

A Turkish one-sheet of Dario Argento’s Inferno, signed by the director. It was Argento who told me it was a Turkish poster, explaining, “In Turkey, they add snake. This not enough. They need snake. Yes, Turkey.”

11) Have you ever fallen asleep in a movie theater? If so, when and why?

I nodded off during the last 20 minutes of the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street. I can’t think of a more damning review of that turd.

12) Favorite performance by an athlete in a movie

Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator

13) Second favorite Rainer Werner Fassbinder movie

This quiz has reminded me of a serious blind spot of mine - I've only seen two Fassbinder movies! The lesser of the two is Querelle.

14) Favorite film of 1931

City Lights

15) Second favorite Raoul Walsh movie

High Sierra

16) Favorite film of 1951

The Day the Earth Stood Still

17) Second favorite Wong Kar-wai movie

Chungking Express

18) Favorite film of 1971

I put A Clockwork Orange at the top of my '71 list earlier this year. I re-watched it a few months ago, and it's still amazing, but I have to admit that a few scenes dragged in a way that they never had before. It could be that my perspective on it has changed a bit for the worse over the years, or (hopefully) I'm just too familiar with it and waiting a few years before another rewatch will make it fresh again. But for now, I'll go with Harold and Maude.

19) Second favorite Henri-Georges Clouzot movie

The Wages of Fear

20) Favorite film of 1991

My Own Private Idaho

21) Second favorite John Sturges movie

Bad Day At Black Rock

22) Favorite celebrity biopic

It's weird to think of Raging Bull as a "celebrity biopic," but it is a biopic and LaMotta was famous, so there it is.

23) Name a good script idea which was let down either by the director or circumstances of production

The first one that comes to mind is Red Dragon. It's the best of Thomas Harris' books featuring Hannibal Lecter, and we already had proof, with Manhunter, that it could make for a pretty great movie. But Brett Ratner's bland direction wastes both the script and one of the best casts ever assembled, and the awkward attempts to create more screen time for Anthony Hopkins results in scenes getting shoehorned into the movie that make little or no narrative sense. It's watchable, but I can't help being disappointed by what a huge missed opportunity it is.

24) Heaven’s Gate-- yes or no?

It's beautifully shot, but I found it dramatically inert. However, it's been ten years since I saw it, and I've found myself thinking about it here and there over the past few years. The Criterion Blu-ray is tempting, and I'm sure it would at least look fantastic on our TV, but I'm hesitant to spend thirty bucks to find out that it's no better than I remember, or perhaps even worse.

25) Favorite pairing of movie sex symbols

Julie Christie and Warren Beatty in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Something about covering them in all that dirt and grit and stripping them of any glamor - Christie as a Cockney whore (using her real accent) and Beatty as a dopey grifter who, nevertheless, has got poetry in him - makes them sexier and more real than any of their star vehicles (Shampoo, where Beatty also plays a schmoe, is almost as sexy).

26) One word that you could say which would instantly evoke images and memories of your favorite movie. (Naming the movie is optional—might be more fun to see if we can guess what it is from the word itself)

27) Name one moment which to you demarcates a significant change, for better or worse, on the landscape of the movies over the last 20 years.

When Yoda went from puppet to CGI character in Attack of the Clones. It was the moment when practical effects officially became retro, the idea that a character that had been beloved for over twenty years was now a flaw that had to be improved. It was a solution that nobody was asking for.

28) Favorite pre-Code talkie

The Public Enemy

29) Oldest film in your personal collection (Thanks, Peter Nellhaus)


30) Longest film in your personal collection. (Thanks, Brian Darr)


31) Have your movie collection habits changed in the past 10 years? If so, how?

A few years ago, when my ex-wife and I separated, my movie collection was halved. As I've been gradually rebuilding my collection, I realized that my attempt to get as many classics and serious movies as possible had resulted in what a woman I dated rightly called a sad bastard collection; most of the comedies I had were nabbed by my ex, and my copies of movies like 21 Grams and A Very Long Engagement have been collecting dust for years. So I decided that I didn't have to replace every last Very Important Movie, and if I want to buy Predator 2 on Blu-ray for $7.50 then, by God, I'm going to buy Predator 2 on Blu-ray for $7.50.

32) Wackiest, most unlikely “directed by” credit you can name

Ghost Dad, directed by Sidney Poitier.

33) Best documentary you’ve seen in 2012 (made in 2012 or any other year)

 Cave of Forgotten Dreams

34) What’s your favorite “(this star) was almost cast in (this movie)” anecdote?

It'd have to be Nick Nolte as Han Solo, because it inspired this: 35) Program three nights of double bills at a revival theater that might best illuminate your love of the movies

Vertigo and Mulholland Drive, Orpheus and Wings of Desire, All That Jazz and Synecdoche, New York

36) You have been granted permission to invite any three people, alive or dead, to your house to watch the Oscars. Who are they?

Paul Lynde, Ivan the Terrible and LexG.

37) Favorite Mr. Chips. (Careful...)

Erik Estrada!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Making Monsters #31: An American Werewolf in London

Of all the movies that made me obsessed with monster makeup and special effects artists as a kid, An American Werewolf in London was number one with a bullet. John Landis' classic isn't so much a horror-comedy as a horror movie where laughs offer temporary relief from its many scares. It's also a landmark in transformation effects that has never truly been surpassed; while most werewolf movies until that point relied on dissolves and other camera tricks to sell the effect of their characters transforming into werewolves, An American Werewolf in London, along with The Howling earlier the same year, pulled off astonishing in-camera metamorphoses. Rick Baker was the makeup effects supervisor on An American Werewolf in London, and offered advice to Rob Bottin for The Howling while waiting for the film to go into production. If the transformation in Landis' film has a decided advantage, it's because of Landis' wish to shoot the scene where unlucky American tourist David (David Naughton) first turns into a lycanthrope in a brightly lit living room set with no shadows or obscure angles to hide Baker's techniques. The result is an unforgettable scene where one effect builds on another to sell David's abrupt and painful transformation (Naughton's convincing screams of fear and pain do a great deal to sell the scene as well).

As a kid, I searched for any information I could find on how Baker pulled off the scene. Needles to say, each shot in the transformation required a great deal of imagination and effort to pull off. Prosthetic versions of Naughton's limbs were made, then fitted with air bladders that, when inflated, gave the appearance of David's arms and legs stretching and changing shape. For the closeups of hair rapidly growing over David's body, Baker threaded thousands of individual strands of hair through sections of latex skin, filmed the hair being pulled through the holes, then reversed the shot to create the illusion of growth. For the point at the scene where David's head transforms, Baker created two animatronic heads designed to bulge and expand as David grows a snout; coupled with some bone-cracking effects, it's frighteningly convincing.

