Friday, October 31, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 30 - Braindead (aka Dead Alive)

#1 - 21 Votes

The surprise (to me, anyway) victory of Braindead - re-titled Dead Alive in North America - in this poll must be at least partly attributable to the enduring popularity of zombies. The walking dead were in a bit of a lull during the decade - other than the screenplay for the Night of the Living Dead remake, George A. Romero took a break from zombies, and besides Cemetery Man, the list of other notable zombie movies is pretty short (only Return of the Living Dead 3 and the comedy My Boyfriend's Back come to mind). When Braindead was released in the U.S. in 1993, trends in horror movies were making a distinct turn away from the fantastic in favor of serial killers and sci-fi horror, which helped the film stand out in a crowded genre. And director Peter Jackson's take on the undead is nothing if not fantastic; in a little over an hour and a half, Jackson manages to put his rapidly rotting supporting cast through just about every puerile, gory gag one could think of, and even manages to invent a few new ones. Even if you're not a fan of constant, stomach-turning violence, you can't help admiring his showmanship.

As Stephen King put it in his book Danse Macabre, Jackson goes directly for the gross-out here. His first two features, the practically homemade Bad Taste and the slightly more polished Meet the Feebles, were gleefully tasteless, with content as crude as his filmmaking often was. Braindead was a big step forward for the filmmaker - the direction and performances are more assured from the start, and his screenplay (co-written with his partner Fran Walsh and Stephen Sinclair) is impressively nuanced, which isn't something one can always say about a movie where a lady's ear lands in a bowl of custard. When nebbishy mama's boy Lionel's (Timothy Balme) mum Vera (Elizabeth Moody) is infected by the bite of a Sumatran rat monkey, he continues caring for her after she's taken to eating dogs and tearing peoples' heads off, which threatens to put a stop to his budding romance with shop girl Paquita (Diana Peñalver). It's a story that would work as a romantic comedy with an Oedipal conflict even before you add in the dog eating and decapitations.

It's a big step forward, too, in terms of the effects Jackson, who cooked the makeup appliances for Bad Taste in his parents' oven, was able to work with a team of makeup artists, including Bob McCarron, who'd worked on The Road Warrior and Razorback. The effects are the star here, as Jackson and his team let their imaginations run wild; Braindead's zombies' individual parts keep on ticking even after they've been removed from the rest of the body, which allows for flying limbs, bisected heads with eyes that continue to see, and a large intestine that becomes a sort of character of its own towards the end. The showstopper is the climactic scene where Lionel mows down dozens of zombies with his lawnmower; the scene used 300 gallons of fake blood, and the movie in general reportedly used more fake blood than any other, though I'm not sure if there's any way to be sure (does every horror movie crew keep a count?). The movie would be unwatchable if it weren't for the peculiarly cheerful, cartoonish approach Jackson takes - the gore here isn't too far, in spirit, from my six-year-old's bloody drawings of zombies and monsters biting off peoples' heads, and the movie's grisly sight gags and physical comedy owe as much to Chuck Jones as they do to Sam Raimi. Braindead's best and funniest scene, Lionel's trip to the park with a zombie baby, wouldn't seem out of place in an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus, and I love that the scene was thought up on the fly when Jackson and his crew wrapped early and had an extra day left in the shooting schedule.

Of course, the scene where a priest discovers zombies outside his church and reveals himself to be a kung fu master is another favorite, and for good reason - we're given no advance context for the priest's martial arts abilities, which only makes it funnier, and the line "I kick ass for the Lord" is just perfect. But the scene also points towards the influence Braindead, like the Evil Dead movies, had on lesser imitators. We've been inundated in recent years with countless low-rent zombie movies - Zombie Strippers, Ninjas vs. Zombies, Zombeavers - where the filmmakers combined blood and guts with some sort of obvious juxtaposition between zombies and strippers, ninjas, beavers or whatever they thought of after fifteen seconds of effort. There are enough of these movies that, presumably, stoners browsing Netflix are enough to keep them in the black. Shaun of the Dead was one of the few movies to take the right lesson from Braindead, creating a grounded story with relatable characters, then seeing how introducing zombies into the movie shakes up the relationships and personal conflicts the movie has already established. While there have been plenty of solid horror movies in recent years, the glut of half-assed horror-comedies makes one wish that Jackson - who followed up Braindead with the drama Heavenly Creatures, still his best movie, starting him on the path towards Oscars and billion-dollar grosses - might be inclined to make a movie that nods to his roots, as Sam Raimi did with Drag Me to Hell, now that he's finally done with Middle Earth (one can hope). Either way, Dead Alive is as fun as it was two decades ago, and the perfect way to end the '90s Horror Poll - thanks again to everyone who submitted a list, and especially to my contributors, Alex Jackson and Christopher Fujino. Happy Halloween!

U.S. Release Date: February 12, 1993 (Also released that day: Groundhog Day, Untamed Heart, The Temp, Love Field, Strictly Ballroom)

What critics said at the time:

"Because all of this looks blatantly unreal, and because the timing of the shock effects is so haphazard, 'Dead Alive' isn't especially scary or repulsive. Nor is it very funny. Long before it's over, the half-hour-plus bloodbath that is the climax of the film has become an interminable bore." - Stephen Holden, New York Times

"Jackson, obviously aware of the cliché-ridden dangers of 'horror comedies,' chucks convention and good taste out the window and goes for the gusto (or is that 'gutso'?) with uncanny results. The film moves from gag to gore to gag again like a rocket from the crypt and never lets up - just when you think you've seen the worst, Jackson tops himself and there you are squirming in your seat again (and loving every minute of it). Sick. Perverse. Brilliant." - Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle

Thursday, October 30, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 29 - Scream

#2 (Tie) - 15 Votes

It's hard to explain what the initial impact of Scream was like to people who were too young to see it when it was released (back then, popcorn cost a dime, we had to walk five miles through the snow to get to the nickelodeon, and so forth). Released with little fanfare during the holiday season alongside several higher-profile movies, the movie's opening weekend was small, and while the reviews were generally positive, nobody was predicting it would be the start of a blockbuster franchise. A few TV spots and a review in the Boston Globe comparing the movie to Halloween had me intrigued, so I convinced my older brother to take us. The audience was far from packed, but as the movie began, we were almost immediately on the edge of our seats. There are always anecdotal stories about audiences screaming and talking back to the screen at horror movies, but Scream was one of the few times I personally experienced anything like that.

The famous opening sequence is so crucial to the success of the rest of the movie because it raises the stakes to such a severe degree that, no matter how jokey and self-referential the movie gets, the gruesome image of a disemboweled Drew Barrymore hanging from a tree lingers in our recent memories. The opening introduces the premise of horror movie victims (and killers) who are well versed in horror movie tropes, but though the killer name-drops Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, there's no sense of ironic detachment in how Craven stages the stalking and murder of Barrymore's character, Casey. From the cold open on Casey answering the phone, the way Craven constructs the sequence is not quite like anything we'd seen from him before; he was always a very intelligent filmmaker, but never quite as stylistically precise. Much of this was likely built into Kevin Williamson's script, with doorbells, Jiffy Pop and the ringing of Casey's phone punctuating the scene and keeping us on edge. But the scene might be Craven's strongest work as a director; as the killer flirts with, then taunts and eventually chases after Casey, the eerily smooth Steadicam shots tracking her around and outside the house do a fantastic job of tightening the screws. And between Barrymore's excellent, visibly shaken performance and the great, tragic moment where Casey's parents arrive moments too late, it's the rare slasher movie scene with pathos and a palpable sense of loss.

The tone of the rest of the movie is considerably lighter; with the brutal opening sequence hanging over everything, it doesn't have to get as grisly to keep us on edge. The premise is well-known by now, and Scream was far from the first horror movie to feature cinema-literate characters and call attention to itself as a movie. What made it feel fresh was not just that the teenagers in the movie had seen scary movies, but that they had a very '90s, very teenage sense of irony and cynicism. When movie geek Randy is lecturing a room full of people with the rules to survive a scary movie, it doesn't matter that the rules immediately remind of a long list of exceptions (Jamie Lee Curtis doesn't have sex in Halloween, but she does smoke a joint while listening to Blue Oyster Cult). What matters is that this media-literate smartass thinks that being able to identify horror cliché somehow protects him from real-life horror (it doesn't). Underneath the clever pop culture references, the darker existential irony of Scream is that these characters can know they're victims and joke about it, but most of them are still going to die. While some aspects of the movie are distinctly of their time (remember when Skeet Ulrich was a thing?), it's that funny/queasy central joke that makes the movie hold up today.

