Thursday, October 31, 2013

John Dies at the End

With a few notable exceptions, most mainstream horror films are predictable as the cinematic landscape is littered with unimaginative remakes like Evil Dead (2013) and Carrie (2013) or a seemingly endless assembly line of sequels to lucrative franchises like Paranormal Activity. As always, it’s up to independent filmmakers like Don Coscarelli to come up with unique and original horror films. His claim to fame comes from the much beloved Phantasm series of films, but in recent years his output has slowed down considerably with his last effort being Bubba Ho-Tep in 2002. So, it is great to see him resurface in 2012 with John Dies at the End, an adaptation of David Wong’s gonzo cult novel of the same name. The end result resembles a souped-up episode of Supernatural as if written in the spirit of esoteric hybrid genre films like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986).

The film begins with our protagonist David Wong (Chase Williamson) extolling the merits of replacing an axe and then the blade itself because, hey, that can happen when you’re trying to dispatch a zombie skinhead with a swastika tattoo on his tongue and who won’t stay dead even when his head has been chopped off. This is Dave’s dilemma. He’s a twentysomething that once saw a man’s kidney grow tentacles and free itself from the body, but, y’know, that’s another story.

Dave meets a reporter by the name of Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti) and tells him a story about a crazy adventure he and his friend John Cheese (Rob Mayes) went on at three in the morning. They investigate a young woman’s claims that her boyfriend, who’s been dead for several months, is harassing her. So, Dave and John go over to her house not expecting much only to discover a freezer in the basement that’s full of meat, which proceeds to assemble itself into a large meat monster looking for its nemesis, one Dr. Albert Marconi (Clancy Brown), a popular television infomercial psychic.


Dave and John are amateur paranormal investigators who met a couple years out of high school. Dave was a jaded skeptic who met a Jamaican man known as Robert Marley (Tai Bennett) at a party. He was able to read Dave’s mind and this, understandably, rattles Dave as Rob espouses the notion that he can see into the future. These arcane insights into the universe come courtesy of a substance known as Soy Sauce, a black liquid that allows one to perceive time in non-linear fashion as well as alternate dimensions. Dave and John are eventually enlisted by Marconi to prevent a sentient organic computer known as Korrok from spreading his brand of evil across multiple dimensions.

Dave is the audience surrogate, taking us through this crazy world where he can be talking to John on the phone while his friend is dying in a nearby room (in a sly parody of a similar scene in David Lynch’s Lost Highway), or a man’s moustache can detach itself from its owner’s face and flutter around the room like a bat. In other words, some pretty crazy shit. Throughout it all, Dave tries to make sense of these other realities opened up to him thanks to the Soy Sauce. Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes are well cast as Dave and John, grounding the film with their engaging performances. Each one of them brings a different energy with the former portraying Dave as a skeptic and the latter instilling John with an infectious optimism. It is a lot of fun to see them bouncing off eccentric characters played by the likes of Angus Scrimm, Clancy Brown and Paul Giamatti.

John Dies at the End is chock full of clever and amusing dialogue, like the police detective (Glynn Turman) that doesn’t believe in other dimensions, but does believe in hell: “The grease trap of the universe … It is not just some place down there. Oh no, it’s right here with us we just can’t perceive it. It’s kinda like the country music radio station. It’s out there in the air even if you don’t tune into it.” This is just a sample of the kind of wild observations and theories that run wild throughout this film making it more than just some instant cult film for stoners to mull over between bong hits. For an indie film, John Dies at the End looks as slick and polished as any studio effort. Coscarelli’s years of experience makes this film look more expensive than it is as he effortlessly shifts from comedy to horror to science fiction in a way that is very entertaining.


John Dies at the End started as a webserial written by Jason Pargin (under the pen name David Wong) that began appearing online in 2001. He described it as a “150,000-word novel for people who consider a 140-character tweet too much.” It was eventually edited into a manuscript and published in paperback form in 2007. Filmmaker Don Coscarelli discovered the book via Amazon.com’s “Amazon Recommends” function on their website. He read Pargin’s book, loved it, tracked down the author and bought the film rights. One of the things that drew Coscarelli to David Wong’s novel was that underneath the comedy and horror was “some philosophical thoughts running throughout that are quite captivating.” It tapped into his interest in multiple dimensions: “When I read these ideas from great sci-fi authors about inter-dimensional travel and then from the great scientists about multiple membrane universes layered on top of one another, I just find it compelling … when I can work those kinds of themes into a wacky horror film, all the better.”

Actor Paul Giamatti was a fan of Coscarelli’s films starting with Phantasm (1979) back when his brother snuck him in to see it as a kid. While in Prague filming The Illusionist (2006), he met director Eli Roth who was there making Hostel (2005). They talked about Giamatti filming a cameo, but it didn’t pan out and the actor told Roth how much of a fan he was of Coscarelli and how he would like to work with him. Roth knew Coscarelli and introduced the two men. They planned to work together on a sequel to Bubba Ho-Tep. However, they couldn’t get financing for it and moved on to John Dies at the End. Coscarelli and Giamatti approached several major Hollywood studios for financing, but none of them understood the script and so they realized that independent backing was the way to go. Due to the film’s limited budget, Coscarelli cast two unknown actors as the leads. Both Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes had never acted in a feature film before, which was a bit of a risky gamble for Coscarelli, but he surrounded them with veteran actors like Clancy Brown and Giamatti. Williamson was a student in the University of Southern California’s drama department and on his first day of filming he had to do eight pages of dialogue with Giamatti!