But even knowing so much about how the scene was done, I completely forget about the details every time I watch it. It's a perfectly shot and cut, and brilliantly underscored by Sam Cooke's version of "Blue Moon" (which takes on an ominous quality here). Landis' ability to use humor to both punctuate and magnify the movie's sense of inexorable doom is remarkable; I'm particuarly fond of the insert, during David's transformation, of a Mickey Mouse figurine observing the scene passively, the character's cheerfulness taking on an eerily blank quality. Landis ability to walk a fine line between laughter and screams is just as strong throughout the entire film, from David and his friend Jack (Griffin Dunne) initial teasing of each other fading as they realize they're lost and scared shitless from the sound of howling in the distance to the perfectly abrupt cut to black at the film's end that cheerfully announces that everything has completely gone to hell and the story is therefore over. If it weren't for the Twilight Zone tragedy a few years later, Landis might have gone on to a career to rival his then-friend Steven Spielberg; the two had more in common than most people realize now. And Baker is similarly firing on all cylinders throughout the film, from the awesome Nazi demons in David's nightmares to the undead Jack's rapid physical decay to the climactic bloodbath in Piccadilly Square. An American Werewolf in London is everything a horror movie should be - thrilling, tense, witty, stylish, bloody, believable, and driven by an inexorable sense of dread. It's the perfect film for the Fangoria-reading, socially awkward child that many of us were and, really, still are.

Making Monsters #29/30: Alien/Aliens

I first saw Alien and Aliens together on a VHS tape my dad had copied; I was probably too young, but I loved both movies. As a result of watching them together as a kid, I can't help thinking of them as one long, intentional double feature, even though the sequel was made seven years after the original and is as much a product of the '80s as the first was of the '70s. Comparing the creature designs of the two films is one of the greatest examples of a pioneering original film followed by a sequel that both honors and imaginatively expands on its predecessor.

The different stages of the alien's life cycle in Ridley Scott's original were famously designed by H.R. Giger; screenwriter Dan O'Bannon had worked with Giger on Alejandro Jodorowsky's unrealized adaptation of Dune, and was able to incorporate Giger's designs (as well as the world-building concepts by Ron Cobb) directly into the script. Each stage was brought to life through a combination of old-fashioned trickery - the unsettling movement of the egg Kane investigates was created by Scott fluttering his hands inside the prop - and an eye for verisimilitude. Animal organs were incorporated into the design of the egg and facehugger in order to make them appear more, ahem, organic. When the full-grown alien appears, Giger's design is brought to stunning life by Carlo Rambaldi, who won a special effects Oscar for the mechanical design of the alien's head. But as impressive as Giger's design and Rambaldi's execution are, it's still a guy in a suit - it's Scott's brilliant decision to only show us the alien in brief shots, veiled in shadows, that retains the creature's otherwordly mystery and allows our imagination to fill in the dark spaces.

The film's most famous scene, when the newborn alien rips through Kane (John Hurt) as he's just trying to eat his lunch, is actually shot in full light; while the grown alien is all Lovecraftian supernatural menace, the chestburster is all about presenting this perverted form of childbirth in as unflinching and visceral a way as possible. The effect was shot in one take, with multiple cameras rolling, to capture their real surprise on the actors' faces (while they knew what would happen in the scene, they didn't know what the effect would be like). As a technician pushed the chestburster puppet through Kane's prosthetic torso, a jet of fake blood squirted directly at Veronica Cartwright's face; her surprise and disgust are authentic. It's such a stunning moment, sold by the unnerving sound design and Hurt's convincingly anguished performance, that when we register a moment later that the chestburster is clearly a puppet, it really doesn't matter - by that point, Scott has us hooked and we're prepared to believe anything.

It's normal for sequels to adapt a "bigger is better" mentality, and Aliens is no exception - more aliens, bigger action sequences and lots of firearms. Thankfully, with Aliens this approach works brilliantly; James Cameron was still at the top of his game as one of the most skilled action directors, the switch-up from interstellar Agatha Christie to Heinlen-influenced combat movie is inspired, and the relationship between Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and young survivor Newt (Carrie Henn) creates a strong emotional investment in the nail-bitingly tense climax. Cameron also made changes to the alien's design, most significantly removing the sleek dome of his head to exposed the ridged cranium underneath. The production also cast acrobats and contortionists to play the aliens in order to give them inhuman movement and combat the "man in suit" problem. Aliens is that rare beast, a special effects spectacular that doesn't sacrifice intelligence or believability.

The film's most astonishing effect is the queen alien that Ripley has to rescue Newt from. Visual effects artist Stan Winston initially scoffed at Cameron's request for a 14-foot animatronic character to be completed entirely without the assistance of stop-motion or optical effects. Thankfully, Winston accepted the challenge - the queen required multiple puppeteers and technicians operating various controls, hydraulics and a crane supporting the entire puppet. The end result is a convincing and fearfully intimidating villain that lends Aliens one of the most suspenseful, crowd-pleasing endings of all time (Winston and the other effects supervisors won the Oscar). The great thing about the Alien series is that it has allowed each of its directors to make the franchise its own - while David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's entries in the series had varying degrees of success, each is interesting and distinctive, as is Scott's own return to the Alien universe, the flawed but fascinating Prometheus (we'll leave the AvP movies out of this). But it's the first two films that remain the best, each the work of an exceptionally talented filmmaker at the top of his game.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Making Monsters #28: The Thing

The subject of makeup effects in The Thing is probably enough to fill a book. The 1982 remake of the Christian Nyby film and, especially, the John W. Campbell novella "Who Goes There?" that was the basis for both films was lambasted by critics when it was released and died a quick death at the box office. It was the summer of E.T. and, as John Carpenter has noted more than once, Spielberg's film had an alien that made the world cry, and his was the alien that made people throw up. Three decades later, The Thing is generally regarded as a masterpiece of suspense, one of the best sci-fi movies of all time and a landmark in special makeup effects. Carpenter elected to return to Campbell's concept of the alien as a shape-shifter and encouraged makeup effects artist Rob Bottin to run with it. Bottin, then 22 (boy, do I feel lazy), and his team of artists and technicians used every trick in the book - prosthetics, hydraulics, pneumatics, radio controls, reverse photography and buckets of K-Y Jelly - to bring to life a creature that imitates its prey on a molecular level before killing them and, in each of its incarnations, takes on the grotesquely distorted characteristics of its current host and every previous one. Bottin's creature designs are expressionistic and highly imaginative, with each seemingly topping the previous one, and they're an enormous compliment to the themes of distrust and paranoia that Carpenter carefully weaves through the film.

The showstopping sequence, for me, occurs about halfway through the film, when Norris (Charles Hallahan) collapses of an apparent heart attack and Copper (Richard Dysart) attempts to revive him. As our attention drifts to the action on the other side of the room in one of the film's several excellent moments of misdirection, Copper's hands suddenly burst through Norris' torso, revealing two rows of very big teeth that close in on Copper's hands like a bear trap. All hell breaks loose, culminating in Norris' head stretching off of his body, sprouting spider-like legs and provoking one of the best lines in this or any movie. To sell the effect, a double amputee was cast to stand in for Dysart, and Norris' torso was built to close with enough force that it would sever the prosthetic arms. It's amazing to consider that moment and everything that happens next - the second form of The Thing that explodes from the hole in Norris' body, the transformation of Norris' head - was all accomplished in-camera and sold through the meticulous, detailed work of Bottin and his team, as well as cinematographer Dean Cundey's brilliant cinematography (which shows us everything but the seams of the effect) and the disturbing, otherworldly sound design. While it's true that suggestion is the most powerful tool a horror director has, if you can show everything as effectively as Carpenter did in The Thing, than go for it.