Scream was released by Dimension films, the genre-based division of Miramax, whose founders, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, had produced The Burning, one of the first wave of slashers, fifteen years earlier. Dimension was their attempt to mimic the success New Line had seen with the Nightmare on Elm Street series, which mostly resulted in crappy sequels to Hellraiser and Children of the Corn. Scream was Dimension's first big success, and it led to a brief period when Kevin Williamson was a mini-industry, as well as a slew of Scream-influenced self-referential horror movies with casts handpicked from the WB. In the three years after Scream's release, Scream 2, I Know What You Did Last Summer, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, The Faculty, Halloween H20, Disturbing BehaviorUrban Legend and Teaching Mrs. Tingle were all made from the template of Craven's movie with varying degrees of shamelessness. To trace Scream's influence, do an image search on any of these movies and you'll see they all have the same poster - a glossy shot with the star in the center, flanked on both sides by the other young, photogenic members of the cast. Still, as easy as it is to begrudge Scream for its influence, it really was a breath of fresh air for a genre that had grown very stale in 1996. Also, anyone who knows Wes Craven's body of work had to take some perverse enjoyment out of the fact that the director of Last House on the Left made a blockbuster that was beloved by 12-year-old girls. 

U.S. Release Date: December 20, 1996 (Also released that day: Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, One Fine Day, My Fellow Americans, Ghosts of Mississippi, Marvin's Room, The Whole Wide World, In Love and War)

What critics said at the time:

"Director Wes Craven is on familiar turf with his latest thriller, 'Scream.' The setting is a small town, the protagonists are teens, and there’s a psychotic killer on the prowl. But he may have gone to the trough once too often, attempting an uneasy balance of genre convention and sophisticated parody. The pic’s chills are top-notch, but its underlying mockish tone won’t please die-hard fans. That adds up to no more than modest commercial returns and fast theatrical playoff." - Leonard Klady, Variety

" [...] Craven and Williamson turn 'Scream' into a self-reflexive romp that owes as much to the experimental fiction of Borges and Calvino as the seminal work of John Carpenter ('Halloween') and Sean S. Cunningham ('Friday the 13th'). With Courteney Cox as a tabloid TV reporter, David Arquette as the town's bumbling deputy and Drew Barrymore as a special guest victim, 'Scream' builds to a splattering finale that should leave genre fans highly satisfied. Here's to one of the year's better thrillers, just in time for Christmas." - Dave Kehr, New York Daily News

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 28 - The Silence of the Lambs

#2 (Tie) - 15 Votes

Few films hook me from the beginning the way The Silence of the Lambs does. The opening notes of Howard Shore's haunting score, which would fit a fantasy movie as well as a horror movie, over the Orion logo, give way to the first shots of the movie's heroine, Clarice Starling, making her way through a daunting obstacle course at Quantico. This introduction was Jodie Foster's idea - originally, the movie was to open with Clarice on a dangerous mission that is revealed to be a training simulation. Foster wanted to do the movie because she saw Clarice's story as the rare female version of the archetypal hero's journey in film, a woman who saves women, and we meet her as she's preparing for the journey the movie will send her on though she doesn't know it yet). It'soften easy to look too hard for symbolism in a film, but the way that cinematographer Tak Fujimoto shoots the forest path as murky and foreboding while emphasizing Clarice's strength and tenacity can't help but serve as foreshadowing for two things about the movie we're about to see: that, like the archetypal hero, Clarice is going to be sent into the dark wilderness to defeat a monster, and that she's more than up to the task.

While the things everyone remembers first about The Silence of the Lambs are the quotable lines from the story's two murderers - fava beans, lotion in the basket, Chianti, great big fat person, etc. - it's Clarice's journey that provides the movie with its narrative backbone and much of its emotional resonance, and director Jonathan Demme proved to be the perfect person to bring that story to the screen. Demme seemed like an unlikely choice at the time, as there was little in his filmography of quirky, humanistic comedies to suggest he could tackle such dark material. The one hint that he might have it in him was the second half of Something Wild, a New Wave version of a screwball romantic comedy that, with the introduction of the character of Ray (Ray Liotta), the obsessed ex-husband of Lulu (Melanie Griffith), takes a sharp left turn into violent thriller territory, a very jarring tonal shift that the director was able to pull off.

Demme's ability to create a very direct sense of audience identification with his characters works brilliantly in The Silence of the Lambs, particularly in emphasizing Clarice's sense of other-ness as a female trainee trying to catch a killer in a male-dominated field. It's a theme that dominates the movie, even though it almost never comes up in dialogue; it doesn't have to, thanks to Demme's so-simple-it's-brilliant manipulation of our perspective. We adopt Clarice's point of view when she walks into a funeral home filled with local cops and all eyes are on her, or when a nerdy entomologist hits on her (she handles both situations like a total badass, incidentally). Demme finds the perfect balance here, encouraging us to empathize with Clarice and understand the ever-present specter of the male gaze without being too on the nose about it (okay, maybe the smarmy Dr. Chilton is on the nose, but he's hilarious).

The director makes choices like this throughout the movie that would be too obvious if they weren't so perfect - take, for instance, the introduction of Buffalo Bill's future captive, Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), as she's singing along to Tom Petty's "American Girl" in her car. In ten seconds, you know exactly who this character is. And the movie is pretty much a master course in shot composition and editing. This is most obvious in the scenes between Clarice and Dr. Lecter, which depend on us believing that our hero and a psychopathic cannibal (albeit a very charming and polite cannibal with exquisite taste) develop an intimate relationship for the rest of the film to work, and with the added visual barrier of a constant wall between them (first glass, then a literal cage). Demme is forced to cover the scenes with a shot/reverse shot pattern, which doesn't lend itself to visual fireworks; however, the next time you watch the movie, pay attention to how each cut, each time the camera pushes in closer on Foster or Anthony Hopkins, is perfectly motivated the dialogue and the emotional through-line of the scene, and how any sense of a barrier, literal or otherwise, between the two actors is completely erased. It's incredible work, and the movie is one of those rare ones that could double as a textbook on how to make a movie; when I was making my first movie, I was surprised to find that it was Demme, more than any other filmmaker, that I turned to for inspiration when I was stuck on how to shoot a scene.

Demme's work here was strong enough to help earn Anthony Hopkins win the Oscar, even though he's onscreen for less than half hour -his performance looms over the rest of the movie even when Dr. Lecter is elsewhere. Some people consider Hopkins' performance hammy and over the top; these people will inevitably bring up either Mads Mikkelsen (he's terrific, but it's apples and oranges) or, if they're hardcore nerds, Brian Cox (I like Manhunter too, but come on) as the superior Hannibal. And it's true that Hopkins goes big, especially in Hannibal's early scenes, but it's important to remember where the character is at this point in the story. In Hannibal (the show, not Ridley Scott's endearingly silly movie), he's a monster in hiding, and in Manhunter, we only see him interacting with the protagonist who caught him, prison guards and a secretary he's trying to get information from over the phone. When the fava beans scene arrives in The Silence of the Lambs, Ted Tally's screenplay has already cannily used supporting characters to describe the horrible crimes he's committed, stoking our sense of anticipatory dread. When Clarice first sees Hannibal, he's standing still and at attention, waiting for her (Hopkins' idea, and a good one). So all the business with fava beans and "pft-ft-ft-ft-ft" and what have you, as big as it is, works because it's Hannibal that's deliberately being theatrical in order to screw with this "hustling rube with a little taste."

As he starts to care about her and wants to help her succeed, Hopkins mostly drops the theatrics, and it's here that we can see why Demme was inspired by Hopkins' performance as the good Dr. Treves in The Elephant Man to cast him here. You can hear a little of the doctor with the patient determination to teach John Merrick to speak in this monster with a brilliant mind who genuinely wants to help Clarice catch another monster and conquer her own demons. Thomas Harris' next book made Hannibal's affection for Clarice explicitly romantic, and that's left open as a possibility in The Silence of the Lambs. However, I prefer to think of him as a dark counterpart to the father figure of Jack Crawford; this is as good a place as any to mention, too, that Scott Glenn, who is often left out of conversations about the movie, is just as good as his two co-stars in a much less show-y role. He plays Crawford perfectly so that you don't know how, on the first viewing, whether he's really trying to be a mentor to Clarice or just exploiting her to get information from Lecter, until that great moment, during the late-film fake-out, when he realizes he's put Clarice in real danger.

