Monday, October 31, 2011

Random Movie: Halloween H20 (1998)

Halloween: H20 holds a special distinction for being the only DVD I own from a different country. I’m not really sure why I bought it on a trip to Germany over ten years ago since I cannot play it on a normal DVD player and my German is so shoddy now that I would need the dub track. But regardless, I have it on German DVD. I figured starting out the review with a random anecdote would be fine since this is more a technically-competent but superfluous anecdote than a real film in the Halloween series.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Random Movie: Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)

Pure and simple, this movie is an unadulterated mess. Coming six years after the sloppy fifth film, the Halloween series had certainly seen its better days as it changes hands to yet another production company, this time the genre upstart Dimension Films. Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers also is notable for being one of the most awkwardly put together films courtesy of studio or dumbass filmmaker interference and even spawned its own alternate cut which ran rampant on VHS many years ago as the “Producers’ Cut.” Just like any relationship, this movie has a lot of baggage. And I have a love/hate relationship with it.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Random Movie: Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989)

1989 should have been a big year for horror fans with the release of Halloween 5, Nightmare on Elm Street 5, and Friday the 13th Part 8 all together. Yet, since the late 80s marked the decline of the slasher genre, it should stand to reason that all of these films were garbage in one way or another. Similar to Nightmare 5, I have never had any fondness for Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers which I previously dismissed as just another empty cash-grab. Perhaps since it has been easily ten or so years since seeing this one or because I know there is some horrid crap to come, I came out of my viewing of this film with a newfound appreciation for it. It’s still rather terrible though.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Random Movie: Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

At this point, the Paranormal Activity series is almost critic-proof since it is dirt-cheap to produce, brings in fists full of dollars and is generally well-received by audiences. With the departure of the Saw franchise last year, October needed another big, R-rated series to take its place to win over the hard earned cash of horror-loving moviegoers. I said in the review of PA2: “It is pretty safe to say that if you liked the first PA, you will probably like this one too.” Amend that to say the first two PA films and you have my excerpt for Parnormal Activity 3. That isn’t a bad thing … unless you really hated the preceding films.

The formula for these stories are pretty simple: a family experiences some traumatic experience leading to the dominant male of the household placing a camera, or cameras, around the house to document something or another. This film sets up the loving family of Julie, mother of Katie and Kristi, and her boyfriend Dennis who conveniently is a wedding photographer, thus having access to multiple cameras and a seemingly endless supply of VHS tapes. Katie and Kristi’s father is out of the picture but the four have a pretty good relationship especially between Dennis and the kids. An earthquake interrupts Julie and Dennis’ very tame sex tape and Dennis maybe sees something weird when reviewing the tape.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Random Movie: Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

In the world of slasher sequels, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers is still pretty highly regarded. It doesn’t come close to the original but that’s not surprising especially after the previous sequels in the franchise. Part II was apparently made to up the gore and body count that the first was sorely not lacking. The all-around awful part III was apparently created to kill the Halloween name altogether. Fortunately, it did not succeed because then Danielle Harris would not be who she is today (for better or worse) and we would be denied arguably the best sequel in this quite uneven franchise.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Random Movie: Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

Despite seeing all the other movies in the franchise multiple times, I had never seen the Friday the 13th: A New Beginning of the Halloween series, Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Sure, I could deny that is because Michael Myers is absent in this installment but that would not be exactly accurate. Yet, over the years I have heard time and time again that this film would have a much better reputation if it did not have Halloween in the title. That may in fact be true. But it is still a shitty movie.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Monster Scum Lives – Day 11: Diabolique (1955)

It was about fifteen years ago that I saw the most recent film based on the novel Celle qui n’était plus by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. I remembered the basic gist of the tale but not much else. Now, having seen the 1955 French thriller Diabolique (or Les Diaboliques), even without remembering much I can safely say the 1996 Americanized remake was far less effective than this version. There is a reason this is a highly regarded film in general.

Christina Delassalle (Véra Clouzot) is in a tough situation. She runs a young boy’s boarding school with her husband Michel (Paul Meurisse) whose stern and controlling demeanor makes him hated by all including his wife. Michel harbors much resentment for Christina and she for him with his abusive and cheating mannerisms. After eight years together, Christina reaches the point where she wants Michel gone one way or another. She schemes with her closest companion Nicole (Simone Signoret), also Michel’s former mistress, and develop a fool-proof plan to dispatch of the man.