Making Monsters #27: Street Trash

While I appreciate a good gore effect, I've never had a lot of interest in splatter for splatter's sake, so I've skipped or been late to a lot of the more notorious horror movies, including the majority of the subgenre known as "melt movies." While I can appreciate a solid effect depicting the spectacular liquefaction of the human body in the context of a movie that earns it - just last week, my son and I were enjoying the featurette explaining how they melted Toht's face in Raiders of the Lost Ark - protracted gore porn just isn't my bag. I'm not judging, I'm just saying. So when I finally saw Street Trash in ideal circumstances - a pristine 35mm print with live commentary by writer/producer Roy Frumkes - I was surprised that there was much more to the movie than I'd always assumed from its disgusting VHS cover art. To be clear, it is a completely disgusting movie, but with more wit, satirical edge and pure chutzpah that I'd expected. Rarely has a film that features rape, necrophilia, rampant bodily fluids and an extended game of "hot potato" involving a severed penis seemed so darn cheerful.

A film about winos, junkies, lowlifes and the assorted denizens of New York's streets in the 1980s, Street Trash is a joyously over-the-top exploitation movie that has as its narrative thread an extremely cheap brand of booze called Tenafly Viper that has become lethally skunked. When a liquor store owner sells his overstock extremely cheap to the homeless, it causes any character who drinks it to rapidly melt in a spectacular fashion. What makes this work is that the approach to the melt effects, which aren't as interested in a realistically sickening detail than in constructing an extreme, deliberately ridiculous gross joke. Bodies erupt in cascades of blue, green and purple goo, collapsing within their clothes, melting into grimacing puppets or even exploding into a million sticky pieces. The effects transcend bad taste; they're so extreme that they become completely, hilariously abstract.

One of the makeup effects supervisors on the film was Jennifer Aspinall, who also did a lot of work for Saturday Night Live, which suggests that the filmmakers were more interested in makeup that was comic than realistic (incidentially, Aspinall doesn't include Street Trash among the list of credits on her website). And it helps a great deal that the filmmakers weren't cynical hacks but genuine cinephiles - Frumkes has long been a member of the National Board of Review, and he's also responsible for Document of the Dead, the excellent documentary on George A. Romero and the Dead movies. And the movie's director, Jim Muro, is responsible for the movie, which was largely shot on Steadicam, for having such a slick visual style and professional look for a very low-budget movie. This is Muro's only film as a director; he became one of the most sought-after Steadicam operators and cinematographers in the business, working on Best Picture winners Titanic and Crash. Frumkes explained at the screening that Muro had become a Christian and, possibly embarrassed, had distanced himself from Street Trash. In a strange coincidence, I worked as an extra later that summer on the Anna Faris vehicle What's Your Number? and realized that the cigar-chomping director of photography was none other than Muro. It took a lot of willpower not to mention the movie to him, but it was a pleasure to watch him work - using clearly homemade rigs and even substituting a 2x4 between two ladders for a more expensive camera mount, it was clear that Muro hadn't completely lost touch with his low-budget roots.

Making Monsters #26: The Birds

My dad, who is not a huge movie buff, often cites The Birds as one of his favorite movies. When we saw War of the Worlds together, his only comment was "That wasn't scary. The Birds is scary." I've heard other people about my dad's age cite The Birds as a favorite; it's clearly a movie that touched a nerve with an entire generation who saw it as kids. Alfred Hitchcock's follow-up to Psycho, very loosely adapted from a short story by Daphne DuMaruier, was probably the first high-profile "environmental horror" movie, and its sense of a mounting terror just beyond the boarded-off windows of a domestic refuge was a huge influence on Night of the Living Dead. The premise of the birds in a small coastal village suddenly turning on humans for no apparent reason is perfect for Hitchcock, who seems to take delight in denying the audience an explanation for the movie's events. Hitchcock's famously controlling, rigorous directorial style is a fascinating match for the film's scenes of large-scale destruction; it's a movie about chaos, executed with obsessive precision.

Hitchcock was famously a big fan of special effects and the control of shooting conditions they allowed him, preferring soundstages, rear projection and other techniques in situations where most other directors would have chosen to shoot on location. So while The Birds was a famously complicated production, I imagine that Hitchcock must have relished its technical challenges. The special effects supervisor was Ub Iwerks, who used a technique he developed while working at Disney called the sodium vapor process. An element is filmed against a screen lit with sodium vapor lights; the image is captured on two different film stocks, one of which only captures the sodium vapor wavelength. Compositing these two elements greatly reduced the visible matte lines typical of early blue screen effects. The result is that dozens of individually photographed mechanical and real birds seemingly occupied the same shot; the effect (intensified by the incredible sound design) is still chillingly believable almost fifty years later.

The most memorable scene in The Birds, however, borders on documentary. While the scene where Melanie (Tippi Hedren) is assaulted by birds in the Daniels' attic relies as heavily on careful angles and editing as the shower scene in Psycho to maximize the feeling of violence, the fact remains that the scene was largely captured by hurling real birds at Tippi Hedren for five days. The very real fear and exhaustion on Hedren's face lingers long after the movie is over; why is it that Hitchcock, who was happy to use effects to substitute for reality whenever possible, felt that it was necessary to actually place his leading lady in harm's way? I haven't seen The Girl, and I'm suspicious of any account of history taken from one perspective. But it's clear from The Birds itself that director was capable of cruelty, both towards his actors and his audience; he was cold, calculating, immensely brilliant and attuned to the dark side of existence for reasons we may never fully understand.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Making Monsters #25: Creepshow

Creepshow, director George A. Romero and screenwriter Stephen King's loving homage to the lurid, gory EC Comics they loved as kids in the '50s, is not only one of the most entertaining horror movies ever, it's also one of the best comic book movies. King's screenplay, an anthology of five short stories, recreates the storytelling formula of books like Tales From the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, where evil or repugnant characters are dealt grisly, bluntly ironic supernatural payback for their sins. The script is admirably faithful to its unapologetically lowbrow, crowd-pleasing source, and Romero pays further tribute to their pulpy artistry by using dramatic lighting, backdrops of expressionistic splashes of color and animated transitions turning shots into comic panel and cuts into turns of the page. Other comic book movies like Hulk and Dick Tracy, have tried to ape the look of their source material, but none have matched Creepshow's celebration of the bold aesthetic pleasures of the medium.

The anthology format also allowed to go makeup artists Tom Savini to go wild, creating zombies, a monster, a skeletal Cryptkeeper-inspired figure and a moss-covered Stephen King. Savini's character and creature makeups perfectly capture the style of the EC illustrations; Bernie Wrightson did a graphic novel adaptation of the movie, long out of print, that is well worth keeping an eye out for to see Savini's designs translated back into comic book panels. The vengeful, cake-hungry corpse of Nathan Grantham from the opening segment "Father's Day" is my all-time favorite movie zombie, his face a sneering skull covered in earth and worms and lit in garish reds and blues by cinematographer Michael Gornick (who would go on to direct Creepshow 2). The ape-like beast locked in a crate beneath a university staircase in "The Crate" is also a highlight - nicknamed "Fluffy" by Savini, he's all fur and huge teeth and looks almost comical until he tears his victims apart.