John Dies at the End received mixed reviews from mainstream critics. In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “It has the loose, goofy feel of a project that a bunch of college students (or dropouts, in Dave’s case) might dream up during a long weekend of beer and bong hits. And yet at the same time it looks like a real movie – artfully shot, cleanly edited and very much in control of the laughs and scares that arise from its insanely convoluted set of premises.” The Village Voice’s Nick Pinkerton wrote, “The loquacity and temporally shuffled narrative is off-the-rack Tarantino; the bizarre mind-benders, ‘Lynchian’; the horror-comic asides combining the mundane and the fantastic, ‘Raimi-esque’; the grab bag borrowing of avant-garde techniques, straight up Natural Born Killers.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Robert Abele wrote, “Flaked with offbeat witticisms, cheese ball effects and fanboy splatter gore, the surreal John Dies at the End has the vibe of a shaggy dog story, which works both for and against it.” Finally, Rolling Stone magazine gave it two-and-a-half out of four stars and Peter Travers wrote, “Go for the freaky fun of it, though a little soy sauce on the side sure wouldn’t hurt.”


John Dies at the End is one of those films that you either dive in and go on the ride with, trusting that Coscarelli knows what he’s doing, or resist and give up – it’s a cinematic litmus test for one’s ability to deal with a lot of weirdness being thrown at you. It’s sink or swim time as the film doesn’t wait for you try and catch up. He’s always had a kinship for offbeat subject matter, be it a funeral home with a portal to another dimension in Phantasm or Elvis Presley teaming up with an elderly African American man who thinks he’s John F. Kennedy to stop an evil monster in Bubba Ho-Tep. John Dies at the End certainly fits comfortably in his wheelhouse as it refuses simple summarization, piling on one bizarro encounter after another. There’s a wonderful unpredictable energy to this film that is refreshing and makes all the soulless remakes and sequels look safe and tired by comparison.


SOURCES

Collis, Clark. “Paul Giamatti and Director Don Coscarelli Talk About Their Demented Horror-Comedy.” Entertainment Weekly. January 22, 2013.

Gencarelli, Mike. “Don Coscarelli Talks about John Dies at the End and Bubba Ho-Tep and Phantasm Sequels.” Media Mikes. April 9, 2013.

Labrecque, Jeff. “Sundance: Bubba Ho-Tep Director Back with a Vengeance.” Entertainment Weekly. January 24, 2012.

McIntyre, Gina. “John Dies at the End: Paul Giamatti, Don Coscarelli on Cult Cinema.” Los Angeles Times. January 22, 2013.

Pace, Dave. “Q+A: Don Coscarelli on John Dies and Independent Filmmaking for 30+ Years.” Fangoria. April 11, 2013.


Walton, Brian. “John Dies at the End’s Paul Giamatti and Don Coscarelli.” Nerdist. January 15, 2013.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Blu-Ray Review of the Week: I Married A Witch: Criterion Collection

Screwball comedies don’t come more full of charm then I Married A Witch (1942), and this is due in large part to the casting of Veronica Lake as a sexy sorceress who casts a spell on a man descended from the Salem puritan that burned her at the stake many years ago. The film was an adaptation of The Passionate Witch, a novel by Thorne Smith, and guided to the big screen by French director Rene Clair who had a rocky Hollywood debut with The Flame of New Orleans (1941). I Married A Witch did well, but unfortunately Lake burned her bridges in Hollywood and Clair couldn’t find any screenplays that interested him. This does nothing to change the fact that the film they made together is a comedic gem.

Before she and her father Daniel (Cecil Kellaway) are burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft, Jennifer (Lake) curses her accuser Jonathan Wooley (March) so that his descendants will be unhappy in love. After an amusing montage depicting generations of Wooleys with failed love lives, we land in the present as Wallace Wooley (March) is running for governor and engaged to Estelle Masterson (Hayward), daughter of a wealthy newspaper magnate.

It is at this moment that a violent storm zaps an oak tree that had been planted over Jennifer and Daniel’s ashes, its roots imprisoning their souls. However, the damaged tree allows them to be free, taking on the form of witches’ smoke. They stumble across Wallace and Jennifer is delighted that the curse is still working. She decides to take human form in order to torment Wallace in person. Veronica Lake’s first appearance on camera is quite a sight to behold as Jennifer literally materializes out of the smoke in a raging building fire.


Wallace is compelled to run into the building and rescue her. Right off the bat, the chemistry between the two is apparent as Jennifer acts seductively coy while Wallace is neurotically frantic – understandably so as the building comes down around them. He seems to have it all – he’s being groomed for governor and on the eve of being married to a beautiful, rich woman. However, Estelle is bossy and he doesn’t seem all that thrilled with his impending governorship. Wallace is a bit uptight and leads an ordered life only for Jennifer to come along and throw a monkey wrench in his plans with her cute, sex kitten voice and stunning beauty.

Myron Selznick, the agent for French filmmaker Rene Clair, sent him the book The Passionate Witch by Thorne Smith, which he read and thought that it could be made into a film. He met Preston Sturges, they talked about the project and the legendary director agreed to produce it. Paramount Pictures was looking for the right film for Veronica Lake, an actress attracting a lot of buzz, some of it for her trademark beautiful blond hair. They decided that I Married A Witch would be perfect for her and paired the actress up with Clair.

Smith had died before completing the novel, which was finished by a colleague. Very little of the book, which contained some fairly raunchy passages for the time, made it into the film. Producer Buddy DeSylva told Clair that screenwriter Bob Pirosh was assigned to work on the screenplay and he would be given it when the script was finished. Clair was used to writing and directing his own scripts and this news came as something of a shock to him. However, the director ended up working with Pirosh on the script and the submitted it to the studio, but they wanted considerable changes. Clair and Pirosh rewrote it significantly before they were given approval to begin filming. During principal photography, they continued to rewrite, sometimes even the night before the next day’s shooting, in an attempt to sneak by their version of the film by producer DeSylva.