The two women lure Michel to Nicole’s house where he is sedated with a tainted bottle of wine and then submerged in a filled bathtub as Nicole keeps him under until his struggling stops. They load the body into a giant wicker trunk and cart it back to the boarding school where they dump it in the filthy swimming pool, thinking he will surface in a few days as an apparent accident or suicide. The body then disappears but other things appear in its place like his dry-cleaned suit or his lighter.

It is only within the past few years that I’ve come to appreciate foreign as well as black-and-white films. As such Henri-Georges Clouzot‘s thriller never really stuck out as a horror staple, probably due to the fact that it is made more than fifty years ago as well as subtitled. That is a shame though since Diabolique is a treat to watch for a prime example of how a tense film is put together. When the body goes missing and other haunting reminders of the missing man surface instead, you can feel the subdued panic between both women as they worry about the likelihood of going to jail, being blackmailed, or worse being hunted down by the man they were sure was dead. While the “horror” elements are rather tame, the tension between the two female leads and even the haunting “presence” by Michel is more than enough to create a great noir film with its suspenseful elements of paranoia and effective camerawork.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Random Movie: Halloween II (1981)

Largely thanks to John Carpenter‘s original Halloween, the 80s were chock full of slasher flicks taking place everywhere from summer camps to sorority houses and everywhere in between with a collection of mostly bland, forgettable murderers. Everyone seems to remember this era fondly even though the sad reality dictates that most of these films are pretty bad with a few notable exceptions sticking out here and there. With the title, heroine, and villain notwithstanding, Halloween II would be more of the former than the latter.

Monster Scum Lives – Day 10: Frankenstein (1931)

Since beginning this year’s Monster Scum marathon, I have had a blast catching up on old favorites and learning about classic movies that I had never seen before. I figured though that even though my viewing list is fashioned from the IMDb Top Horror Movie list, I would come across a film I either didn’t get or just didn’t like. Given that this is my first time viewing James Whale‘s original cinematic telling of Frankenstein, I can appreciate its impact on film and specifically monster movies, but this one just didn’t gel for me.

Even having not read the original novel by Mary Shelley (though I’m sure I have the Cliff Notes version somewhere), the story of Frankenstein has been told so many times either in film or television or homaged elsewhere, it’s impossible not to know the genesis of the Monster. Henry Frankenstein (why not Victor?), the mad scientist who has a serious God complex and creates a being that ends up destroying its creator is nothing new even without seeing the film. In fact, that almost seems like a staple of all types of storytelling. Regardless, the specifics of this film were a new experience for me at least as the Monster lashes out killing almost everyone around Henry.

While I did not anticipate anything that would be seriously classified as “horror” these days, Frankenstein was actually a bit more tame than I had anticipated. Sure, he offs Fritz which was certainly welcome although Dr. Waldman and the little girl were a bit more impactful, but the Monster does little else than roam around the countryside stumbling and groaning through most of the film. While I appreciate a movie that is tight and not overly long, the just over one hour runtime seems to leave huge holes in the story such as how the Monster develops from simply moving a hand to choking the life out of someone. From what I can tell, it does not seem that there was anything excised from the film but having some more scenes with Henry and the Monster or of the other characters after Henry is extracted from his laboratory would have been less jarring than the speedy plot that remains.

The DVD I watched came with a commentary by David J. Skal, a renowned horror historian who discussed in length the origin of the story, the production of film, and the impact it had on further movies including those in the Universal Monster universe. It is quite an interesting track and certainly gave me a better appreciation for the film. But aside from the great cinematography, the rest of the production felt more basic and cheap than I expected. Especially telling is the scenes in the cemetery at the beginning or in the “mountains” toward the end with an obviously ill-conceived backdrop that withdrew me straight from the story. For the most part, the acting is decent but more on the over-the-top end of the spectrum with Colin Clive‘s depiction of the mad genius. Boris Karloff as the Monster is effective even if a bit underutilized.

While the film was obviously a success deriving four direct sequels and a host of other remakes of the story, this is a film that succeeds more in what it inspired than what it accomplished.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Monster Scum Lives – Day 9: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: in a small town, weird things start happening as the townsfolk who look seemingly normal turn into emotionless robots with only a few becoming aware of the differences. No, it’s not the plot to The Faculty. Despite the 1955 short story by Jack Finney and four movies based off of it (one of which we even covered last year), I have not seen any version of this tale but it seems so common because it has been remade and homaged (or in the case of The Faculty almost blatantly ripped off) countless times over the years. Yet, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a short and creepy thriller even though everything seems cliched by now.