Savini's showstopper is the final segment, "They're Creeping Up On You," about a corrupt, misanthropic tycoon named Upson Pratt (E.G. Marshall) whose Howard Hughes-like sterile existence is invaded by hordes of cockroaches. Thousands of roaches were transported for the film, and as one can't really train a cockroach, the crew had to spend a great deal of time dropping crates of roaches into the frame and getting whatever they could. In the story's final moments, Pratt's inert body suddenly explodes with the many, many cockroaches who have found a home inside him. It's a great sick-joke ending, and Savini, Romero and the crew pull it off the sort of giddily bad taste that made William Gaines and his comic label such an illicit pleasure and inspiration for King, Romero and the many other genre writers and filmmakers who loved Tales From the Crypt as kids.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Making Monsters #24: Ghostbusters

Is there a movie in the past 30 years as unanimously loved as Ghostbusters? It's a movie that just about everyone who was born between 1970 and 1985 has a great deal of affection for, and there are almost no contrarian views on the subject (Pauline Kael was one - she preferred Ghostbusters 2). It's one of those movies that works like gangbusters for audiences across all age groups and demographics; I read an interview once with Rick Moranis where he mentioned that, when he was filming Club Paradise in the Caribbean, locals frequently asked him if he was still possessed by demons. A lot of the movie's appeal is due to it being the rare horror-comedy that actually works pretty well as a horror movie. The ghost in the library at the beginning, the reveal of the otherworldly portal in Dana Barrett's (Sigourney Weaver) fridge and the scene where Dana is attacked by demonic canine paws are effectively scary.

That these and the rest of the ghosts in the film are very believably brought to life by effects supervisor Richard Edlund and his company, Boss Films, makes Ghostbusters a very unique comedy. Usually, even with some of the funniest comedies, the production value, cinematography, effects and other elements become secondary to capturing the performances. It's a valid and often effective approach, but when a comedy like Ghostbusters actually puts the effort into making its fantastic scenario credible, Bill Murray's wisecracks actually become funnier in the context of a legitimately high-stakes story. Building on techniques Edlund developed on Poltergeist, the crew on Ghostbusters would combine multiple elements - miniatures, blue-screen photography, travelling mattes - in a single shot to make each scene work (this is before digital compositing, when composite shots had to be acheived directly on a photochemical negative). Even a ghost like Slimer (called "Onionhead" by the first film's cast and crew, he got his name from the Real Ghostbusters cartoon) that is meant to be purely comedic works better as a gag because of the effort Edlund and his crew put into selling the effect.

This is especially true in Ghostbusters' finest moment, the reveal of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Bringing the jolly-looking demonic manifestation of the Ghostbusters' certain doom to life required combining multiple effects techniques. A full-size Stay-Puft suit with animatronic facial expressions controlled by a team of puppeteers stomped model cars on a minature set of the city. Individual elements like cars and people running out of Stay-Puft's path were shot seperately and composited into the shot with the travelling matte techniques that Edlund and others developed on the original Star Wars trilogy. This was then combined, via matte, with shots of the Ghostbusters atop a skyscraper. The effect is both hilarious and jaw-dropping, almost unmatched in film for its sheer large-scale absurdity. It's funny, but if any of use ever saw Mr. Stay-Puft headed our way, we'd be as terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought as Dr. Spengler.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Making Monsters #23: The Fly

David Cronenberg's The Fly, along with John Carpenter's The Thing and Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, makes the strongest case for the possibly artistic worthiness of remakes. Cronenberg took the original 1958 movie - a fun, campy B-picture with a memorably creepy ending - and transformed it into an intelligent, emotionally devastating story about disease and mortality that was particularly resonant to audiences when it was released in 1986 as the AIDS crisis was beginning to receive more attention from the mainstream media. The movie is anchored by strong performances from Jeff Goldblum as scientist Seth Brundle, who is on the verge of inventing a teleportation device, and Geena Davis as reporter Veronica Quaife, who is invited by Brundle to write a book on his invention and quickly falls for him; Goldblum and Davis, who were a real-life couple at the time, have terrific chemistry in the happier first half-hour of the film, and we're invested in their characters by the time Seth decides to try out his telepods on himself. At first the experiment seems like a smashing success, but a stray fly in the telepod causes Brundle to transform, in horrible ways, on a subatomic level. While the original film simply swapped out it's protagonist head with a giant fly's, Brundle's mutation is gradual, grotesque and realized in unflinching detail; as Veronica tries to help Seth, the movie becomes a surprisingly poignant story about what it means to love and care for someone in a finite lifetime.

Seth's transformation was designed by Chris Walas, who also worked on the original Gremlins and the face-melting climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Walas designed Brundle's transformation into Brundlefly (as the character refers to himself) in seven stages. Goldblum worked with prosthetics resembling grotesque lesions and deformities that eventually covered most of his bodies, as well as prosthetic teeth and, towards the end of the film, contact lenses to make his eyes appear larger. He was also required to spew fake vomit to illustrate Brundefly's new digestive habits (Goldblum's embarassed, matter-of-fact delivery of the line "That's disgusting" is one of the movie's few laughs). Through all of this, Goldblum's empathetic performance shines through - it's one of the best examples of an effects artist and actor's work complimenting each other. At the end of the film, as Seth completes his transformation into a six-foot fly, a series of animatronic puppets take over for Goldblum. The greatest compliment I can give Walas' work on the film is that, watching it, you forget that you're not watching Goldblum any more. As Seth wordlessly begs Veronica to put him out of his misery, the effects artists' "performance" is nuanced and completely believable; thanks to their work and Davis' performance (not to mention Howard Shore's brilliant score), it's a heartbreaking ending. Walas won the Oscar for Best Makeup Effects for his work, and he deserved it, but the entire cast and crew is just as instrumental in making this Cronenberg's best movie.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Making Monsters #22: Zombie

The films of Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci aren't as stylish or darkly beautiful as those of his contemporaries Mario Bava and Dario Argento, and those qualities never seemed to interest the director much. Fulci was primarily interested in gore, and his filmography is essentially an ongoing study of all the horrible things that can be done to the human body, depicted in graphic detail and without ever cutting away in order to be as revolting as possible. While pure gross-out doesn't usually do it for me, I can't help but admire Fulci's sense of showmanship, his technical skill and his, um, consistency of vision in films like Don't Torture a Duckling, The Beyond and City of the Living Dead.