Like so many screwball comedies, the carefree spirit in I Married A Witch triumphs over the stodgy type. Of course, Jennifer has some help by putting Wallace under her spell, but who could resist Veronica Lake’s considerable charms? This film is one of her signature roles in an unfortunately all-too brief career in Hollywood. She demonstrated quite a gift for not just physical comedy, but also successfully bantering back and forth with Fredric March. She even sings! Rene Clair’s film is a classic opposites attract screwball comedy albeit with a supernatural twist. It tweaks the classic evil witch cliché by presenting one who creates a curse only to succumb to her own love potion through a comedy of errors.

The Criterion Collection recently released a brand new edition on Blu-Ray. It is safe to say that I Married A Witch has never looked better on home video with the transfer looking fantastic. The filmic grain is intact and the print itself looks as good as it ever has. The extras are slim with an audio interview by director Rene Clair from the late 1950s. He talks about working on experimental films vs. commercial ones. Clair speaks candidly about his career. Also included is a trailer.


SOURCES

Dale, R.C. “Rene Clair in Hollywood.” Film Quarterly. Winter 1970-71.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Lord of Illusions

I’ve always been drawn to the horror noir subgenre – a hybrid of horror and film noir that features downtrodden protagonists immersed in a nightmarish, shadowy underworld fraught with danger at every turn. However, instead of the antagonists being simple criminal underworld figures they are quite often beings infused with supernatural powers. Some memorable examples include Angel Heart (1987), The Ninth Gate (1999) and Constantine (2005). One of my favorites is Lord of Illusions (1995), an adaptation of Clive Barker’s short story, “The Last Illusion” by the author himself. The protagonist in both is Harry D’Amour, a private investigator and occult detective that has appeared in several of Barker’s fiction, most notably, albeit briefly, in The Great and Secret Show, a short story entitled “The Lost Souls, and also the novel Everville.

Lord of Illusions starts almost as if we’ve arrived late for another film, right in the midst of its exciting, action-packed climax. Two vehicles arrive at a rundown compound out in the Mojave Desert circa 1982. Inside the house resides Nix (Daniel von Bargen), a powerful magician and leader of a small cult of dedicated followers. Barker gives us a little taste of the man’s powers by showing him casually juggling a small ball of fire while talking to his people about cleansing the world. An illusionist by the name of Philip Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor) and a small group of ex-followers emerge from the vehicles intent on stopping Nix who has kidnapped a child, keeping her tied up in the bowels of the house with a pet mandrill.

Nix’s house looks like the result of years of neglect with its walls littered with graffiti and gaping holes exposing the infrastructure all the while bathed in atmospheric shadows. The exterior is even worse, the ground littered with the carcasses of dead animals, abandoned toys and other assorted garbage. Swann confronts Nix who proceeds to penetrate the illusionist’s mind, twisting his perception so that his friends look like grotesque aberrations. Despite this, they still manage to get the upper hand on the cult leader. Swann binds Nix’s eyes and mouth through magical means and buries his body out in the desert. However, his creepy assistant Butterfield (Barry Del Sherman) escapes.


It’s 13 years later and we meet private detective Harry D’Amour in New York City, fresh from an exorcism case in Brooklyn. It’s left him burnt out and edgy and so a friend of his gives him another job as a form of vacation – a standard insurance fraud case in Los Angeles. Barker makes sure to contrast the drab, rainy New York with sun-kissed L.A. full of palm trees and beaches. The case seems pretty straight-forward until Harry follows his subject to a fortune teller only to see him quickly run out. Harry investigates and comes across a grisly sight – the fortune teller (Joseph Latimore) has been used as a human pincushion by Butterfield. It turns out that he has been tracking down everyone who helped Swann defeat Nix on that fateful day 13 years ago.

Swann has since gone on to become a popular illusionist in the vein of David Copperfield. His wife Dorothea (Famke Janssen) sees Harry in the local newspaper and hires him to help Swann who she thinks is in danger. Intrigued by Swann and dazzled by Dorothea’s beauty, Harry agrees to take on the case and comes to see the illusionist perform one night where he unveils a new act that goes horribly wrong. The resulting fallout sees Harry and Dorothea try to thwart Butterfield’s plans to resurrect Nix.

I’ve always been fascinated by illusionists and magicians. I like how Lord of Illusions makes a point of explaining the difference as Swann’s assistant Valentin (Joel Swetow) tells Harry, “Illusions are trickery. Magicians do it for real.” Barker’s film goes to great lengths to show the difference between showy, Las Vegas-style theatrics and true magic – in the case of Nix, the darkest kind. This all dovetails rather nice into the horror noir subgenre as Barker mixes and matches from both so that we have the world-weary private detective butting heads with a magic-practicing cult leader. There’s the murder mystery merging with a supernatural evil threatening to take over the world.


What I find intriguing about Lord of Illusions is how it follows Harry’s journey from the hard-boiled detective world, mixed with dabblings in the occult, to full-on immersion in the world of illusions, which is typified by one of my favorite scenes where he visits the famous Magic Castle in Hollywood, a nightclub for magicians and magic aficionados. The establishing shot features the iconic building while “Magic Moments” plays cheekily over the soundtrack. Harry saunters in and bellies up to the bar next to an older gentleman (played by none other than famous magician Billy McComb) practicing card tricks, which prompts the bemused private eye to ask him, “Where did you learn that?” to which he replies with a smile, “Oh, this? At birth.” He takes Harry on a brief tour and offers a glimpse of the inner workings. Later on, Harry audaciously breaks in with the help of another magician.