Doctor Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns home to Santa Mira, California with reports that most of the town wanted to see him for undisclosed reasons. Now though, everyone seems to be healthy and normal aside from the little boy who is almost mincemeat after running into the street trying to escape his mother or the woman who declares that her uncle is not really her uncle but an imposter with the same appearance and memories. Bennell quickly dismisses the claims and refers the woman to the town psychiatrist. Later while dining with love interest Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), Bennell receives an urgent call and goes to the home of Jack and Teddy who have found a body in their house without any defining features or even fingerprints. Soon Bennell, Becky, and company discover the town is no longer occupied by humans, just empty shells of their former friends and colleagues.

Even though it seems overdone (since it kind of is), the story behind Invasion is still quite effective, enhanced here by great performances and the beauty of black-and-white cinematography. This is, in a way, a more frightening tale than a typical zombie or slasher film primarily because the protagonists are mostly in the dark about what is happening and even once they do figure things out, there is no way of telling who is human and who is not. This uncertainty has strong roots in the ongoing Cold War when the film was made and the fear and paranoia can be easily supplanted with enemies of the state or something else more common in the natural world.

Thanks to the great performances and the direction by Don Siegel, most everything in the film is suspenseful and even a bit off-kilter before we learn of what is really going on. The one problem with the film that is apparently widely hated is the opening scene showing that Bennell has escaped Santa Mira and is telling the story to a doctor elsewhere. This, and his accompanying spotty narration, almost remove any real tension since we know that he will survive. Yet, as the film wound down, I was still waiting for the “downer” ending that the rest of the movie commanded but due to alleged studio tinkering, we receive a happy-ish ending instead. Again, I haven’t seen any of the other films based off of the same story so I don’t know if that’s a common theme but I hope not.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Monster Scum Lives – Day 8: The Exorcist (1973)

It wasn’t until the past seven or eight years that I first saw The Exorcist. Back in probably 1999 or 2000, I bought a DVD with the intention on catching up with one of horror’s most renowned films but I didn’t get around to it until many years later when the random urge struck one night as I sat alone at home. Needless to say, the movie creeped me the hell out and even watching it today still invokes a strong sense of unease. It isn’t the “scariest” film in terms of jump-scares but William Friedkin‘s classic tale is still as unsettling today as I’m sure it was almost forty years ago.

As I remarked when I reviewed this film’s sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic some time ago, I haven’t watched the original in some time. Of course the basic summary of the movie still stuck out as well as the priest who defenestrates himself but Exorcist excels just like the other classics I’ve covered like Halloween because we are not immediately thrust into the conflict. Friedkin (and writer William Peter Blatty) take a remarkably restrained pace where the odd happenings do not begin until over a third into the film and the exorcism is withheld until the very last minute.

Instead of drawing out the young girl’s potential possession or the exorcism itself, the movie spends a seemingly inordinate amount of time on Regan (Linda Blair) and her mother Chris’ (Ellen Burstyn) relationship and how the effect that the occurrences have on Chris as she searches for an answer about what is going on. Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Father Karras (Jason Miller) are also given a hefty amount of backstory and characterization before even meeting the MacNeil family which leads to some rather disturbing exchanges between the priests and the demon inhabiting Regan.

Throughout its entire two-hour runtime, Friedkin successfully sucks you into the story with little time to ponder or debate what you are seeing on screen. Regan’s affliction could very well be physical, emotional, or religious in nature but the way the story unfolds as Chris is told her daughter’s actions are caused by neurological issues or psychological issues keeps us on an even keel with the characters with the small exception that we know we’re watching a movie called The Exorcist.

There are many deeper issues here, especially pertaining to faith as told through Karras’ character. Or maybe Friedkin and Blatty were denouncing the miracle of modern medicine which failed time and time again here to explain something so easily dismissed. Whatever your take on God, the Devil, and religion as a whole, The Exorcist isn’t a movie that has any answers (or really asks any big questions) about belief but watching it will get the gears in your head turning regardless.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Monster Scum Lives – Day 7: King Kong (1933)

Confession time: I’ve never seen King Kong, neither the original or the remakes. Still, the 50ish-foot gorilla is one of those legendary cinematic figures like Darth Vader or Freddy Kruger with a legacy that everyone knows even if you have not seen any of their films. Honestly, I can’t say I was expecting much out of Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack‘s tale of a captive beast gone wild in the streets of New York even though it still has a very positive rating. But holy crap was it really good!