Zombie is perhaps the quintessential Fulci movie. Released in 1979 and marketed in Europe as a sequel to Dawn of the Dead, the film has none of Dawn's satire or use of zombies as a way of examining bigger ideas. It's clear that Fulci is primarily interested in using zombies as a way of examining maggot-infested eyesockets, horrible flesh wounds and, in one mind-blowingly awesome scene, a zombie fighting a shark. Fulci's gift for realistic gore resulted in Zombie being banned in Great Britain; classified in the 1980s as a "video nasty," it wasn't released uncut in England until 2005. The film's most sickening moment occurs when a zombie attacks Paola (Olga Karlatos) and forces her head against a large splinter in a broken doorframe, puncturing her eyeball in a sickening close-up. To create the effect, makeup artist Gianetto De Rossi created a dummy head and slowly pushed it into the splinter, making sure to fill the eye with realistically squishy fluids. The impossible-to-forget scene doesn't really signify much about horror as a genre in a larger sense. But man, it sure is disgusting.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Making Monsters #21: Videodrome

Videodrome is the first film directed by David Cronenberg that fully realizes the director's ideas, preoccupations and fetishes. Cronenberg takes the premise of a bootleg cable broadcaster (James Woods) who discovers a sadistic, ultraviolent underground program that carries a signal which mutates the viewer's mind and body and runs with it - the movie is like a Marshall McLuhan essay brought to life with more fleshy orifices and sadomasochistic sex than McLuhan might have envisioned. The film anticipates the digital era not with a single thesis statement but by illustrating the notion of video as a constantly mutating, malleable, living organism that can be manipulated to serve any ideology. That it realizes this idea through James Woods discovering a vaginal video player in his torso, hallucinating himself whipping a bound Debbie Harry in the clay-walled Videodrome set and killing one character with a flesh grenade not only makes this the most entertaining media studies lecture ever; it's also a clear view into the mind of a filmmaker who is at once highly intelligent and fascinatingly kinky.

Cronenberg's video hallucinations were brought to life by Rick Baker, who does a great job of bringing the director's most extreme concepts to life with a tactile, often squishy believability. Baker does an incredible job, in particular, of realizing the idea of video technology as a living, breathing thing. A videotape's sprockets suddenly protrude like bulging eyes, and TVs breathe, pulsate, get aroused and ooze blood and guts when they're injured. In the movie's most memorable scene, a TV featuring Debbie Harry's character, conservative pundit/masochist Nikki Brand, purrs seductively at Woods' character, Max Renn. It's not clear, at this point, whether Brand is working for Videodrome's makers or if Videodrome is masquerading for Brand; either way, it's quite a sight when a close-up of Harry's lips protrudes from the screen, urging Max to "come to Nikki." As Max presses his face against the screen, the lip envelop his head in an image that is both freakily sensual and just plain freaky. Baker created the effect by replacing the TV's screen with a large dental dam that he could stretch and manipulate while a rear projection of Harry's lips played on the screen. I can't recall another movie where the monster is media itself - Cronenberg's villains are often concepts that he doesn't always feel a need to personify - and certainly not another filmmaker who could make such a cerebral notion of horror so viscerally unnerving


Making Monsters #20: A Nightmare on Elm Street

The most iconic horror character of the past thirty years has to be Freddy Krueger, the horribly burned, dream-stalking villain of the Nightmare on Elm Street series. What gives Freddy an edge over other famous slashers like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers is that Freddy was played by one actor, Robert Englund, over the course of eight movies. In the best and worst movies in the series, Englund is clearly always giving his performance 110%; he's obviously having a great time playing such a horrible character, and his skill for creating a fully formed character under heavy makeup is as impressive as Boris Karloff or Lon Chaney. Anyone who has seen Englund at a Q&A knows his knowledge and appreciation of classic and contemporary movies is vast - when I met him, he completely geeked out when he saw my Let the Right One In t-shirt, and he grilled me on what I thought of the Swedish and American movies and the novel, citing specific scenes. So even when he's skateboarding or playing Nintendo, Englund always makes sure the integrity of the character and what made him frightening in Wes Craven's original film shines through.

Englund's performance is also the constant through all the subtle changes in makeup design Freddy undergoes with each film. While the work of makeup artists like Kevin Yagher and and Greg Cannom in the sequels is impressive, the character design by David B. Miller for the original movie remains the most frightening. Craven had actually written Freddy as even more grotesque-looking, with a partially exposed skull and open sores dripping pus, but Miller explained to the director that this would be impossible to make convincing on the film's low budget. Instead, Miller studied photos of burn victims to create a look for the character that is believable but not completely realistic, and purposefully so; Yagher would later call Freddy a "male witch," and his look is as fantastic as it is grotesque. When Englund was asked about the remake at the Q&A I attended last year, he was tactful and complimentary to Jackie Earl Haley's performance, but pointed out that changing the makeup to a more realistic "burn victim" look sacrificed Freddy's striking profile and his larger-than-life screen presence. He's right - one of the many things wrong with the remake is that Freddy was less frightening than pitiful-looking. As designed by Miller, played by Englund and smartly kept in low light by director of photography Jacques Haitkin, Freddy retains a supernatural menace even after multiple viewings.

Craven's original movie remains the best largely thanks to his talent for imagining striking nightmare imagery that touches a collective nerve. These moments were brought to life by an effects team led by Jim Doyle, who was responsible for creating Freddy's iconic glove as well as designing the film's classic dream sequences. For the scene where heroine Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) falls asleep in the tub and is pulled into the water by Freddy, a bathtub set was built over a swimming pool, and Doyle spent much of the day underwater, playing Freddy's gloved hand himself. And for the film's goriest scene, when Nancy's boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp in his screen debut) is sucked into his bed and moments later, a geyser of blood pours out of the hole, was pulled off using a gimbal set. The set is placed on a giant rotating axis, the camera is fixed to and moves with the set and the subject remains at the bottom of the set, so that it appears that the subject, not the set, is in motion. This was used famously for the scene of Gary Lockwood jogging around the Discovery One's centrifuge in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and is also used in A Nightmare on Elm Street for the scene where Tina (Amanda Wyss) is thrown around the walls and ceiling by an invisible Freddy (the same gimbal set was used later the same year for a scene in Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo!). For Glen's death scene, the set was rotated 180 degrees and 500 gallons of fake blood were dumped through the floor of the set. The effect almost proved to be deadly, as the gimbal set began spinning out of control, dumping fake blood all over the soundstage, shorting out the electricity and threatening to electrocute the entire crew (Wes Craven later called it a "Ferris wheel from hell"). Thankfully, nobody was hurt, and the glitch in the effect - the blood at one point appears to pour out sideways - only adds to its uncanny quality. It remains a memorable start to Depp's career, and a more interesting effect than every overblown setpiece in the three Pirates of the Caribbean sequels combined.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Making Monsters #19: The Mummy

While mummies are a ubiquitous Halloween costume and decoration, they're actually very underused as cinematic monsters. Besides the classic 1932 Universal production starring Boris Karloff, there's the Hammer version with Christopher Lee, the 1999 movie and its sequels (which play more like Raiders of the Lost Ark than horror movies), the mummy stalking Elvis' nursing home in Bubba Ho-Tep, a memorable mummy hiding out in a young boy's closet in The Monster Squad, and about two dozen other mostly forgettable movies. Perhaps the popularity of zombies has rendered the mummy obsolete; whereas a mob of the flesh-eating living dead is a visceral threat, mummies usually work solo and move very slowly. The idea of a mummy stealing your soul probably can't compete with a zombie that wants to eat your brains. It's a shame, because the 80-year-old original remains a spooky little gem. Starring Boris Karloff as Imhotep, an ancient Egyptian priest who is revived when his tomb is unearthed by an archeological expedition, The Mummy was released the year after Frankenstein and is actually better than the earlier film in a few ways. Imhotep's pursuit of the woman he believes is his reincarnated lover adds an often-imitated element of Gothic romance to the story, and director Karl Freund (the cinematographer of Frankenstein) finds the right eerie tone for the film. And Karloff is terrific as Imhotep, giving the character a distant, otherworldly quality even when the character is passing himself off as a modern, non-mummified Egyptian.