With the exception of Quantum Leap, I was never a huge fan of Scott Bakula, but he is quite good as the burnt-out private investigator with his share of emotional baggage – a prior case that Barker alludes to in brief flashbacks and fragmented nightmares. Like in many detective stories, Harry takes on a case that immerses him in a strange world he knows little of, but becomes acquainted with the deeper into it he delves. Bakula has just enough of an everyman quality to act as the audience surrogate, our gateway into this fantastical world that Barker has created.

Famke Janssen plays Dorothea as a noirish fatale full of secrets, but not ones normally associated with the genre; rather ones that adhere to horror. She’s a striking beauty and Barker makes sure we know it through a series of revealing outfits that show off her gorgeous figure. Sadly she isn’t given much to do except look great and be the film’s damsel in distress until the film’s final moments. The romance that develops between Harry and Dorothea feels a little rushed, even in the longer director’s cut. The two actors certainly have decent chemistry together, but I don’t buy their jumping into bed so quickly. Janssen made Lord of Illusions at the height of her mainstream popularity (it came out after the James Bond film GoldenEye) and I always wonder if its rather lackluster box office receipts (in comparison to the Bond film) was the reason why she downshifted to B and independent films until X-Men in 2000.


Barker casts Kevin J. O’Connor and Daniel von Bargen wonderfully against type as a jaded illusionist and an evil cult leader respectively. O’Connor certainly has played all kind of roles in all kinds of films as varied as Steel Magnolias (1989) and The Mummy (1999), but I would have never thought to cast him as a brilliant illusionist. Conversely, von Bargen is often cast as douchey authority figures (see Super Troopers and Seinfeld), but in Barker’s film he’s called upon to play an incarnation of evil magic and is quite convincing as a deranged cult leader – imagine if Charles Manson practiced magic. Barry Del Sherman is quite memorable as Butterfield, an androgynous sadist that talks a little like John Malkovich and dresses like a stereotypical rock star. The actor has an unusual and captivating presence whenever he’s on-screen.

The impetus for making Lord of Illusions came from the fact that Clive Barker hadn’t seen a good scary movie in awhile and this had “truly gotten under my skin,” as he said in an interview. He felt that the world of magic would be a fertile arena for a horror film because, “People have eerie feelings about magic, illusion. And despite the wholesome image of Mr. David Copperfield, illusion is a fruitful area of a horror movie to begin in.” Barker liked magic and had affection for the character of Harry D’Amour, who appeared in several of the author’s books. According to the author, Harry was not “a Van Helsing, defiantly facing off against some implacable evil with faith and holy water. His antecedents are the troubled, weary and often lovelorn heroes of film noir.” He felt that films like Hellraiser (1987), which were dominated by their antagonists, had run their course and decided that if he was going to make another series of films it would focus on a hero.

That being said, Barker still wanted the film to have an interesting antagonist, but one that was identifiable to audiences: “Nix is a villain I think we can relate to; he’s not unlike Charles Manson … The craziness of Waco, the craziness of Jonestown, the Manson stuff – Nix is the embodiment of the charismatic leader who says, ‘Follow me to death,’ which is something that’s part of our culture.”


It had been several years since his last film, Nightbreed (1990), which he had a horrible experience on in terms of dealing with the studio, but decided to try again because of Lord of Illusions was “a modestly scaled project, which gave me the security of not being micromanaged.” Barker went to work on the screenplay as early as August 1991. The budget for Lord of Illusions was a lean $11 million with a short shooting schedule. Barker wanted his film to look double what it cost to make so he storyboarded the entire thing in order to be prepared every day.

When Scott Bakula first met with Barker, the filmmaker told him that Lord of Illusions was influenced by films like The Exorcist (1971) and Chinatown (1974). When filming began, the author was impressed by how much the actor embodied the character he had created: “When he stepped on set, in costume for the first time … I thought, ‘This is wonderful – this is the man I’ve been writing about for 8 years.” Barker has subsequently said that whenever he writes about the character he imagines Bakula.

Barker had no problem casting Bakula as Harry D’Amour, but United Artists balked when he wanted Famke Janssen as Dorothea. The producers saw approximately 40 actresses and were looking for an unknown because of their limited budget. They liked Janssen for the haunted look on her face. She got her start as a model and had only done a few small roles on television shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Melrose Place. Barker did a screen test with her and the studio allowed him to cast the actress in the film. Barker’s instincts were validated when, a few weeks into filming, she was cast a Bond girl in the next James Bond film, GoldenEye.

The first test screening for Lord of Illusions did not go well with the audience balking at the explicit nature of the sex depicted in the film. They also complained that the running time was too long and that there was too much talking. Barker cut out a few scenes and toned down the sex and the second screening went much better: “They said it was the scariest movie they’d ever seen,” he recalled in an interview. After this screening, Barker toned down some of the violence.


Predictably, Lord of Illusions received mostly mixed to negative reviews from mainstream critics. However, Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and wrote, “What I liked – enough to make me recommend the movie – wasn’t so much the conclusion as the buildup, with D’Amour developing a curious relationship with Dorothea and Valentin, and penetrating into the inner circles of black magic.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “the gore quickly becomes as tiresome as the overheated dialogue in which the characters blather on about the difference between ‘divinity and trickery’.” USA Today gave the film two-and-a-half out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “Barker’s visual side dominates its literary equivalent this time out, resulting in a time-killer that may amuse fans until illusion is shattered by the rolling of the end credits.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “D-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman found it to be “turgid cop-thriller nonsense.” Along with Ebert, the Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas provided one of the rare positive reviews: “Lord of Illusions belongs to Bakula, but he gets staunch support on both sides of the camera.” Finally, in his review for the Washington Post, Richard Harrington felt that Barker was “torn between his great gifts as an author and his aspirations as a moviemaker. Until he figures out how to finesse a convincing transition, Barker is doomed to creative purgatory.”