Beginning as I figure most early movies are (kind of stilted and stodgy), cryptic movie director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is about to set sail to an unknown island to film a “picture!” When his crew fails to turn up a young, attractive woman to star in the production, Denham goes out and recruits the shoplifter Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to play the love interest with no questions asked. After they’ve embarked, Denham tells the captain and his right-hand man Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) of their destination: an island told of by a dying man that has “interesting” wildlife.

After a shaky encounter with the natives, Denham and crew return to their ship until a band of the island-folk abduct Ann for an offering to Kong. The rest is pretty straight forward. Kong takes Ann. Men go after Kong. Kong has fight after fight with wacky prehistoric creatures while brutally killing people. Kong is captured, taken to New York, escapes his chains, and climbs up the Empire State Building with Ann in tow. Man, was this a fun movie to watch.

I am quite shocked at how well this holds up compared to all the junk action films I’ve consumed in my lifetime. It starts somewhat slow and Kong doesn’t appear until a good ways into the movie but after he does, it is wall-to-wall action from all sides. In fact, I am surprised that this was made and commercially successful in the 1930s because it is pretty damn violent too. While there is nothing really grisly, it is impressive that an old-school, highly regarded movie like this can rack up a body count far exceeding most horror franchises.

The uncredited Cooper and Schoedsack as story-writers and directors do a great job in making almost every minute in this 80-year-old film remarkable. Sure, it is easy to pick on the awkward stop motion during much of Kong’s screen time but the era it was made notwithstanding, the impressive action sequences make it simple enough to overlook. While I’m sure there is some subtext about the dangers of keeping wild animals captive or how the white man will always destroy other tribes and cultures, I was far too busy gawking over all of the chomping and stomping and crushing to really notice.

If you haven’t already seen this classic, do yourself a favor and see it now. It is great in a completely unironic way.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Random Movie: Scream 4 (2011)

I know. I’ve already reviewed Scream 4 once before. It was hardly an impartial review though since it had been eleven years since the premiere of the preceding movie and it was not too thorough since I banged it out after a midnight showing opening day before going to work. But, since it was just released on DVD and Blu-ray this week, why not take another look?

Beginning with a dizzying number of “opening” sequences, Scream 4 sets the action back in Woodsboro as Sidney (Neve Campbell) has returned on a book signing tour and reunited with Dewey (David Arquette) and Gale (Courteney Cox) who are now married. Dewey is now the Sheriff, Gale is retired from reporting and unsuccessfully trying to write a fiction novel, and Sidney is the proverbial black cat who is constantly followed by death and despair. The mayhem starts up again as Sidney’s cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) and her friend Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) watch as their neighbor is savagely (and I mean savagely!) butchered by Ghostface which kicks in the old plot formula of a who-dun-it mystery combined with unnaturally loquacious teenagers and references to other horror films.

Even though the film was allegedly plagued with rewrites, reshoots, and typical Weinstein fuckery, the finished product that launched in theaters is pretty satisfying. It was announced as a reboot/remake/sequel hybrid which sounded pretty dumb at the time but started to flesh out as the cast was announced with the returning trio of Arquette, Campbell, and Cox and a host of other new characters. The main issue with the film (similar to the last two actually) is that there are too many damn people to keep track of. At this point, we are pretty safe to assume that the killers are not Sidney, Dewey, or Gale so thus every other actor is saddled with questionable lines and sketchy motives to make them seem like the killer. The reason the first worked so well (aside from the fact that it was the first) is that the potential psycho-list was not as long as my arm. You certainly cannot fault the film for a low bodycount though if you are into that.

If anything, returning writer (or writers) Kevin Williamson is able to tap into a good amount of the self-referential and self-awareness of the first film. Woodsboro’s current crop of teens are the gang from the first hopped up on Redbull with unfettered access to the internet to pirate all seven Stab films or whatever the hell kids do these days. Scream: The Next Generation would have been a fine movie on its own. Jill takes the victim torch from Sidney, she has a creepy-ish boyfriend like Billy, and instead of one, we have three Randy-esque characters in this movie. It is the somewhat awkward merging of the old and new classes that brings the film down since there really is no time to focus on anyone for fear of neglecting someone else.