In the first three books featuring Lecter, Harris makes the story's progressively more repulsive and devoid of Lecter's humor and charisma, making Lecter seem much more, er, palatable by comparison. Red Dragon's Francis Dolarhyde was at least pitiable, but while we have to assume that Jame Gumb was created out of some kind of hellish upbringing, we're never privy to it; we meet him as a horribly, irreparably broken person. There were protests and complaints from the LGBTQ community, at the time, that Buffalo Bill perpetuated stereotypes of crazy, dangerous transsexuals, and it's a fair point to bring up. However, even if one shrugs off Lecter explicitly stating that Buffalo Bill isn't really a transsexual as a quick bit of ass-covering on the part of the filmmakers, it's pretty clear from one look around his house, where swastikas rest next to feather boas and Polaroids of Jame with strippers, that this guy is confused in ways far beyond his gender identity (and while it's a cliché to commend a "brave performance," Ted Levine's work here earns it). Also, Lecter and Clarice might not be straight either; after hearing Keith Uhlich suggest that this might be the case, I have to say that there's at least a possibility that Kasi Lemmons' character, Ardelia, is more than Clarice's buddy and roommate. 

In any case, the final descent into Buffalo Bill's lair is the perfect climax to Clarice's journey, in addition to being intensely frightening. Some have dismissed The Silence of the Lambs as a tasteful, A-list gloss on rape-revenge cycles that had been present in horror and exploitation movies for years. That's not untrue, but who cares, and besides, as much as I love even the most crudely made '80s slasher movie, The Silence of the Lambs is so much better crafted than 90 percent of horror movies that it seems weird to me to essentially criticize it for being above average. And it's not like Demme shies away from the gruesome aspects of the story - it's still remarkable that a movie with a severed head, decaying corpses, a disemboweling and Ted Levine tucking his sack back won Best Picture. By the time Clarice is in Bill's dark basement, the camera taking his POV through his night vision goggles, it's the most terrifying scene of its kind since Wait Until Dark; then our hero slays the monster and begins her return from the wilderness, permanently changed for better or worse. It's a perfect ending - empowering in a genre that, admittedly, rarely has that effect for women - in a movie that never hits a false note, and while the final two movies I'll be writing about are both great, The Silence of the Lambs is easily my choice for the best horror movie of the decade.

U.S. Release Date: February 15, 1991 (Also released that day: King Ralph, Nothing But Trouble, Iron and Silk)

What critics said at the time:

"Dr. Lecter is no Boy Scout by comparison; he likes to eat the body parts of his victims. And right now you are probably thinking, "Maybe I'll go see "Home Alone" again.' Smart move. Or you could take a chance and screen on home video 'Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,' which was a fascinating, illuminating, deadpan portrait of the same lethal subject. Instead, director Demme superheats 'The Silence of the Lambs' to the point of silliness, in terms of both gross behavior and a pulsating soundtrack. The conclusion of the film is nothing more than a grisly version of every mad-slasher picture you've ever missed. Jodie's in trouble. Shoot, Jodie, shoot." - Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune
"If the movie were not so well made, indeed, it would be ludicrous. Material like this invites filmmakers to take chances and punishes them mercilessly when they fail. That's especially true when the movie is based on best-selling material a lot of people are familiar with. [...] The director, Jonathan Demme, is no doubt aware of the hazards but does not hesitate to take chances. His first scene with Hopkins could have gone over the top, and in the hands of a lesser actor almost certainly would have. But Hopkins is in the great British tradition of actors who internalize instead of overacting, and his Hannibal Lecter has certain endearing parallels with his famous London stage performance in 'Pravda,' where he played a press baron not unlike Rupert Murdoch. There are moments when Hopkins, as Lecter, goes berserk, but Demme wisely lets a little of this go a long way, so that the lasting impression is of his evil intelligence." - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 27 - The Blair Witch Project

#3 - 13 Votes

There are few movies as good as The Blair Witch Project that are fully or partly responsible for inspiring so many bad movies and pop cultural ephemera, and I'm not just talking about Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. While I remembered the movie's very effective internet campaign and Sci-Fi Channel special that hyped the movie as the real thing, the film's Wikipedia page reminded me of the books, comics, PC games, and worst of all, the tie-in soundtrack "Josh's Blair Witch Mix" (featuring no songs from the mostly song-free movie) that cropped up in the months after the movie became an unexpected blockbuster. And while there were movies like Cannibal Holocaust and Man Bites Dog that used the found footage format before Blair Witch, without it, there would be no Paranormal Activity, so it's also indirectly responsible for the popularity of a horror subgenre made up almost entirely of movies that don't merit a second viewing.

So why does The Blair Witch Project hold up when almost all of the found footage movies that follow it don't? A lot of people would say it doesn't - for many, the title evokes memories of the promise of a real, documentary account of the disappearance of three students, followed by the reality of a movie that relies almost entirely on the imagination to work, which translates to three annoying a-holes yelling at each other in the woods for 80 minutes, followed by an incomprehensible ending.* Admittedly, while I still admire the movie greatly, it's not one I'm likely to return to every Halloween; I rewatched it for this poll because I hadn't seen it in close to a decade, and it helps that I'd forgotten about most of the details my fellow geeks and I parsed over in detail in 1999 like this thing was the Zapruder film ("Oh yeah, this must be where Mike kicked the map into the river.").

But while The Blair Witch Project was surely aided by the hype surrounding it - it's the last time I've encountered sold-out shows and long lines, other than opening weekends for the latest Batman or Harry Potter - it remains impressive that a tiny independent movie was able to generate that kind of hype with nothing but an intriguing premise and a clever marketing campaign built on word of mouth. And seeing it that weekend with a group of friends and parents, we were all legitimately freaked out by the movie, particularly the iconic and (deservedly so) final shot. The Blair Witch Project works because, while the faux-documentary format was an inventive twist; filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's approach to scaring the audience relied on techniques dating back to the films of Val Lewton. Few '90s horror movies were nearly as effective at (or even attempted) building suspense, playing on the audience's imaginations through the power of suggestion, generating tension with images of seemingly empty spaces, and sustaining that tension by refusing to show us everything. For an audience weaned on jump scares and gross-out, 50-year-old filmmaking techniques suddenly seemed like a radical innovation.

The human drama actually worked better for me this time, mostly because, as an aspiring filmmaker, I couldn't help empathizing with Heather. The actress really nails playing a no-budget filmmaker from the beginning, constantly thinking out loud about everything she and her crew need to accomplish, repeatedly nagging them and unavoidably coming off a complete pain in the ass in the process. While I might have put the camera down a little sooner than Heather, I get the moment where she defends not doing so because it's all she has left (it's also unsettling how, when the three actors were left to their own devices, the natural dynamic quickly becomes the two men against the woman). And when she's delivering her famous, runny-nosed monologue where she takes full responsibility for everything that's happened - well, what fledgling filmmaker isn't afraid they'll reach a point where they've led their crew deep into the woods and have to admit they have no idea what they're doing? Just because the woods here are literal, and populated by murderous witches, doesn't make it less true.

*Coincidentally, a piece on the film by Mike D'Angelo went up at The Dissolve today. Before reading it, I never knew that ending originally had absolutely no context, and the filmmakers went back and added an interview earlier in the movie for clarification. I honestly don't know, if I hadn't been able to remember that earlier scene, whether the ending would have terrified me more or pissed me off.