The title card at the beginning of Lord of Illusions states that death is only an illusion and in the film’s world of magical madmen this is certainly true as both Nix and Swann dabble with this concept. Barker’s film plays with our perception of what is real and what isn’t. After all, what’s a film, but just another illusion? He has certainly improved as a filmmaker with Lord of Illusions. It looks better and tells a more coherent story than his previous effort, Nightbreed, which was marred by studio interference. His direction in this film is more confident and he gets good performances out of his cast, especially Kevin J. O’Connor and Daniel von Bargen, while his script unfortunately shortchanges Famke Janssen. It’s a shame that Lord of Illusions wasn’t more of a commercial success as it could have been the start of many Harry D’Amour films, but alas it wasn’t meant to be, but at least we have this cinematic incarnation and the character continues to live on in Barker’s fiction.


SOURCES

“Bakula Makes Quantum Leap from TV to Films.” Reuters News Agency. September 23, 1995.

Barker, Clive. Lord of Illusions Laser Disc Liner Notes. 1996.

Beeler, Michael. “Lord of Illusions – Filming the Books of Blood.” Cinefantastique. April 1995.

Ferrante, Anthony C. “The Conjuring of Lord of Illusions Part 5 – The Last Interview.” Fangoria. September 1995.

Lamanna, Dan. “Clive Barker’s Lurid Fascination.” Cinescape. January 1995.

Macklin, William R. “Horrors! Clive Barker Thinks that Getting His Twisted Tales Out in the Open is Therapeutic.” Philadelphia Inquirer. August 24, 1995.

Rya, James. “Ex-Model Janssen Updates ‘Bond Girl’ Image.” BPI Entertainment News Wire. November 3, 1995.

Spelling, Ian. “Barker is Back.” The New York Times. August 22, 1995.

Stroby, W.C. “Boundless Imagination.” Fangoria. January 1992.


“The Making of Lord of Illusions” Sci-Fi Channel documentary. Lord of Illusions Laser Disc. 1996.

My Review for Gravity On-Line at Money Into Light!

"It has been seven long years since Alfonso Cuaron’s last film, the dystopian science fiction masterpiece Children of Men (2006). In the intervening years he’s seen potential projects come and go, and experienced turmoil in his personal life, but throughout it all was the idea for a film that would explore his fascination with outer space. He saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) at an impressionable age and became interested in space exploration. With his son, Jonas, Cuaron wrote the screenplay for Gravity, figuring that he could crank it out in a year’s time. At one point, he even lined up Angelina Jolie and Robert Downey Jr. as the leads, but when he realized that the technology to realistically depict a zero gravity environment wasn’t available, he spent years waiting and lost his two actors. Fortunately, when the time was right, he got George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. Advanced word was very strong, with festival reviews raving about how Cuaron had realistically captured the physics of outer space and created an immersive experience by filming it in 3D. Such reviews marked Gravity as a must-see event. For all of its astounding technical merits, does the film tell an engrossing story with compelling characters?"

My review for Gravity (2013) is online at my friend Paul Rowland's awesome blog, Money Into Light. If you haven't already checked out his writing you really should. In addition he has a collection of killer interviews he's conducted with all sorts of filmmakers.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Halloween

I never saw John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) at a young, impressionable age so it never imprinted on my psyche like The Birds (1963), Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Jaws (1975), which continue to this day to creep me out because they make me regress instantly to the little kid who saw them through fingers barely covering my eyes. That being said, Halloween is still an unsettling experience because Carpenter created such a well-crafted scare machine.

And he gets us right from the start as we see the world literally from the point-of-view of a young Michael Myers (Will Sandin) as he spies on older teenage sister Judith (Sandy Johnson). Dean Cundey’s flawless steadicam work creates a sense of unease as it glides smoothly through the Myers house. In a nice bit we even see Michael put on a mask before he brutally kills his sister. The real punch to the gut comes when Carpenter cuts from Michael’s P.O.V. to an omniscient angle as we see his parents arrive outside the house just as the boy emerges with a bloody knife. The mask is pulled off to see the slightly blank, slightly surprised expression on the child’s face. I don’t know how Carpenter got that expression from the boy, but it is a fantastically complex mix of emotions (or lack thereof) that plays across his face.

The film jumps from 1963 to 1978 and it’s a dark and stormy night as Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence) drives to a psychiatric hospital in Smith’s Grove, Illinois to take Michael to another facility. There’s this great shot of several patients wandering the grounds in the middle of the night. What are they doing there? We’re barely able to ponder this when Michael suddenly appears, commandeers the car and like that he is on his way back home to Haddonfield.


I love how Carpenter is confident enough of a filmmaker, even this early on in his career, to show Michael (Nick Castle) in broad daylight, like the initial, over-the-shoulder shot of him observing Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) as she walks down the street. Every time he pops up, it is unsettling in the way he almost casually appears, like when Laurie spots him across the street from the school standing behind the station wagon he stole, almost defiantly as if daring her to call attention to his presence. And then, after a few looks, he disappears. Michael prowls the neighborhood in that car, driving by Laurie and her friends who seem blissfully unaware except for her who senses that something isn’t right. The creepiest shot of these daytime sequences is when Laurie and Annie (Nancy Kyes) see Michael down the street, standing by a hedge. There is something disconcerting about a killer like Michael being so brazenly visible during the day despite Loomis and the police looking for him.