Wes Craven tried to do his best with the film since it seems a bit more on point than part 3 but no where close to the excellence he brought to Scream 2. After enough horror films in general (and of a particular franchise to boot), it is easy to get lazy with the “scares” but there were a few effective ones here and there. The thing I will curse Craven and Williamson (and whoever else wrote the thing) for is their penchant for playing it too safe. There was one scene that almost tried to be as shocking as Randy’s demise in 2 but whoever is responsible didn’t have the cajones to kill off one of the main three. Going into the film, it’s a safe bet that if the character has not been in a previous Scream film, they are as good as dead. It would have been refreshing to have some more uncertainty about the old-school cast even though what the “typical” audience wants is a boring, happy ending.

The most aggravating thing about Scream 4 are the numerous scenes cut from the final picture. Most deleted scenes are taken out for a reason but here are tighter chase scenes, more character development, and backstory that are severely missed in the regular release. Sure, the extra scenes with the sadly wasted Mary McDonnell or more stuff with Kirby (my favorite new character) would have extended the run-time but there was plenty of material that didn’t work to start with. A commentary comes on the Blu-ray with Craven, Roberts, and Panettiere (and Campbell for a brief time) but it is nowhere near as in depth or thoughtful as some of those from the previous films.

The painful thing about Scream 4 is that everyone (cast and crew included) tried hard to make a decent follow-up but only succeeded in reminding the audience how special and awesome the original is. If the series were to continue, it needs to be around some different characters in a similar storyline lest it continue to fall in the shadow of its predecessor.

Monster Scum Lives – Day 6: Freaks (1932)

My how the world has changed since the 1930s. I can only imagine the chagrin that theater patrons were treated to while watching Tod Browning‘s Freaks, otherwise known as awesome horror film #24 by the IMDb. Yet, watching this film several decades later takes most of the shock and awe out of these characters. Instead of being shunned by society and making a living by begging or doing parlor tricks, abnormal, or unique if you’d rather, people have been featured in movies, TV series, and hell … even reality shows. Oh well, I can’t blame the film for the sad state of popular media today.

Poor Hans (Harry Earles) just can’t seem to catch a break. He is smitten with the beautiful Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), even though she stands about three feet taller than his dwarfish frame. After being given extravagant gifts by the foolhardy Hans, Cleopatra and her beau Hercules learn that Hans has received a large inheritance and Cleopatra strings him along until the two get hitched at one of the more eventful weddings ever. Also in attendance at the feast are the other members of the touring group including Siamese conjoined twins, a he/she, a bearded lady, and more. “One of us, one of us” is the chant they use to welcome the decidedly normal Cleopatra into their group. Not surprisingly, the drunken wife is not happy with this and calls them “slimy freaks” just after throwing wine on them. The gang does not think that to be very polite and start piecing together her motives.

Eighty years removed, Freaks is just not a horror film any longer. It is mostly good even though the just over one hour runtime leaves much to be desired (due to the stupidity of 1930s folk allegedly). The film works well, even today, at exposing these “freaks” and sympathizing them as they play, fight, love, and gang up to give an old-school beat-down to a couple of traitors. An opening scroll that accompanied the DVD I watched filled in a lot of the group’s dynamics as to why they were all mostly accepting of Hans and Cleopatra as a way of showing solidarity toward one another. That also further explains the lengths that they go to exact revenge on her when she betrays their code.

At the end, there are a few unsettling images (I’m thinking the little people crawling through the mud with knives will give me nightmares) and the film itself is pretty sound given its age. It is a shame though that the heaps of footage reportedly excised are lost for good just as it is sad that Tod Browning never really recovered professionally after this film. Fortunately though, while the reaction was less than positive many decades ago, Freaks is now pretty highly regarded and likely did much to foster understanding for the subject matter.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Monster Scum Lives – Day 5: The Thing (1982)

Originally published January 7, 2010

Surprisingly, I had been missing out on John Carpenter’s The Thing until a few years ago when a friend of mine turned me on to it. I thought it was a very effective movie and the DVD was great, featuring commentary by Carpenter and Kurt Russell as well as an in depth documentary on the making of the film. Sadly, my original DVD was not anamorphic so I had no desire to watch the film in recent years until I upgraded my disc to the re-release from a few years back. For some reason, I didn’t remember much from the film so it was almost like watching it for the first time all over again.