As with Frankenstein, Karloff's makeup was created by Jack Pierce, who used Seti I's mummy as a reference for Imhotep. Pierce used collodion and cotton to create the weathered, preserved look of Imhotep's skin, and the mummy's bandages were created by soaking strips of linen with acid and burning them in an oven. Karloff's makeup took eight hours to apply and another two hours to remove, meaning the actor actually shot those scenes from the evening well into the night. It was, needless to say, a very unpleasant experience for Karloff, but the final result is equally impressive. While Karloff only actually wears the full mummy makeup in a few scenes, the look of Imphotep, coupled with Karloff's performance, made for a character that defined the look of the mummy in films in a way that hasn't been surpassed in 80 years.

Making Monsters #18: Predator

Roger Ebert opened his review of Predator by observing that "Predator begins like Rambo and ends like Alien, and in today's Hollywood, that's creativity. Most movies are inspired by only one previous blockbuster." It's true that Predator is essentially a mashup of gung-ho '80s action and the sci-fi/horror spin on And Then There Were None popularized by Alien (itself a brilliant reworking of '50s B-movies like It! The Terror From Beyond Space) and followed by countless imitators. But it transcends its derivative premise and works brilliantly on its own terms, thanks to director John McTiernan at the top of his game (his next film was Die Hard) and Stan Winston's unforgettable creature design. With his dreadlock-like quills, massive cranium and enormous mandibles (one of the most visceral cinematic representations of vagina dentata) the intergalatic big game hunter is a one-of-a-kind movie monster.

Winston's take on the Predator, as many fans of the movie know, wasn't the original character design. Steve Johnson (Big Trouble in Little China, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4) originally designed a Predator suit that looked more like a giant insect - the suit was actually used during production for several days, and Jean-Claude Van Damme was originally cast to play the Predator. But the character proved to be unconvincing on-camera and would not function in the film's tropical on-location shoot, so production was halted for six months while Winston came up with an alternate creature design. Working from concept art by Alan Munro, Winston created an intimidating alien that could plausibly hold his own in hand-to-hand combat with Arnold Schwarzenegger (it helped that the Predator was played by the late Kevin Peter Hall, who also played Harry in Harry and the Hendersons). And the idea of the mandible came from frequent Winston collaborator James Cameron, who mentioned while the two men were promoting Aliens  that mandibles were something he's always wanted to see. The result is one of Winston's most enduring designs, a character strong enough that, even after two abysmal Aliens vs. Predator movies, people still want more.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Making Monsters #17: The Return of the Living Dead

The Return of the Living Dead, a comic take on the premise of Night of the Living Dead that is a favorite among horror fans, was a troubled production when it was filmed in 1984. The schedule was rushed, the original makeup effects artist was fired midway through production, and first-time director Dan O'Bannon developed a nervous twitch from the stress. And as a result, many of the effects are actually pretty shoddy - if you look in the background of any shot involving a crowd of zombies, you'll see extras wearing what look like Halloween masks or barely any makeup at all. Despite this, the movie works, thanks to O'Bannon's irreverent take on the material - a writer on many beloved genre movies, including Alien, Dark Star and Total Recall, O'Bannon's only directed one other film. Luckily, The Return of the Living Dead is a fully realized expression of O'Bannon's humorously jaundiced worldview.

The film does contain one zombie design, known to fans of the movie as Tar Man, that is technically impressive and influential to zombie cinema ever since. Designed by original makeup artist Bill Munns and tweaked by replacement artist Kenny Myers, Tar Man solved the problem of how to build makeup appliances on an actor while creating a character who is convincingly wasting away. They began by casting Allan Trautman, a very slender actor and puppeteer who went on to do puppetry for the Muppets and movies like Men in Black and Babe. Trautman war a black leotard which was then fitted with polyurethane bones and black latex made to look like ragged, decaying flesh. The makeup design, and Trautman's convincing physical acting, made Tar Man a believable and fun addition to the movie. And it's Tar Man's famous line - "BRAAAAINS!" - that popularized the idea of zombies as being primarily interested in snacking on grey matter. I knew one horror geek who resented the idea that The Return of the Living Dead made people think that all zombies are only interested in brains. These are the sort of things that horror geeks worry about.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Making Monsters #16: Poltergeist

Poltergeist is largely remembered for two things today: the supposed curse surrounding the film and its sequels, and the question of whether director Tobe Hooper or co-writer/producer Steven Spielberg really directed the original film (my take is that there's clearly a lot of Spielberg in the movie, but also more of Tobe Hooper's style than most people realize). Both topics obscure what an excellent movie Poltergeist is and how well it holds up - I watched again a few months ago on Blu-ray, and it honestly stands up against any of this summer's blockbusters, both technically and for pure entertainment value. As a PG Spielberg production that recalls how Spielberg's gift for capturing childlike wonder is matched by his adolescent glee at capturing perfect gross-out moments, Poltergeist was one of the earliest horror movie experiences for many movie geeks growing up in the '80s, and it's a heck of a gateway drug.

As with The Shining, the movie transplants the haunted house story from Gothic mansions and cursed estates to a uniquely American and contemporary setting - in this case, an unassumingly boring planned community where one family is terrorized by ghosts who are very pissed off for reasons that become clear by the movie's end. Hooper and Spielberg pull out all the stops, determined to scare us every way they can. The early scenes are an atmospheric slow burn, an accumulation of the kind of details - chairs moved out of place, bent spoons, the family's youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) chatting with the unseen "TV people" - that are the bread and butter of the Paranormal Activity series. When all hell breaks loose, there are moments of shock, most memorably the payoff to son Robbie's (Oliver Robbins) fear of the very evil-looking clown doll in the corner of his room. And there are even moments of gross-out, like paranormal investigator Marty's (Martin Casella) face-ripping hallucination, that remind of how much Spielberg got away with, MPAA-wise, in the '80s. Poltergeist is great but certainly not subtle, turning horror into a state-of-the-art effects spectacular as effectively as Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind did with science fiction.