U.S. Release Date: July 16, 1999 (Also released that day: Eyes Wide Shut, Lake Placid, The Wood, Muppets from Space, I'm Losing You)

What critics said at the time:

"All the while I kept wondering why they started out on this silly project in the first place. Indeed, I was so detached from the mission that I began noticing things that didn’t make sense in the context of the sheer terror of the experience. Why do they keep lugging around their backpacks long after it becomes clear that they should be running for their lives? Yet the filmmakers do deserve credit for a clever image in the last 10 seconds that at least works poetically, but that is not nearly enough for all the low-budget, leave-it-to-the-audience’s-imagination pretentiousness that precedes it." - Andrew Sarris, New York Observer

"I don't want to go cheesy,' the bossy auteur announces at the onset and, although the real filmmakers, Myrick and Sanchez, are sometimes obliged to stretch for ways to insure that their increasingly terrorized characters keep filming, Blair Witch never does betray Heather's aesthetic. Paranoid, hysterical, and programmatically subjective, the movie is in every sense a psychological thriller. Although the payoff is ambiguous, the experience remains in the mind. It's an absolutely restrained and truly frightening movie." - J. Hoberman, Village Voice

Monday, October 27, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 26 - Candyman

#4 - 12 Votes

There hasn't been another horror author who fuses cerebral and visceral scares the way Clive Barker does, nor any who locate the erotic undercurrents of horror archetypes the way his best work can. Naturally, Barker's work has proven difficult to adapt to the screen. The first two Hellraiser movies are fascinating, but the series quickly went downhill; Nightbreed was famously mutilated in postproduction (and, coincidentally, is available this week for the first time in a version closer to Barker's original vision); Lord of Illusions and Midnight Meat Train are interesting but uneven. Beyond a few other movies, such as Rawhead Rex (which I haven't seen), which aren't exactly well-regarded, most of Barker's work hasn't been adapted for the big screen. The most successful Clive Barker movie is easily Candyman, which drastically reworked the details of Barker's story "The Forbidden" but gets closer to Barker's voice than even the movies he directed.

Barker and writer/director Bernard Rose, who'd previously directed the excellent Paperhouse, chose to move the location from a Liverpool slum to the Cabrini Green projects in Chicago and, most significantly, changed the Caucasian boogeyman of the story to the spirit of a murdered slave. When grad student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) becomes fascinated with Candyman while researching her thesis on urban legends, she unwittingly conjures him and is blamed for the murders he subsequently commits. Rose never fully settles the question of whether Candyman (Tony Todd) is real or if he only exists in Helen's imagination while she actually commits the crimes; it's a choice that could have been frustratingly vague, but Rose pulls it off wonderfully (and it's the rare modern horror movie that nails the ending). Either way, it's suggested that Helen doesn't unearth Candyman as much as bring him to life through her curiosity; like the victim in the urban legend chanting his name in front of a mirror, Helen invited Candyman, who is a dark manifestation of her (and, by extension, our desire). I wrote about this back in April*, but it was fascinating to see a 35mm print of Candyman at the end of an all-night horror marathon - while my lack of sleep certainly contributed to this feeling, it was though, after many hours spent gorging on horror, the screen was looking back at me and forcing me to question why I wanted to look.

*This one's going to be a little shorter, only because I wrote about Candyman this year and a few Halloweens ago. One thing I don't think I mentioned either time, though, is how effective Rose's deceptively simple visual aesthetic is. The clean, geometric visual compositions and grayscale color palette create a firmly realistic sense of place that is dramatically violated whenever Candyman shows up (and whenever copious amounts of blood are spilled). Rose hasn't made a movie that made much of an impression since 1995's Immortal Beloved, but his work in Candyman and Paperhouse is as strong as just about any big-name horror director. 

U.S. Release Date: October 16, 1992 (Also released that day: Consenting Adults, The Public Eye, Night and the City)

What critics said at the time:

"Horror pictures, especially those that are as purportedly ambitious as this one, must function as allegories, with their key figures emerging as metaphors. However, in its emphasis on gore for its own sake, 'Candyman,' for all its expensive sheen and unsettling dark and derelict key settings, never gets to come together, leaving it seem merely silly and pretentious, an effect underlined heavily by a Philip Glass score in his familiar insistent and repetitive style." - Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times

"Uniquely for a modern horror film, this has grown-up characters with complicated relationships, an acute grasp of the interface between social despair and supernatural horror, enough heart-stopping shocks to keep you battered, and a strong central performance from a non-bimbo heroine. Madsen, hitherto a regulation glamorous blonde, is a revelation as the frightened, and finally frightening, protagonist, and her scenes with the dignified but eerie Todd skirt perversity in a truly haunting manner. With its odd little asides to fill in the various Candyman stories and the ambiguous scary-romantic relationship between heroine and monster, this cuts with a bloody hook through the superficiality of most recent horror movies and demonstrates that you don't have to be stupid to be scary." - Kim Newman, The Good Times

Sunday, October 26, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 25 - From Dusk Till Dawn

#5 (Tie) - 11 Votes

When Quentin Tarantino was still working as a video store clerk, Robert Kurtzman - not the creator of The Walking Dead, but one of the three founders of KNB EFX, who have created makeup and prosthetic effects for everything from The Chronicles of Narnia to Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III to Dirk Diggler's penis - hired the then-fledgling filmmaker to write a script based on an idea he had for a movie that would blend an action thriller with a horror movie. The idea was to make a movie that would serve as a showcase for KNB's effects; Tarantino was paid a small amount, and KNB later repaid the favor by providing makeup effects for Reservoir Dogs, including the infamous ear scene. Several years later, when Quentin Tarantino the video store clerk had become Quentin Tarantino the internationally celebrated director of Pulp Fiction, he shared the unproduced script for From Dusk Till Dawn with Robert Rodriguez, who expressed interest in directing it. Suddenly, a funny, gory little horror movie became a sort-of follow-up to perhaps the most influential movie of the decade, with an all-star cast and a director who, after El Mariachi and Desperado, was something of a big deal himself.

I mention all of this because, to best appreciate From Dusk Till Dawn, it helps to put it in perspective. When the movie was released in early 1996, the prospect of a Tarantino-scripted movie was a big enough deal that the making of this little B-movie was documented in a full-length feature documentary, Full Tilt Boogie, which premiered about a year later. But Tarantino had also already experienced something of a backlash thanks to his pop cultural ubiquity and the impossible expectations created by his first two features. The month before From Dusk Till Dawn was released, the anthology film Four Rooms, featuring segments by Rodriguez (whose "The Misbehavers," is by far the best in the movie) and Tarantino (whose "The Man from Hollywood" was uncharacteristically stilted), opened to awful reviews and quickly disappeared from theaters. From Dusk Till Dawn did okay at the box office, but critics mostly responded with a shrug, suggesting that this kind of B-movie schlock was beneath a writer who had demonstrated the kind of originality and wit that Tarantino had with Pulp Fiction. This, of course, was before we knew how thoroughly Tarantino's aesthetic was informed by grindhouse and B-movie fare, and some critics and cinephiles thought he might grow into a more entertaining Godard. These are the same ones that can be counted on, every time a new Tarantino movie is released, to loudly bemoan the fact that he has yet to make a movie as "mature" as Jackie Brown (an excellent movie, but still).

However, once that zeitgeist-fueled moment when a movie is released and its immediate fate is determined passes, it's easier to evaluate the movie for what it is, rather than what it was expected/wished to be. And what you're left with, with From Dusk Till Dawn, is what it was originally conceived as - a showcase for a variety of gooey makeup effects - and it's just about the best possible version of that movie. One can bemoan the fact that George Clooney and Harvey Keitel are slumming it in a vampire movie, or one can get a kick out of watching freaking George Clooney and Harvey Keitel fighting vampires in roles that normally would have gone to, say, Robert Davi and Michael Ironside (actually, that movie sounds pretty great too). While From Dusk Till Dawn's mash-up of genres is very novel - I've known a few people who saw the movie without knowing the premise, and I envy them - it's not nearly as radical a reinvention of genre tropes as Pulp Fiction. What it is is a very solid A-list production of an awesome B-movie premise. Whether that is a disappointment or a must-see depends entirely on your interest in seeing Cheech Marin's eyes explode. Personally, I'm very interested.

I'm probably underselling From Dusk Till Dawn, as there's quite a lot about it that's good, and not just "good for a B-horror movie." From the excellent opening robbery sequence, Tarantino's script is unpredictable and handles a number of what could have been jarring tonal shifts with ease. The movie is peppered with references to horror movies and filmmakers, but none more so than John Carpenter, and Tarantino shares Carpenter's knack for investing what could be stock characters with character and humanity. It helps that the cast is very strong, particularly Harvey Keitel, who quietly gives one of his best performances as a recently widowed minister who has lost his faith. And this is easily Rodriguez's best movie; it's tight and focused in a way that most of his movies struggle to achieve, even as the vampire-filled second half allows him to go crazy with all manner of over-the-top camera setups and great gross-out effects. I'll always have a soft spot for this movie, too, for pointing me as a kid towards movies, like Re-Animator and Dead Alive, that Rodriguez and Tarantino would name-drop in interviews as influences; like those movies, From Dusk Till Dawn works because it's knowing but not self-parody, as it's clearly fueled by love for the genre. The filmmakers would team up a decade later for Grindhouse, an even better valentine to B-horror (there are days when I consider Death Proof Tarantino's finest work) that bombed much harder at the box office. Unfortunately, it seems there isn't a big audience for A-list splatter movies, but at least our small, strange demographic gets to reap the benefits.