A loose remake of the 1951 film The Thing from Another World, Carpenter’s version puts us in the middle of an Antartic research team who uncover a monstrous alien who has already devastated another research camp. As the being infiltrates the tight group of men, it takes their appearance and mannerisms leading them to doubt as to who is human and who is not. It is a very simplistic story, one which has been ripped off (or maybe its an homage depending on where you stand) by other films and even TV series.

It works so well because it is very well-produced (one of Carpenter’s best in my opinion) and has a great confined atmosphere of dread. It is really not a scary movie. It has a few jumps but more importantly, it has a palpable tension especially as the characters start putting the pieces together and figuring out that something is not right.

One of the biggest standouts of the film is the effects by Rob Bottin to create the creature. As it changes from a dog to a venus-fly-trap-headed man to even as a man’s head separates from the rest of his body as the alien tries to survive, the visuals of the monster are genuinely frightening, never looking gimmicky or fake. This is a movie that special effects gurus should look to for why practical effects are much more effective and realistic than crap-looking CGI which may allow more creativity but destroys any credibility.

Its a real shame that Carpenter has been on a decline and all but disappeared over the past several years. While I haven’t seen all of his films, I have seen a fair amount to be able to tell the difference between old Carpenter classics like Prince of Darkness or Halloween and new Carpenter dreck like Village of the Damned and Ghosts of Mars. He seems to have returned to form recently with his well reviewed episode of Masters of Horror and his upcoming film The Ward.

Let’s hope that the threatened Thing remake either fizzles out or turns out to be decent. While it won’t destroy the original, I don’t think Carpenter could use another dud, even if its just in credit only.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Monster Scum Lives – Day 4: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

During my personal dark ages of movies, otherwise known as the mid 2000s, there were a host of films that demanded viewing that I casually disregarded. Some of those I have come to regret. Others I have not seen at all. One that I made a point to see though was Shaun of the Dead. There was something about the film that stood out to me as important enough to see in theaters even though I ended up seeing it alone in a showing of about six people.

It was billed as the zom-rom-com (or zombie romantic comedy) but only two of those adjectives really fit. With numerous hints and winks to other zombie films and properties in general, Shaun of the Dead is a movie that is crafted so well and foreshadowed so effectively, I almost guarantee that you can watch it many times over and find something new to grin or chuckle about. Our lovable slacker Shaun (Simon Pegg) is an everyman with no ambitions, no drive, and no desire for anything other than playing video games with his pal Ed (Nick Frost). All it takes is the pending end of the world to snap Shaun out of his ways and spring into action as the reluctant action hero who rarely has a plan or even skills to carry out what plans he does have.

Even if you are not a fan of zombie movies or of British comedy (if both, exit now please), there is plenty to sink your teeth into with this film. As a horror fan, there are more than enough references to other zombie films (especially the Romero variety) to make you pleased as punch. As a comedy fan, the film is stock full of other references and even a humorous foreshadowing of future events that become more apparent the more you watch it. The script by Pegg and director Edgar Wright (of Scott Pilgrim fame) is equal parts zany, and horror-y, and funny all combined into one satisfying package.

Unlike other zombie films that precede it, SotD is rarely lacking on the acting front with top-notch performances from everyone involved. There is gore and carnage and all the other sorts of things you would expect from a zombie movie. There is even a Romero-esque social commentary on everyday people going about their affairs and how they relate to the cinematic zombies portrayed here. But at the very least, this is a horror/comedy which does everything right for anyone who might be watching. If you don’t like this movie, you are probably already dead.

Monster Scum Lives – Day 3: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Without watching, and thinking of, the two back to back, it is easy to miss the similarities between John Carpenter’s Halloween and George Romero‘s Night of the Living Dead. Both were made by a bunch of amateur filmmakers on a minuscule price tag and both are highly regarded, not only in horror films, but in their respective sub-genres.

Romero helped define the modern zombie as we know, and despise, it today. Previously, zombies were not autonomous flesh-eating beings, but pawns by some voodoo priest from some exotic locale. Now, zombie is not only a term for mindless folk enacting a set routine consistently (we’ll get to Shaun of the Dead soon enough) but also deadly slow (or fast depending on the movie) “people” out for blood by way of whatever reason is given or not. In fact, just like Halloween, the gist of the film (people trapped in a confined space battling deadies) has been done and done again to the point that it seems cliched. Night being the start, and to some extent the apex, of zombie films though takes this mere plot summary and does wonders with it.

Romero likes to say that his original film is not really a piece of social commentary on race relations in the 1960s, but given his proclivity for shoehorning other commentary in films that are not worthy of it (cough … Diary of the Dead), I find that hard to believe. That point notwithstanding, Night is a clever film, not only for its subject matter but also for its production technique. Much has been written about the guerrilla-style filmmaking used during this production and it is remarkable especially since the low-budget-ness does more to engulf you in the zombie phenomenon than other similar films can pull off with big budget set pieces and makeup.

Even though I’ve seen the 1990 remake more than this, the original Night has a certain charm that exudes during every minute. Starting with poor, meek Barbara and her obnoxious brother Johnny at the cemetery to Ben and Cooper’s introduction at the old farmhouse, this film features realistic characters who do not necessarily fall into the Hollywood trap of painting them as extremes. Cooper is kind of an ass but he is not necessarily dangerous, just scared and stupid. Ben is not a hero, more of a poor guy stuck in bad circumstances who has to take charge. Everything about them (even the almost comatose Barbara) feels genuine, not some character written by committee.

The final third of the film is exhilarating with constant threats from both inside and outside as the human occupants come to blows and the zombies come closer and closer to their feast. It would be an understatement to say the ending is a downer but it fits the rest of the film perfectly. The excellence performances, mostly from Duane Jones and Karl Hardman, and especially the go-for-broke attitude of Romero and his crew set this apart as a horror film that will live on much longer than its undead antagonists.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Monster Scum Lives – Day 2: Eyes Without a Face (1960)

In the making-of documentary on my Halloween Blu-ray, John Carpenter remarked that Michael Myers’ signature mask reminded him of the mask worn by Christiane in Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans Visage), the French-language film by Georges Franju. The resemblance between the masks is uncanny but there are other similarities between these two great films.

A few years previously, Christiane (Edith Scob), daughter of the renowned Docteur Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), was in a car accident that horribly mangled her face, leaving only her eyes intact. Christiane is secluded to the doctor’s estate after another young girl is found dead and Génessier identifies her as his “missing” daughter. Génessier has a wild notion (wild before the beauty of Face/Off that is) that a face can be transplanted from one person to another. With the guilt from causing the accident responsible for his daughter’s condition combined with his arrogance that he can actually succeed, Génessier and his assistant enlist unwilling young women as part of the makeshift operation.

This film has elements that seem vaguely familiar but damn if I can place from where. While watching it, I was inexplicably reminded of The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, or otherwise known as Mike’s first episode on MST3k as that is another black and white science-fiction-ish tale of a mad doctor who ultimately succumbs to his “project.” Really, if not for the fact that the film was remarkably engrossing and technically sound, this is almost the type of stuff Mike (or Joel) and the ‘bots would riff on. The wacky, demented carnival music certainly fit that bill as well.

Brasseur as the good doctor gives an impressive performance of a character whose complexities are normally foregone in modern moviemaking. Génessier is the real monster in this tale as Brasseur embodies a man who is determined and yet diabolical, motivations that fit Michael Myers to a T. Scob though has a tough sell for her character. Christiane is almost complicit with her father’s affairs as she sits and watches while young girls are hacked up to make her whole again. When not donning the skin of another woman, Scob is stuck behind a blank, emotionless mask leaving only her eyes and subtle movements of the faux-mouth to express her desire for a normal life on one hand, or a quick death on the other.

Franju takes a very slow and methodical approach to the story, again not unlike Carpenter’s Halloween. There are long stretches of the film without dialogue, which is welcome occurrence to be able to focus on the scenery rather than the subtitles, but also to establish the characters as they plot and plan their next moves. It is odd that this film is lumped in the horror category but this is what I would think a Coen Brothers’ horror film would be like. It is quiet and thoughtful, yet at the same time disturbing. Not so much in the imagery but in the thought of what a man blinded by pride and love is capable of.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Monster Scum Lives — Day 1: Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter may not be churning out classics like Halloween any longer, but his arguably most famous film seems to have been the perfect storm of dedication, foolishness, ambition and talent that elude most films. Made on a tiny $300k budget (or about $1 million today), Halloween would go on to become one of the most financially successful independent pictures ever, not to mention the impact it made on filmmakers and movie-goers even thirty years later.