The contributions of producer and co-writer Debra Hill can’t be underestimated enough as evident in the scene where Laurie and her friends, Annie and Lynda (P.J. Soles), walk and talk about boys and babysitting – mundane things that pretty much anyone can relate to and this humanizes these characters. We start to get to know them as their distinct personalities surface. They’re not just cardboard stereotypes to be senselessly killed off later on in the film. When it does happen their deaths have more of an impact because we’ve come to identify with these characters, even care about them. This is certainly the case with Laurie whom we spend the most time with and who comes across as the most sympathetic.

Jamie Lee Curtis plays Laurie just right. She’s not naïve or entirely innocent (we see her smoking a joint with Annie), but there is definitely something good about her. She lacks experience because of her youth and this fateful night is a coming-of-age of sorts for her, which Curtis conveys so well. There’s a nice exchange between Laurie and Annie as they drive around town. They talk about the upcoming school dance and Laurie admits that she doesn’t have the courage to ask someone even though she admits to liking a specific boy. This is a telling scene that sheds light on her character. Laurie may be something of a bookish wallflower (in these early scenes she always seems to be carrying around her school books), but she has aspirations to be more assertive. It is this wish fulfillment that gets us to empathize with her.


Donald Pleasence hits all the right notes as the obsessed Dr. Loomis. He is Ahab and Michael is his great white whale that he is compelled to pursue come hell or high water. Having spent years with Michael he knows just how evil the man is as he lays it out for Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers): “No reason, no conscience, no understanding. Even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong.” And this is from Michael at six years of age! Loomis tried to help the boy for eight years and then realizing it was no use, spent another seven making sure Michael never left the institution because, as he puts it so well, “I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply evil.” Pleasence delivers this beautifully written monologue brilliantly; transforming what could have so easily been perfunctory exposition dialogue into a chilling account of just what is stalking the tree-lined neighborhoods of Haddonfield. The veteran actor doesn’t oversell it, resisting the urge to go over the top with the role. When Loomis loses his cool it’s with good reason. This speech conveys all we need to know about Michael in the intervening years from ‘63 to ‘78, which was needlessly fleshed out in Rob Zombie’s remake. I also like how Pleasence shows that Loomis is scared of Michael because he knows how evil the man is and what he’s capable of. This helps humanize the good doctor. He’s not some stereotypical infallible hero, but someone trying to do the best he can under trying circumstances.

Carpenter and Hill tell us just enough to let our imagination run with it, allowing us to fill in the gaps ourselves and in doing so be active participants in the narrative – something that countless imitators, wannabes, and even subsequent sequels often failed to do, instead of spelling things out and upping the gory body count. In comparison, Carpenter’s Halloween is downright subtle, like when Michael kills a neighborhood dog. All we hear is the poor animal whine and then a shot of Michael gently dropping its limp body to the ground. There’s no need to rub our noses in it as Carpenter conveys all we need to know through an economy of style. Another haunting shot (one of many) is when a little boy named Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews), whom Laurie is babysitting, spots Michael across the street carrying Annie’s dead body around the front of a house at night. Perhaps it is the voyeuristic aspect that makes it so spooky or it’s the matter-of-fact way Michael goes about his business.


There are many reasons why Halloween still holds up after all these years. It’s more than being an expertly crafted, efficient scare machine. I think it also taps into some pretty primal fears that most of us can relate to – it took a ruthless serial killer and set him loose in an average, all-American suburb – symbols of safe haven in the 1970s and 1980s. Suddenly, with this film they weren’t so safe anymore. As a result, Halloween helped spawn a whole slew of suburban slasher movies, but few, if any, have stood the test of time like Carpenter’s film.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Creepshow

Anticipation was high among horror fans when it was announced that three giants of the genre were going to collaborate together on a film. Author Stephen King, director George Romero and makeup effects wizard Tom Savini decided to pay tribute to the classic EC horror comic books from the 1950s with an anthology film called Creepshow (1982). Coming off the personally fulfilling, but commercial failure of Knightriders (1981), I’m sure Romero was eager to move on to something else and hooking up with King made sense. The two men had originally met over the possibility of collaborating on an adaptation of the author’s novel Salem’s Lot, but when the film rights were sold off to television, Romero moved on.

Making a horror anthology was a bit of a risky gamble at the time. They were all the rage in the 1970s with Hammer and Amicus cranking out films like The House That Dripped Blood (1971), Tales from the Crypt (1972), and From Beyond the Grave (1973), but by the end of the decade they had fallen out of favor. King and Romero wanted to bring these kinds of films back while also celebrating the horror comic books, like House of Mystery and The Vault of Horror that they grew up enjoying as kids. The project was given a decent budget and populated with a mix of up-and-coming movie stars and veteran character actors. While receiving only mixed reviews, it was a sleeper hit.

Creepshow is bookended by a boy (Joe King) being chastised by 1980s horror movie mainstay Tom Atkins for reading horror comic books. The overbearing patriarch throws his son’s issue of Creepshow in the trash and the rest of the film depicts various stories from its pages.


The first story is “Father’s Day” that sees a family of wealthy snobs waiting for their Aunt Bedelia Grantham (Viveca Lindfors), the rich matriarch who is rumored to have murdered her father, Nathan (Jon Lormer) on, what else, Father’s Day. Nathan was a real piece of work, angrily demanding his cake over and over until, out of frustration, Bedelia brains him with an ashtray. It’s Father’s Day again and Nathan (John Amplas) rises from the grave demanding his cake once more. The undead patriarch, of course, evokes Romero’s zombie films, but Tom Savini’s makeup isn’t a rehash of Dawn of the Dead (1979). The look of undead Nathan is in keeping with the exaggerated style of the old EC comic books.