U.S. Release Date: January 19, 1996

What critics said at the time:

"Mr. Rodriguez demonstrates his talents more clearly than ever -- he's visually inventive, quick-witted and a fabulous editor -- while still hampering himself with sophomoric material. The latter part of 'From Dusk Till Dawn' is so relentless that it's as if a spigot has been turned on and then broken. Though some of the tricks are entertainingly staged, the film loses its clever edge when its action heats up so gruesomely and exploitatively that there's no time for talk." - Janet Maslin, New York Times
"Keitel is terrific as the preacher with the slipshod faith, Clooney is nicely menacing, and Marin turns in some of his most raunchy, hilarious work to date. Even Tarantino the Actor acquits himself admirably: Younger Gekko Richard is a perverse sex killer whose resultant carnage is glimpsed almost subliminally in a genuinely creepy motel room scene. Fans of Merchant-Ivory will do well to steer clear of Rodriguez's newest opus, but both action and horror film fans have cause for celebration after what seems like a particularly long splatter-drought. This is horror with a wink and a nod to drive-in theatres and sweaty back seats. This is how it's done." - Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle

Saturday, October 25, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 24 - Seven

#5 (Tie) - 11 Votes

The years after the release of The Silence of the Lambs saw a flood of police procedurals and serial killer movies that revolved around charismatic murderers with a cinematic modus operandi. These films, such as Jennifer Eight, Just Cause and Copycat, were often as violent as the average horror movie, but their producers preferred to market them as "psychological thrillers" - the idea was to avoid the lowbrow connotations of horror and sell the movies as more tasteful, serious affairs in the hopes of achieving some of the box office and awards success of Jonathan Demme's film. The most successful of these post-Silence thrillers was Seven, which was released in the fall of 1995 with a marketing campaign that positioned it as a serious thriller for adult audiences. Which it was, but the irony is that Seven succeeded because it never shied away from the darker implications of its subject matter. If anything, the element that the disributor, New Line, fought to change - the shocking, downbeat ending - is the thing that generated the word of mouth that made the movie a big hit. While so many of the decade's other thrillers were pulp posing as art, Seven is both a morally and philosophically serious work and a grim, unflinching horror movie with an ending as disturbing as that of any straight horror movie.

After the horrible experience of making Alien 3, David Fincher had no interest in directing a feature again until, a couple of years later, he read a script by newcomer Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote the original draft while he was working at a Tower Records. It's easy to see how the movie's bleak, despairing view of the human condition appealed to the director, who has since shown himself, in movie after movie to embody George Carlin's definition of a cynic as a disappointed idealist. Fincher and production designer Arthur Max created an unnamed urban hellhole for the film, where it's constantly dark, gray (courtesy of the bleach bypass process employed by cinematographer Darius Khondji) and raining, that seems to affirm the belief of jaded veteran Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman, never better) that society is in a state of inevitable collapse. The partnership betwen a veteran cop and an idealistic, hotheaded rookie is one of the oldest cliches in the book, but it's to the credit of Walker's script and Freeman and Brad Pitt's performances that Somerset and Mills become two believable and distinct characters, rather than action movie archetypes used as to voice two opposing worldviews. While it's the concept of ironically designed murders inspired by the seven deadly sins that served as the movie's marketing hook, it's the quieter scenes where these two men debate whether the world as beyond saving that continue to fascinate me as I return to the movie over the years.

It's John Doe's murders, however, that push Seven into the realm of horror. One of the smartest aspects of the script is that we only see the aftermath of the murders as they're investigated by the police; scenes that would become unbearable to watch for most audiences become tolerable when they're described in retrospect. Ironically, this allows Walker and Fincher to create scenes in our imaginations that are far more upsetting than anything they could have shown, with some of the movie's most terrifying concepts depending entirely on the power of suggestion. Probably the most grotesque of John Doe's murders is the lust-themed killing of a prostitute at a kinky sex club, which is conveyed to us almost entirely through dialogue after the fact. Cutting between the interrogations of the club's eerily calm manager and the hysterical, horrified john, Fincher lets us gradually piece together the awful details of what happened, finding a chilling way to imply something that, if shown, would have probably lost 90% of the audience.

Seven famously withholds its killer's identity until about 90 minutes into the movie; it's hard to convey now how brilliant the casting of Kevin Spacey was, but this was right before he became an Oscar-winning star, and he was a recognizable character acter who was strong enough to create a startling impression (my all-time favorite Spacey line delivery is "Detect-IIIIIIVE!") while still unfamiliar enough to disappear into a frighteningly anonymous character. Walker, Fincher and Spacey smartly don't try to make John Doe a colorful, Hannibal Lecter-type monster; instead, Spacey plays the role as unsettlingly calm and thoughtful, and as he explains his reasoning for what he's done, the monstrous but coherent internal logic behind his actions grows more and more unsettling. John Doe's despair at what humanity's moral failings is not so far removed from Somerset's, but Seven thankfully doesn't resort to the hacky device of implying that the killer and his pursuer are the same. The devastating ending succeeds in shocking Somerset out of his sense of resignation and destroying Mills' life and all of his assumptions about the way the world works (I used to think Pitt overplayed the ending, now I think it's exactly right).

Fincher had to fight hard, with Pitt's help, to preserve the ending - at one point, the studio asked if maybe it could be the head of one of Mills' dogs in the box instead. He did agree to one concession, the brief denoument and Somerset's voiceover citing Ernest Hemingway (originally, the movie would have cut to black immediately after Mills fires his weapon). This change actually improves the movie; as dark as it is, it would have been a terrible idea to let John Doe have the last word. Two decades later, Fincher hasn't lost his ability to provoke audiences, as the success and ongoing conversations about Gone Girl demonstrate. But if the director's worldview has hardly gotten any more upbeat, he has demonstrated that, beneath his icy, methodical approach to filmmaking is a more contemplative and empathetic storyteller than we might have assumed at first. Seven is a pessimistic film, but in the end, it's not a nihilistic one; that's an important distinction, one perhaps lost on fans of the film that mostly dig the '90s industrial atmosphere, just as the many dudebros and angry nerds who worship Fight Club don't get that the movie is making fun of them. If you're watching Seven to see some fucked-up shit, it delivers on that, but if you prefer more thematically complex horror, than few movies in the genre are better, smarter or more existentially terrifying.

U.S. Release Date: September 22, 1995 (Also opening that day: Showgirls, Empire Records, A Month by the Lake, Canadian Bacon, Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre)

What critics said at the time:

  "First-time screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker eschewed constructing a real story with characters we care about in favor of shock value. There's none of the humor that takes the sting out of slasher movies, and certainly none of the psychology and depth that made 'The Silence of the Lambs' such an intellectual thriller. David Fincher, who killed off the joy in the 'Alien' series by directing the third installment, was probably chosen to helm this because it is yet another movie that shows disdain for its characters. 'Seven' cares so little about the victims that, for the most part, we don't even hear their names. Is exploitation a sin? And if so, are we in for a sequel?" - Jami Bernard, New York Daily News
"Admittedly, designer unpleasantness is a hallmark of our era, and this movie may be more concerned with wallowing in it than with illuminating what it means politically. Yet the filmmakers stick to their vision with such dedication and persistence that something indelible comes across, something ethically and artistically superior to The Silence of the Lambs that refuses to exploit suffering for fun or entertainment and leaves you wondering about the world we’re living in." - Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

Friday, October 24, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 23 - Audition

#6 (Tie) - 8 Votes

Takashi Miike has directed more than ninety films over the course of his two-decade career, so a person would probably have to see at least a couple dozen before accurately characterizing his body of work. I've seen four, all of which featured a lot of extreme content, but Miike has also made mainstream thrillers, historical dramas and even a few family films. So when I say that Audition is a model of restraint compared to the other Miike films I've seen, take it with a grain of salt. While it doesn't feature a ton of explicit gore or projectile bodily fluids or kiddie pools filled with poop, it's still disturbing (and good) enough for me to file away under "Films I Respect That I Might Never Watch Again."