And Hooper and Spielberg are greatly aided in creating the ultimate haunted house by a murderer's row of special effects technicians, let by visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund (the original Star Wars trilogy, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters), makeup effects artist Craig Reardon (Altered States, The Funhouse, Twilight Zone: The Movie) and Industrial Light and Magic in one of their first productions as a full-blown effects house. The film uses just about every effects technique of the pre-digital era - forced perspective, models, animation, optical effects, prosthetic makeup, animatronics, even a gimbal set. Oh, and real skeletons in the film's explosive climax for added effect. In the movie's showstopping finale, the possessed house rises from its foundations and implodes, disappearing into another dimension in a flash of light. The effect was achieved by building a scale model of the house, and pulling it with cables towards a vacuum; the model was constructed to break apart in segments, and the effect, which took five seconds to film, was shot at 300 frames per second so that each second of real time would take up fifteen seconds of screen time. The scene completely blew my mind as a kid; even now, knowing how it was done, I find it astonishing and completely believable. The old adage that horror is about not showing everything is often true; however, if your intention is to make a film as credible and beautifully crafted as Poltergeist, by all means, astonish us.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Making Monsters #15: Basket Case

I've realized, writing this series, that the key to a successful special effect has less to do with the specific technique used than the conviction the filmmakers put into making it believable. Basket Case is a perfect example. It's the story of Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) and Belial, a pair of Siamese twins who take murderous revenge on the doctors who surgically separated them. Belial is horribly deformed, non-verbal (he communicates with Duane telepathically) and lives in a basket. It's a low-budget film, and Belial brought to life by the filmmakers with a puppet and stop-motion effects. Objectively speaking, Belial is a Boglin that occasionally turns into an angry Plasticine Wallace figure left in the sun. And yet I completely believe and care about Belial as a character when I'm watching Basket Case, thanks to Van Hentenryck's performance and director Frank Henenlotter's obvious investment in his characters and story. While Basket Case is tongue-in-cheek, it's obviously fueled by Henenlotter's love of exploitation movies - he has a lot of love for that ugly puppet, and so do I.

Consider the following scene. Belial is angry that Duane has gone on a date with a young receptionist, and he takes it out on their hotel room. From a technical standpoint, this scene is completely ridiculous. But watch it and tell me it doesn't make your day immediately and exponentially better. I know mine is. I love you, Belial.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Making Monsters #14: The Phantom of the Opera

This month wouldn't be complete without mentioning Lon Chaney. The man of a thousand faces, the patriarch of every monster makeup artist and horror movie star I idolized as a kid, Chaney developed his gifts as a versatile character actor and makeup artist on the stage before breaking into the movies in 1912 as a contract player for Universal. So in addition to his enormous influence on the entire history of what was then a brand new medium, Chaney also represents the connection between film and theatre; this link is especially clear with monster movies, which have much the same attraction as the theatrical genres - magicians, Vaudeville, Grand Guignol - that were in vogue when Chaney was a stage actor. Chaney created characters like his Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (his breakthrough performance) using theatrical techniques and materials - grease paint, a wig, basic facial appliances - brought to life by his gift for pantomime, which he developed as the child of two deaf parents. Disappearing into nearly every role, including his multiple collaborations with director Tod Browning, Chaney was both a master craftsman and a versatile character actor. With Chaney, the special effect and the performance were one and the same.

Chaney's most famous role, of course, is Erik in 1925's The Phantom of the Opera. To bring to life the disfigured character that Gaston Leroux's book describes as having the face of a corpse, Chaney covered his eye sockets with black paint, wore crooked false teeth and, most famously, used wire to turn the tip of his nose permanently up, giving it a pig-like appearance. The famous moment when Christine (Mary Philbin) removes the Phantom's mask, revealing his horrible visage frozen in shock, supposedly caused audiences in 1925 to scream and pass out; it was The Exorcist of its time. The scene is still startling; although it's easy now to scoff at Chaney's performance with the ironic distance that time affords, the fact is that Chaney's performance remains - after Robert Englund's Freddy-like Phantom and Gerard Butler's crooning, barely scarred Phantom - the most memorable and enduring incarnation of the character to date.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Making Monsters #13: The Evil Dead

The Evil Dead became a horror classic that spawned two sequels, a remake, comic and video game spin-offs and an extremely loyal fanbase on the strength of a shoestring budget, lots of homemade monster makeup and an insanely hardworking and creative group of then-amateur filmmakers. The "Hey! Let's put on a show!" spirit that infuses director Sam Raimi's first film is infectious - a makeshift Steadicam rig (basically the camera mounted between a pair of 2x4s) allows for some very visceral POV shots, Raimi calls upon his love of The Three Stooges to pile one gory and inventive gag on top of another, and star Bruce Campbell's incredibly committed performance was the beginning of one of the most beloved characters in the genre. And while the effects used to bring the demons who possess the unlucky vacationers to life are far from state-of-the-art even in 1981, thanks to the ingenuity of effects artist Tom Sullivan and pure chutzpah of Raimi and his crew (who stayed on many weeks after principal photography, using doubles and dressing up as the demons themselves, to cram in as many gags as possible), they remain creepily effective. I saw a 35mm print of The Evil Dead a few years ago at a horror marathon, and while all of the movie's rough edges were magnified on the big screen, they only added to the film's grungy appeal.

This is especially true in the movie's showstopping finale, when Ash (Campbell) manages to destroy the demon-summoning Necronomicon and the ghouls inhabiting his friends' bodies quickly turn into a sticky pile of decaying flesh, guts, snakes and fluids of every color. The sequence is clearly accomplished with stop-motion animation and is about as photo-real as a California Raisins commercial, but that's completely beside the point. Raimi and Sullivan are so totally committed to going for the gross-out and bringing this disgusting tableaux to life that the sequence works brilliantly on the level of B-movie showmanship (keep in mind that a movie that leans heavily on Claymation was effective enough to be labelled a Video Nasty in the UK and banned for many years). As with all of Raimi's best subsequent work, it goes sublimely over the top. And the best thing about Raimi, as a filmmaker, is that even as he's become more respectable and works with budgets about five hundred times the size of The Evil Dead's, he's never lost his mischievous love of putting on a good show.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Making Monsters #12: Dracula

Bram Stoker's Dracula is one of the most divisive horror movies of the past twenty years, largely because it arrived with massive amounts of hype - between the movie's arresting marketing campaign and the notion of Francis Ford Coppola trying his hand at the horror genre, expectations couldn't have been higher for the movie Fangoria declared "THE HORROR EVENT OF THE DECADE" on its cover. So it's understandable that, when horror fans got to see the film and discovered it was an idiosyncratic, overheated art film, they didn't really know what to make of it. I won't make the case that it's a misunderstood masterpiece; Coppola uses the fever dream atmosphere of the movie to gloss over a problematic screenplay, and the grandiose, romantic approach to the story borders on kitsch, and Keanu Reeves is famously out of his element. That said, I was so obsessed with seeing this movie when it was released that I actually reserved it at the local video store before it was released, and I absolutely loved it. To be fair, I was nine years old, but even as an adult I admire Coppola's experimental take on the book - the production and costume design are excellent, the rest of performances are over the top in the best way, and the film continues the fine Hammer tradition of copious bloodshed and heaving bosoms.

The most impressive aspect of the film is the contrast between Coppola's use of in-camera effects that could have been accomplished in the silent era and the state-of-the-art makeup effects by Greg Cannom, who deservedly won the Oscar for his work on the film. Cannom designed the makeup effects for The Lost Boys, and the look of the young vampires has influenced countless vampire movies since. For Dracula, Cannom goes wild with the notion of Dracula as a shapeshifter - we see him as a bearded warrior, a witch-like old man, an attractive Goth prince, a wolf and a giant bat. The latter two, especially the bat creature, are the most impressive - full-body, articulated latex makeups that are convincing without sacrificing Gary Oldman's performance (it helps that Oldman can disappear into seemingly any role). When Oldman, as the bat, transforms into hundreds of rats via a moment of sleight-of-hand, it's a wonderful marriage of state-of-the-art moviemaking and movie magic as old as the medium itself.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Monster Makers #11: Let Me In

It's probably obvious at this point that I have a bias towards practical effects. It's not that I'm a Luddite, and I'm not unequivocally opposed to CGI. What happens too often is that the unlimited possibilities that digital effects present actually restrict creativity; filmmakers shoot knowing that animators can create or fix anything later, and without the limitations of practical effects, they aren't motivated to be inventive in the way that Spielberg was when the shark didn't work. However, when a filmmaker uses CGI to realize a truly ingenious shot that couldn't be accomplished any other way, the result is exhilarating.