Romero hits us right up front with all kinds of attention-grabbing style: skewed camera angles, garish Giallo lighting (saturating shots in red or blue lighting) and employing split-screen action like the panels in a comic book. He even evokes Night of the Living Dead (1968) ever so slightly when we see Bedelia visit her father’s grave; the cemetery initially bathed in warm, late afternoon light, soon becomes ominously atmospheric.

There is a nice mix of comedy and dread with the former coming from a fantastic moment where we get to see “serious actor” Ed Harris grooving out to some cheesy music with his wife (Elizabeth Regan). I can’t get enough of seeing him dancing so awesomely badly to a cheesy ‘80s song. With the exception of Harris, the rest of the Grantham clan are a bunch of vain, selfish, obnoxious bluebloods that deserve what’s coming to them, which makes their comeuppance at the hands of Nathan all the more satisfying.


“The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” is easily the weakest story in Creepshow as Stephen King, in an act of unfortunate hubris, casts himself as the eponymous Jordy, a stereotypical dumb yokel who foolishly touches a fallen meteorite and begins sprouting a strange, green moss-like substance that mutates into wild vegetation all over his body. Before you can say Swamp Thing, Jordy and his place are overwhelmed with lush green vegetation. Where the other segments achieve the right mix of horror and humor, this one goes too far over to the comedy side and comes across as too cartoonish.

King’s “acting” is straight out of an Ed Wood movie – strictly amateur hour and not in a it’s-so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. This segment is essentially a one-man show and King just isn’t talented enough to pull it off. Romero does the best he can to keep things interesting visually (Jordy’s place is a marvel of set design), and Savini’s make-up job on King makes you wish that he had done the effects work on Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing (1982).


Fortunately, Creepshow bounces back with “Something to Tide You Over” as funnymen Ted Danson and Leslie Nielsen are cast against type as two men at odds with each other. Harry (Danson) has been sleeping with Richard’s (Nielsen) wife Becky (Gaylen Ross). Richard confronts Harry and takes him out to his privately owned beach and proceeds to bury him up to his head, waiting for the tide to come in, much like he did to his wife. It’s a pretty unorthodox kind of revenge as is the plot twist where we see what happens to Harry and Becky after Richard leaves them to die.

Again, Romero comes up with some fantastic imagery, chief among them the shot of an irate Harry submerged in water, which evokes the watery demise of Shelley Winters’ character in The Night of the Hunter (1955). Once Richard returns home, Romero ratchets up the tension as we soon realize that Harry and Becky are back for some vengeance of their own. Savini’s makeup effects on the waterlogged couple are quite extraordinary and their distorted, watery voices are unsettling. It’s great to see Leslie Nielsen shed all of his comedic shtick to play a fairly sadistic son-of-a-bitch and he seems to relish the change of pace. Few remember that he started off his career playing dramatic roles because he’s so closely identified to his iconic character in the Naked Gun movies.

For me, the best story in Creepshow is “The Crate,” which focuses on Henry Northup (Hal Holbrook), a reserved college professor, and his friend and colleague Dexter Stanley (Fritz Weaver). Henry is married to Wilma “Billie” Northup (Adrienne Barbeau), a boozy, overbearing shrew of a wife, who shows up to a faculty party drunk and belligerent. Dexter is called away when a janitor (Don Keefer) shows him a crate from an Arctic expedition dating back to 1834. It was stored away under a staircase in the bowels of a building.


Naturally, Dexter and the janitor decide to open the crate and they unleash a ferocious creature that kills the hapless custodian in gruesome fashion (although, restrained for Savini). Pretty soon, Henry and Billie run afoul of the nasty beast as Savini gets a chance to flex his impressive makeup muscles. I can still recall seeing pictures of the crate monster in Fangoria around the time Creepshow came out and being scared by it. At a young, impressionable age, it took me awhile to see the film all the way through, but at least I read the comic book adaptation.

What really sells the horror in this segment is the absolutely sweaty, wild-eyed terrified reactions of Dexter to the two deaths he witnesses. Fritz Weaver does a great job as Dexter, never amping up his character’s anxiety too much and knowing just when to reel things in. Holbrook is also very good at showing Henry’s transformation from mild-mannered professor to calculating husband who plots the demise of his domineering wife. Adrienne Barbeau is a hoot as Henry’s obnoxious wife and looks like she’s having a blast bouncing off of Holbrook’s doormat of a husband. It’s a juicy role that lets the veteran actress vamp it up as only she can.

Finally, the story “They’re Creeping Up On You!” features E.G. Marshall as Upson Pratt (perfect name for his character), an anal-retentive neat freak businessman who lives in a sterile apartment. He’s obsessed with eradicating his place of bugs. It’s an amusing spin on the equally reclusive and germ-obsessed Howard Hughes fused with Ebenezer Scrooge. All Pratt cares about is money and clearing up his “bug problem,” but soon enough the omnipresent cockroaches have their day in a rather fitting finale to this film.


Marshall is excellent as the curmudgeonly germaphobe sealed up in how sterile fortress. He’s a prisoner of his own obsessions. This segment shows what a truly skilled actor can do when he has to carry a segment on his own, unlike King in his story. For anyone creeped out by bugs this segment is particularly disconcerting.

George Romero first met Stephen King when he was approached by Warner Bros. to direct an adaptation of Salem’s Lot, a novel about a small town in Maine that is terrorized by vampires. The two men met in Maine for several days and even though the project fell through, they kept in touch. King and Romero wanted to work together on an adaptation of the author’s epic novel The Stand, but realized that it would require major Hollywood studio funding to get made. In order to retain full artistic control, they decided to make another inexpensive film first that would make enough money to give Romero more clout with the studios.