Audition's beginning is deceptive - if you haven't seen it and want to go in fresh, I recommend stopping here. Seven years after the death of his wife, Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi) is encouraged by his teenage son (Tetsuo Sawaki) to start dating again; it's a setup that wouldn't be out of place in any number of Japanese domestic drama, and Miike stages and shoots it accordingly. Shigeharu's friend Yasuhisa (Jun Kunimura), a film producer, convinces Shigeharu to allow him to set up a mock casting audition to find a new wife. He soon falls for a young actress and dancer named Asami (Eihi Shiina); after pursuing her for a few days, the two begin dating. The first half of the film is expertly paced, as we get small hints that something is very wrong with Asami. It's deliberate enough to drive some viewers expecting a bloodbath to frustration; the first major scare doesn't occur until about halfway through the movie, but when it does, it's a doozy, and it works precisely because Miike was willing to risk drawing out the tension to the point of tedium.

Audition's brutal climax has inspired feminist readings of the film, as a basically decent guy who is talked into doing a pretty creepy thing is punished for casually exploiting his position of privilege, to which I'd respond, "Yes, but." For one thing, as wrong as staging a false audition as a pretense to meet women is, the punishment is so grossly disproportionate to the crime that it would play like black comedy if it weren't so difficult to stomach. Also, and most importantly, while it's suggested early on that Asami might be disturbed as the result of a history of abuse, by the end it's not clear if anything we think we know about her is true. Asami's is a very specific kind of madness where attempting to trace back an original cause only leads to more questions; everything she does is a sort of performance, and there probably isn't a "real" her at the core of it. This could be interpreted as problematic, because these are exactly the kind of characteristics abusers will ascribed to their partners to shift the blame; on the other hand, people like Asami do exist, and they're generally very canny at manipulating power dynamics in a relationship.

So while Audition is partly a cautionary tale about abuse of privilege, it's also a canny role-reversal, with a male character experiencing the nightmare scenario for any woman who goes on a date with a stranger. And that ending is brilliantly executed; though I haven't seen the movie since that first time, I can remember certain images and, especially, Asami's creepy sing song-y voice as she does her work. While Miike actually avoids lingering on the graphic details, it's a masterpiece of suggestion that goes on for an unbearably long time; at one point, I was relieved to think the worst was over, and when it was revealed as a fake-out, I was both horrified and amused by Miike's willingness to push the scene as far as he could. And he ends the movie at precisely the right moment; I'm not sure if Asami's final line is an expression of contempt for Shigeharu, or if it's a genuine show of affection, and I'm not sure which possibility is more frightening.

U.S. Release Date: August 8, 2001 (Also opening that weekend: American Pie 2, The Others, Osmosis Jones, The Deep End, Session 9, An American Rhapsody, The Turandot Project)

What critics said at the time:

"Those intending to see Audition will not be put off by my revealing that gross sadism, mutilation and amputation, involving acupuncture needles and cheese-cutter wire that slices through skin and bone, form the protracted and, in my judgment, pornographic climax: a sequence of violent psychopathology which shows how the Far East cinema's fixation on physical pain is now being presented in art-house terms, imported into the West by distributors ever eager to bring sensational new products to market, and passed by Mr Whittam Smith with a Certificate 18. Such material will soon, I forecast, filter down into mainstream cinema protected by the overriding defence of Article 10 of the Convention on Human Rights - the ‘free expression’ one." - Alexander Walker, Evening Standard 
"Singularly untrustworthy, the grisly climactic spree contains the most appallingly memorable image of the year (piano wire is involved). The final half-hour of emphatically corporeal horror is all the more unsettling for its queasy open-endedness—its lysergic inability to distinguish between reality and moribund fantasy. The effect is of a zero-gravity torture chamber, with no exit in sight." - Dennis Lim, Village Voice
(I'd skip this trailer if you haven't seen the movie, as it spoils the best scene.)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 22 - In the Mouth of Madness

#6 (Tie) - 8 Votes

John Carpenter's filmography from his debut, Dark Star in 1974 to They Live in 1988 has to rank among the best filmmaking hot streaks. The eleven features he directed in that time range from good two great, with three - Halloween, The Fog and The Thing - that belong on any shortlist of the best horror movies, and several others that have devoted cult followings and continue to provide inspiration to today's genre filmmakers. The '90s saw a decline in the quality of Carpenter's work, however; while Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Village of the Damned, Escape from L.A. and Vampires all have their moments, they're not nearly as focused or well-crafted as his previous films. After directing several high-profile commercial failures, Carpenter no longer had the same choice of material (he took over Memoirs after Ivan Reitman and other directors passed), and Carpenter has been quite frank about the fact that he began to lose interest in filmmaking around this time (after 2001's Ghosts of Mars, he wouldn't direct another feature for nine years).

Carpenter did direct one movie during the decade, In the Mouth of Madness, that ranks among his best. Written by then-New Line exec Michael De Luca, it's a Lovecraft-inspired story about an insurance investigator named John Trent (Sam Neill), who is tasked with investigating the disappearance of best-selling horror author Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), whose books may be literally driving his fans insane. Early on, a character notes that Cane outsells Stephen King; it's not subtle, and neither is the rest of the movie, but that's actually something of a positive. As Trent travels to a tiny New Hampshire town that was the setting of many of Cane's stories, he encounters a collection of monsters and weird characters straight out of the author's work, and the tone of the movie is all over the place as it jumps between evil children, tentacled beasts and an axe-murdering Frances Bay. It works, though, because Carpenter finds a thread of wry, even self-deprecating humor; at one point, the skeptical Trent exclaims "God is not a hack horror writer!" and Carpenter has a lot of fun imagining what reality might be like if he was.

While the movie features effects work by KNB and Industrial Light and Magic, some of its most effective scenes rely on old-school sleight-of-hand techniques, with a simple blue filter providing the most memorable (and funniest scene). Part of this is likely a function of the movie's budget, but Carpenter feels looser and more inspired than with his bigger-budgeted movies of the decade. Admittedly, In the Mouth of Madness sometimes feels like it's going in circles (which Neill's character literally is at points, to be fair). Carpenter pulls it off in the end, though, ingeniously tying together the story and his own feelings about the genre with a final scene that plays like the funniest unused Twilight Zone ending ever. While Carpenter has made a few more horror movies, the ending feels like a final statement or, at the very least, a Bronx cheer in the general direction of the genre that he helped define.

U.S. Release Date: February 3, 1995 (Also released that day: Boys on the Side, The Jerky Boys, The Secret of Roan Inish, Martha and Ethel)

What critics said at the time:

"'In the Mouth of Madness' takes a whack at a Lovecraft-like doomsday scenario. A prehuman form of consciousness, acting through Cane's writings, introduces a new and brutal reality for the sake of destroying humankind. Nice try, but the film plays much sillier than that -- for example, when the woman embraces Cane, little knowing that the back of his skull is gone and that his brains are churning and oozing in some very menacing ways. In the end, the most interesting thing about 'In the Mouth of Madness' is its relationship with itself - its cheesy horror celebrating the power of cheesy horror, while pretending to be appalled." - Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle
"'In the Mouth of Madness' is a thinking person's horror picture that dares to be as cerebral as it is visceral. An homage to the master of the macabre, novelist H.P. Lovecraft, on the part of its writer Michael De Luca, this handsome, intelligent New Line Cinema production also finds its director, John Carpenter, in top form and provides Sam Neill with one of the most challenging roles of his career--which is saying a lot." - Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 21 - Misery

#6 (Tie) - 8 Votes

Misery was released at a time when the prospect of a Stephen King adaptation didn't cause a great deal of excitement. There had been over a dozen features based on King's novels and short stories in the previous decade, and while a few, like 1989's Pet Sematary, were hits, most of them were critically panned and sank quickly at the box office. Just a few weeks before Misery was released, Graveyard Shift, based on a story from King's anthology Night Shift, came and went (though I just looked it up and was surprised to discover it opened at #1 in a slow week). An exception to the rule was 1986's Stand by Me, a rare adaptation of King's non-horror work, which was a critical and commercial success (and, for me, a personal favorite that only grows more poignant as I get older). King was understandably reluctant to sell the movie rights for Misery, one of his best and most personal books, a nightmare version of his experiences with less-than-stable fans of his work that, he admitted years later, was also a metaphor for his battle with addiction. Ultimately, he agreed on the condition that Rob Reiner, who directed Stand by Me, would produce or direct. Reiner agreed, and the movie he directed remains one of the stronger adaptation of King's work, anticipating the more respectable King adaptations in the decade to come.