Take the car crash sequence in Let Me In, the American remake of Let the Right One In. Director Matt Reeves is largely faithful to the Swedish original, but the scene where Richard Jenkins, as the unnamed aging partner and caretaker of vampire Abby, botches a killing and flips his victim's car over an embankment, is a terrific addition to the story. The scene would be impossible without digital effects, which seamlessly blend shots from three different locations as well as invisibly swapping out Jenkins with a stuntman to create a seemingly unbroken shot entirely inside the car. But the shot works because Reeves doesn't sacrifice spatial continuity or the imperfect details - the drink splattered on the windshield, the air freshener violently swinging from the rearview mirror - that give the moment the verisimilitude that CGI usually irons out. It's a tense, brilliantly executed sequence that suggests what it might look like if Hitchcock were alive and working today.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Making Monsters #10: The Haunting

The Haunting is, by far, the scariest G-rated movie of all time. Robert Wise's adaptation of Shirley Jackson's classic novel The Haunting of Hill House, the story of a paranormal expert who brings two women with psychic abilities and a young skeptic to investigate an estate believed to have been haunted for generations, relies almost completely on the power of suggestion to generate suspense. Wise creates a malevolent character out of Hill House almost entirely from askew camera angles, the interplay of light and shadow and, especially, mysterious ambient noises on the soundtrack such as children's laughter and mysterious groans. It's maybe the best cinematic equivalent to the feeling of being a kid in bed with an overactive imagination ascribing sinister motives to the shadows on the wall.

The movie's overt "Boo!" moments are so few that they have a lot of oomph when they arrive. One of the most memorable is the scene where the characters are in a locked room and, accompanied by booming noise on the soundtrack, the door appears to warp inward from the force of something very powerful trying to break in. It's a very simple effect - a rubber door being pushed by crew members - that is frighteningly believable thanks to Wise and his crew's care to keep the story grounded, not to mention his cast's convincingly terrified reactions. I like a horror movie that skillfully piles on the gore and monster makeup as much as anyone, and at least one movie I've yet to write about this month takes a much more pyrotechnic approach to the haunted house story to brilliant effect. But it's healthy for the horror fan to be reminded sometimes about moments like this that rely on the power of the imagination. It's telling that 1999's remake of The Haunting, a CGI spectacular, is mostly forgotten, while that same summer saw two smash hit horror movies, The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense, that owed a great deal more to Wise's atmospheric masterpiece.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Making Monsters #9: Hellraiser

When Hellraiser was made in 1987, writer/director Clive Barker and his cast and crew didn't anticipate Pinhead becoming such a popular character. The Cenobites were supporting characters in a a gothic, S&M-laced supernatural story; Pinhead didn't have a name in the script or end credits, and actor Doug Bradley, when given a choice between two roles by his friend Barker, almost went with a moving guy at the beginning because his face would be visible. A lot of credit for Pinhead's rapid rise to horror stardom and Hellraiser feeling like such a breath of fresh air for the genre when it was released can be given to makeup and special effects artist Bob Keen. Keen was responsible for the striking character design of Pinhead and the other Cenobites, as well as the skin-free Frank after his return from the grave and the many grotesque things the Lament Configuration does to those who solve it. At a point when horror was beginning to take a turn towards irony and self-referential humor, Clive Barker approached the genre with respect for its many fantastic and kinky possibilities; Keen was instrumental in bringing Barker's astonishing imagination nearly intact to the screen.

The most impressive effect in Hellraiser is the return of Frank (Oliver Smith) from the grave after his brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) spills a few drops of his blood on the floor of the attic where Frank was torn to pieces by the Cenobites. The sequence was largely brought to life by shooting in reverse, so that blood flows up through the floorboards before two skeletal (animatronic) arms burst through. To pull off the amazing images of Frank's brain, skeleton and organs re-form, Keen created wax models of Frank's insides and gradually melted them, pulling the skeleton apart one bone at a time, then reversing the image. It's a marvelously uncanny effect, backed by Christopher Young's excellent score; in fact, when Sam Raimi basically remade the scene with the Sandman's rebirth in Spider-Man 3, he had Young quote his earlier work. It's a great scene, imaginative and fueled by the simultaneous horror of and attraction to the monstrous that makes Barker's work so memorable.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Making Monsters #8: Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead was lost in the shuffle back when it was released in 1985; in a year filled with great, fun horror movies like Re-Animator, The Return of the Living Dead and Fright Night, it was a downer by comparison and a movie that audiences mostly stayed away from. Its reputation has grown tremendously over the years - it's arguably the most influential of Romero's original trilogy in terms of the current aesthetic zombie movies, video games and the hit series The Walking Dead - and it's grown on me a great deal as well. Its grimy, cynical tone was originally a bit of a letdown after the brightly colored, comic book-influenced aesthetic of Dawn of the Dead. Now, I appreciate it as a series of Socratic dialogues demonstrating how our inability to pull together in the face of our extinction is as much the problem as the zombies themselves; in fact, the scientist characters' guinea pig zombie Bub (Howard Sherman) is one of the movie's most sympathetic characters. Of course, it's not the zombie My Dinner With Andre - the last half-hour is a huge, blood-splattered payback that feels like director George A. Romero and makeup artist Tom Savini taking their collaboration on these movies as far as it can go.

Of all the makeup artists I looked up to as a kid, Savini was at the top of the list. His inventiveness in making zombie epics on a low-budget and his work on Romero's other films (including another I'll write about later in the month) and indie productions like Friday the 13th and The Burning made me feel that it was possible to make a great, gory horror movie in my own back yard. Day of the Dead is Savini's masterpiece; the zombies are in a more decomposed state than in Dawn, and Savini goes wild with their rotting flesh, missing limbs and exposed organs. Once you get past the initial gross-out factor, the artistry on display is amazing; Savini, who drew on his experiences as a combat photographer in Vietnam as a reference for his work, never shies away from the grotesque details of what happens after we die.

The last reel of Day of the Dead, when the zombies break into the underground mine that has served as the characters' fortress and overpower the cast of soldiers, is an orgy of characters being torn limb from limb, most memorably the revolting comeuppance of the film's antagonist, Col. Rhodes (Joe Pilato). Pilato is perfectly hateful as Rhodes, and it's sickly satisfying to see him torn to bloody pieces by the undead - Savini sells the effect of Pilato's head protruding from a prosthetic body with real animal organs and viscera, made extra-gnarly after the refrigerator they were stored in before filming the scene was accidentally left unplugged for the weekend (the extras who willingly gnawed on rotten pig parts for the sake of art deserved some kind of award). It's a terrific ending for people with a certain (sick) point of view, an ultragory grand finale capped off by Pilato's classic delivery of Rhodes' final line: "Choke on 'em!"