In the summer of 1979, Romero and his business partner and producer Richard Rubinstein met with King in Maine to come up with ideas for an original film because it would be cheaper to make. One idea was a series of horror “blackouts,” short sketches leading to a major scare. Romero wanted to create five stories in five completely different styles: one in black and white, one in color, one in 3D, and so on. However, they decided that this approach was too experimental.


It was King that came up with the comic book idea and the “Creepshow” title. He wrote and completed the 142-page screenplay in October 1979. The first story, “Father’s Day,” was described as a “deliberate EC pastiche,” according to King. “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” was an adaptation of “Weeds,” a short story King published in the May 1976 issue of Cavalier. In fact, “Weeds” was originally written as the first chapter of a novel, but as the story started to spread beyond Verrill’s world, King could not find any more to say. For the film, he decided to change the tragic tone to a more comedic one.

“Something to Tide You Over” was inspired by King’s memories of being buried up to his neck in sand as a child and also from a film about Bluebeard the pirate being left to die below the high tide line. “The Crate” was adapted from a short story published in the July 1979 issue of Gallery magazine. The story was inspired by a real crate found under the stairs in the chemistry building at the University of Maine. What stuck in King’s mind was that the crate had been under the stairs for a hundred years and he imagined “something really sinister in there.” The creature in the crate was inspired by the Looney Tunes cartoon character, the Tasmanian Devil. For the last story, King originally had a mixture of spiders, cockroaches, beetles, and bugs that did not even exist. However, budgetary constraints forced him to use cockroaches exclusively.

Initially, King was not interested in a framing story to link the five stories because he felt that ones in past horror film anthologies were “silly and contrived.” Romero suggested a comic book as the framing device and King agreed. The Spectre, featured in the prologue and linking segments, was a reworking of the “Old Witch”, “The Cryptkeeper” and other narrators from the EC comic books. Romero used King’s first draft, making some changes with the author’s approval and input during principal photography, which often involved rewriting dialogue.


With King’s script, a rough budget and poster art created by EC comic book veteran artist Jack Kamen, the filmmakers shopped the project around Hollywood. Money wasn’t an issue with studio executives, but rather the content. They wanted creative input, which King and Romero balked at. So, they went back to United Film Distributing, a subsidiary of the United Artists Theater Circuit, who had backed Knightriders. They ended up financing Creepshow’s $8 million budget.

Pre-production began in early 1981 and Romero called on frequent collaborators, like makeup effects artist Tom Savini and cinematographer Michael Gornick. The production set up offices in Penn Hall Academy, an abandoned Pittsburgh grammar school, transforming their gymnasium into a soundstage. Principal photography began in late July 1981. In order to give each segment its own distinct look, King and Romero decided to employ the vibrant color scheme from the EC comic books through heightened, saturated lighting and utilizing stylized backgrounds. With the significant budget, Romero had the freedom to shoot on location as well as on a soundstage. Filming lasted 17 weeks, ending in late November.

Post-production was quite extensive with four different editors working on the five stories, a large amount of optical work, and composing the film’s score. Originally, Romero planned to use music from the Capitol Library (which he also used in Night of the Living Dead). He felt that the music would work well with the film, but assistant director John Harrison noticed the varying degrees of quality in material from the various decades and ended up creating much of the music in the film on a synthesizer. Rick Catizone created the animated sequences that acted as segues between segments in the style of Kamen’s comic book pages drawn for the film.

Creepshow debuted at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival and was a rousing success with a distribution deal made with Warner Bros. – the first time a studio would distribute a Romero film. The film received mixed reviews from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “What they’ve done here is to recapture not only the look and the storylines of old horror comics, but also the peculiar feeling of poetic justice that permeated their pages.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “The best things about Creepshow are its carefully simulated comic-book tackiness and the gusto with which some good actors assume silly positions. Horror film purists may object to the levity even though failed, as a lot of it is.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote, “What one confronts in Creepshow is five consistently stale, derivative horror vignettes of various lengths and defects.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, “Creepshow is a faux naïf horror film: too arch to be truly scary, too elemental to succeed as satire.” Finally, in his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, “The Romero-King collaboration has softened both the horror and the cynicism, but not by enough to betray the sources – Creepshow is almost as funny and as horrible as the filmmakers would clearly love it to be.”


If Romero was criticized for his rather non-descript directorial style prior to Creepshow, with this film the director showed that he could turn on the style with the best of them, cutting loose and having fun with the material. He pays homage to the classic EC comic books from the ‘50s by presenting a series of short stories populated by reprehensible protagonists that get their well-deserved retribution through supernatural means. Most horror anthologies are notoriously uneven in terms of quality and Creepshow is no different. Fortunately, there’s only one segment that isn’t very good and that was down to casting, while the rest of them are populated with familiar faces that seem to be having fun inhabiting their colorful characters, which translates into fun for the audience watching them.

Creepshow helped kick off a new wave of horror anthology films that included the likes of Nightmares (1983), Cat’s Eye (1985), Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990), and, more recently, Trick ‘r Treat (2007), which, with its mix of horror and comedy and use of garish, vibrant lighting, seems particularly indebted to Creepshow. While it certainly doesn’t contain the scathing social commentary of other Romero films, it is a fun, entertaining romp – a cleansing of the cinematic palette if you will, before he moved on to tackle the third installment of his Dead trilogy with Day of the Dead (1985).


SOURCES


Gagne, Paul R. “Creepshow: Masters of the Macabre.” Cinefantastique. September-October 1982.


Further reading: Check out Sean Gill's excellent take on Creepshow over at his blog.