King's novel and William Goldman's script could almost work as a play (and it has been adapted into a play since), with most of the action confined to the bedroom where writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is held captive by his "number one fan," Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). It's a two hander that relies almost entirely on the lead performances to work, and both actors are terrific. Bates' performance is remembered for the scenes that allow her to go over the top ("HE DIDN'T GET OUT OF THE CACADOODIE CAR!"), but she's even more chilling in the scenes where she abruptly shifts from manic to depressive; as monstrous as the character becomes, Bates keeps her psychologically credible in a way that's much more frightening than if she'd been a cartoon nutjob. Caan is just as good as Paul, a role he won after it was passed on by just about every high-profile male actor of his generation, as it's almost a completely reactive role that requires the actor to stay in bed for most of the movie. However, Caan is so good that you forget about the limitations of the role; he does a great job of letting us register his fear and desperation even as he outwardly tries to placate his captor.

Caan's role here reminds a bit of James Stewart in Rear Window, and Reiner's direction is something of a valentine to Hitchcock. He makes the most of the movie's claustrophobic interiors, with cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld favoring low-angle setups from Paul's point of view that emphasize Bates' frightening control of the situation. Reiner is maybe a little more tasteful than the ideal director for the material might have been, softening a few of the book's most gruesome moments, particularly the infamous "hobbling" scene (a sledgehammer becomes Annie's weapon of choice instead of the book's axe and blowtorch). However, Reiner's softer approach probably helped the movie become a critical and commercial success, and the rare horror movie to win an Oscar for one of its performances. Reiner's company, Castle Rock (named for the fictional small town where many of King's works are set), would go on to produce several other King adaptations, including Best Picture nominees The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. Stephen King adaptations didn't become an entirely reputable prospect in the decade to come - the '90s also gave us The Mangler and The Lawnmower Man - but Misery is still one of the most successful Stephen King movies, and a darkly funny response to any fans who want him to stick to writing horror.

U.S. Release Date: November 30, 1990 (Also released that day: Diamond's Edge)

What critics said at the time:

"This all would have been perfect for a half-hour TV show or one of those horror anthology films. As it is, even the resourceful Reiner and Goldman are hard put to keep things going until the inevitable final clash. For better or worse, they don't explore the most obvious subtext: the notion that Caan's best way to escape would be to seduce Bates, who is bonkers about him. That her character is not only a psychopath but a homely psychopath might have made for an interesting digression or two, but then sex scenes are never King's strong suit." - Ralph Novak, People

"Bates turns Wilkes into the nastiest nurse to reach the screen since Louise Fletcher tormented Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Wilkes is a lonely soul whose only solace is the fantasies Sheldon spins in his books. Bates makes the transition from passive aggression in Wilkes' initial dealings with her charge to paranoid, murderous obsession with authority and conviction. The fact that her looks and manner suggest someone waiting calmly in line at the K mart checkout counter adds a telling touch of the commonplace to rank evil." - Desmond Ryan, Philadelphia Inquirer

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 20 - Jacob's Ladder

#6 (Tie) - 8 Votes

George Romero once said, "The reason you do horror is to upset the applecart." That is, horror stories are designed to create disorder, whether it's in the form of societal collapse or the psychological and spiritual chaos of the characters. More often than not, horror movies end with the restoration of order, allowing audiences to exit the theater and breathe easy knowing the alien has been blasted into deep space, or the axe-wielding maniac has been killed (until the next sequel), or the devil has been exorcised from Regan McNeil's body. On the other hand, the '60s and '70s saw a rise in horror movies, like Halloween, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Romero's Night of the Living Dead, that deliberately deny the audience the resolution of order restored. Volumes have been written about how these movies reflected the increasingly pessimistic attitudes of the time, and I won't get into it in any depth, but stories that force us to consider the possibility that everything is irreparably fucked serve as important a purpose as those that give us reason to hope otherwise.

As I get older and more keenly aware of my own mortality, though, I have an increased appreciation for a third, much rarer kind of horror movie. These are the ones that don't shy away from gazing directly into the abyss, but still arrive at an earned sense of hope. Jacob's Ladder is one of the best examples of this, literally putting its protagonist through hell before ending on an unexpected, transcendent note. While much of the movie telegraphs the fate of Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), a Vietnam vet who is increasingly plagued with hallucinations (or visions) of demons, the final reveal (which I won't spoil here) doesn't play like it was meant to be a shocking twist. Instead, the audience is cued towards gradually understanding what's happening with Jacob at the same time that he does. Jacob's Ladder gives nightmarish form to our worst anxieties, but in the end, it's an uncommonly compassionate horror movie.

Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (who also wrote Ghost released the same year) creates some truly horrifying visions of death and the afterlife, which are brilliantly realized by director Adrian Lyne and his crew. A scene where Jacob thinks he's seeing his girlfriend (the late, great Elizabeth Peña) get down with a demon at a party is a mini-masterpiece of disorienting lighting and sound design. Throughout the movie, Lyne keeps us on edge by placing weird, nearly subliminal characters and images (achieved ingeniously using in-camera effects) on the margins of the frame. Lyne also made a big change to Rubin's script, which depicted its demons with old-fashioned Biblical iconography, horns and all; instead, the director literally stages hell on earth, with the high point a scene where Jacob is pushed on a gurney through a hospital that quickly grows more and more nightmarish (I've seen the movie several times, and this scene still gives me the creeps). Lyne has always been a great visual stylist - like his peers Alan Parker and Ridley and Tony Scott, he works wonders with smoke and diffused light - but most of his other movies, like Flashdance and Indecent Proposal, are pretty shallow. Jacob's Ladder is by far his most thematically complex movie, and he was also wise to cast Tim Robbins, who is remarkably vulnerable and sympathetic as Jacob.

Not all of the movie's puzzle pieces fit together in the end. There's a subplot about Jacob and the other members in his unit having been secretly dosed with experimental hallucinogens by the government; it's introduced as a possible explanation for his hallucinations, and the movie seems like it's about to become a conspiracy thriller. The subplot does end up playing an important role in the resolution, just not the one we thought; then, after the movie fades to black at the perfect moment, a postscript about real-life Army medical experiments comes onscreen, as if somebody completely misunderstood what the movie is really about. It's a weird choice, but the movie is strong enough that it's easy to shrug off. Jacob's experiences in Vietnam and his lingering grief over the accidental death of his young son (Macaulay Culkin) are important aspects of the character, but the movie is primarily about letting go, and how that doesn't need to be a frightening prospect. Jacob's Ladder is very thoughtful and literate about death and our greatest existential questions without ever veering into New Age-y baloney and easy answers. A lot of horror movies are about spirits, but a horror movie about a spiritual journey is a rare thing, and one this scary and thought-provoking is even better.

U.S. Release Date: November 2, 1990 (Also released that day: Graffiti Bridge, Waiting for the Light, Frankenstein Unbound, Vincent & Theo, C'est La Vie)

What critics said at the time:

"Jacob's Ladder, which serves up horror in subliminal, jump-cut flashes, is a gruesome ''psychological'' thriller — a bad acid trip of a movie — and it may appeal to those who got off on the druggy, soft-focus demonism of Angel Heart. Yet the film is just highfalutin hackwork — two hours of anything-for-a-shock unpleasantness. The script, by Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost), has been kicking around Hollywood for nearly 10 years. (According to reports, it's the script everyone loved but no one dared to film.) Rubin's conception might have worked on screen, but we'll never know, since Lyne (Flashdance, 9 1/2 Weeks), who finally proved himself a genuine filmmaker in Fatal Attraction, is up to his old high-gloss tricks. In Jacob's Ladder, he directs like a sadistic psychiatrist under contract to MTV." - Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

"'Jacob's Ladder' enters into the hallucinations of a desperate mind, and lives there. It evokes a paranoid-schizophrenic state as effectively as any film I have ever seen. Despite an ending that is intended as victorious, the movie is a thoroughly painful and depressing experience - but, it must be said, one that has been powerfully written, directed and acted." - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Monday, October 20, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 19 - Tremors

#6 (Tie) - 8 Votes

Since I started this project, two different readers have suggested none too subtly that I may be overthinking things in writing about the appeal of these movies. "They're horror movies, they don't have to be smart/have meaning/be well made," and so forth. I don't mention in order to open up a debate, because I think I'm only barely doing anything like "analysis" anyway, and I've only given anything like a negative write-up to one movie so far, and it's arguably the most artsy-fartsy one on this entire list. Frankly, after the second person informed me that movies aren't for thinking, I exclaimed to myself, "I did it! I'm a real film writer now!"

I mention it, though, because I find that the most challenging movies for me to write about are often the ones that are pleasurable in obvious, uncomplicated and subtext-free ways. Tremors is one of those movies, a pleasant B-movie throwback with a monster that isn't a metaphor for anything. The Graboids aren't the product of our destructive effect on the environment, and their existence wasn't kept a secret by greedy real estate developers or a corrupt local government. The setting, a tiny desert town, doesn't function as a microcosm of anything; it's simply an economical way to bring together a small, diverse cast of characters in an isolated location. It's not an homage, parody of or commentary on giant monster movies; it's just an unassuming, well made and good-natured example of the subgenre that deserves its reputation as something of a classic.

More to the point, I remembered that I just wrote about Tremors last year at my friends' request. And even there, I admit that I'm straining to find things to say. So while I may be guilty of overthinking or overanalyzing or overwhatevering, at least I can admit it when I don't have much to say (and, since nobody is paying me to write this, I don't have to). Since, for reasons that would be tedious to go into here, I've had about 12 hours of sleep in three days, I'm going to make this my one "smartass kid passes in an essay about why he didn't write the assigned essay" post for the month. I'll just add one note to that older post - in mentioning that Fred Ward had a great year in 1990, I left out Miami Blues, a very good, underrated movie that I'll surely discuss in more detail with my next poll, "Tournament of Baldwins."

U.S. Release Date: January 19, 1990 (Also released that day: Everybody Wins, Sweetie)

What critics said at the time:

''Tremors' wants to be funny, but it spends too much time winking at the audience. More than anything else, it looks like the sort of movie that might have been put together so that tourists visiting Universal Studios could see a movie being made." - Vincent Canby, New York Times

"As concocted by S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock (who also did the original 'Short Circuit'), 'Tremors' evokes the populist spirit of '50s B-movies, much more so than such high-powered '80s remakes as 'The Fly,' 'The Thing' or 'The Blob.' Director Ron Underwood keeps things moving briskly, celebrating not the single-mindedness of the 'graboids' but the resourcefulness and resilience of the townspeople." - Richard Harrington, Washington Post

'90s Horror Poll: Day 18 - Funny Games

#7 (Tie) - 7 Votes

Before I get into the problems I have with Michael Haneke and Funny Games, his 1997 meta-thriller about a family held captive and tortured by two sneering upper-class teenagers, I should acknowledge that the movie demonstrates his considerable skill at crafting scenes and moments intended to provoke his audience into questioning their relationship to onscreen violence. The film does an excellent job of putting us on edge even before its smirking Leopold and Loeb (they call each other a variety of names througout, but we'll go with "Peter" and "Paul") announce their intentions. The prolonged scene where they repeatedly ask to borrow, then "accidentally" break their neigbors' eggs plays brilliantly on the question of when vacationing couple Anna and George will be provoked enough to stop being polite. Here, as elsewhere in the movie, Haneke maximizes our discomfort by letting scenes play out in fixed, static shots that go on for much longer than average. After the couple and their son Georgie have been taken hostage, most of the movie's violent and dramatic moments occur offscreen, and it's very disturbing to experience some of the most brutal moments entirely through the reactions of other characters. He's capable of both wringing as much tension as possible out of a protracted, real-time attempt at escape and determining one character's fate in a coldly off-handed gesture.

Brian De Palma has said that it's important, with a horror movie, that the audience not know if they can trust the filmmaker; that's definitely the case with Haneke, and his precision and mercilessness would make him an excellent horror filmmaker if he were so inclined. Except that, according to Haneke himself, Funny Games isn't a horror movie at all, but a self-reflexive criticism of the representation of violence in movies. By denying us conventional dramatic payoffs and the keeping the worst bits mostly offscreen, the movie is meant to make us question the entertainment value we get from onscreen representations of violence. Many consider the film a layered, complex exploration of the negative influence of violence in the media; however, I find it frustratingly obtuse and self-contradictory, its detached style in the service of a didactic, scolding message. Worse, Haneke seems uninterested in examining his own role in employing exactly the sort of emotional manipulation he means to condemn, or how it reflects on his career-long tendency towards bludgeoning the audience with moments of brutality that, apparently, we're supposed to blame ourselves for reacting to. While I don't know if Haneke himself is truly sadistic, Funny Games often feels like a session with a dominatrix who believes that we're the true perverts and he's flagellating us towards moral enlightenment.

It's tempting to cite the many quotes where Haneke contradicts himself about the movie's intentions, but I'll stick to the evidence in the movie itself. So what are the supposedly brilliant devices he employs to make his point? The killers explicitly reference the fact that they're in a movie; there are a few points when one of them addresses us directly, like a psychopathic Zach Morris; and there's one scene where an act of violent retribution is undone by one of the characters picking up a remote and literally rewinding the film. The first two devices have been used repeatedly in other movies, often in more subtle and interesting ways; the last, frankly, is very silly. Not only does Haneke fundamentally not understand the psychological experience of horror movies, where even fans who primarily enjoy the blood and gore undergo a complex process of identification with both the killer and the victims - he'd do well to read Carol J. Clover's writing on the subject - but his methods of advancing his argument are actually more crude and obvious than many straight horror filmmakers' own approach to screen violence. There are countless examples of horror movies, from Psycho to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer to most of De Palma's filmographythat demonstrate a more sophisticated understanding of our relationship to cinematic horror than Haneke's, films that actually invite us to explore the nature of onscreen and real-life violence instead of punishing us for being interested in the first place.

I also have to take exception with Haneke's low opinion with fans of the genre - while, yes, some horror fans just want to see fucked-up shit (who are, ironically, largely responsible for boosting the movie's reputation), most of us are far more interested in exploring the subtext of the films than he gives us credit for. This includes those of you who will disagree with my take on the movie and, I'm sure, are capable of intelligently explaining why. I must remind you, though, that Haneke himself famous said of Funny Games that "Anybody who leaves the cinema doesn't need the film, and anybody who stays does" (presumably, anyone who saw his shot-by-shot English-language remake needed a double dose). So one might argue that those who praise Funny Games are the depraved ones and, as I think it's well crafted but kind of stupid, I'm actually demonstrating greater moral enlightement (though not as great as Michael Haneke, because nobody is as enlightened as Michael Haneke, obviously). Put another way, anybody who doesn't need my thoughts on Funny Games stopped reading two paragraphs ago, and anyone who is still reading does. And all of us need Michael Haneke's fake Twitter account.

U.S. Release Date: March 11, 1998 (Also released that weekend: The Man in the Iron Mask, Chairman of the Board)

What critics said at the time:

"Symptomatic of the fascist mindset is the self-righteous application of a strict code of civility from which the ruler himself is naturally exempt. Thus, Haneke despise's the mass audience's pleasure in make-believe mayhem while demonstrating his own capacity to dish it out. The most honest aspects of Haneke's movies is the evident satisfaction the director derives from the authoritarian aspects of his position - demonstrated most spectacularly in Funny Games when the worm, as it were, finally turns. The wheel is rigged so that only Haneke can win." - J. Hoberman, Village Voice
"'Funny Games' is an intellectual's suspense film, which ultimately tries to critique and demystify violence. But, since our responses are never all cerebral, that's not entirely possible. Especially with villains like these: Giering, amusingly, recalls the lumpishly likable Beau Bridges and Frisch's sang froid suggests Patricia Highsmith's 'Talented Mr. Ripley' (and Alain Delon in the film version, 'Purple Noon'). The beleaguered family is truly sympathetic, especially Susanne Lothar as clear-headed wife Anna. And the form is so transparent, the storytelling so expert, that this film becomes unnervingly lucid. We always know where we are -- even if we're on the road to hell." - Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune