Thursday, November 27, 2008

Cujo (1983, Lewis Teague)

You can count on Dee Wallace Stone to act her head off.

In the era of 80s "Scream Queens" she was the most unlikely; the oldest, the classiest, the most legitimate actress. She fought beasts but didn't bare breasts. She was your mom. When desert cannibals struck, when pervert werewolves attacked, when maneating furballs showed up at the farm, when slimy penis head aliens were in your closet, Dee Wallace had your back once she was done shrieking and crying. First panicked, then striking with the fury of a woman whose offspring are in mortal danger. Damned if her histrionics didn't make you believe those puppets could bite, too.

Cujo is an underrated film on several accounts and especially for Wallace's finest hour as the mother besieged inside a broken down Pinto by a rabid St Bernard. The premise is a throwaway sick joke, a piano falling on an old lady. The storytelling amps up the stakes into their primal essence the way Spielberg's Duel did for road rage. 1983 also saw Stephen King adaptations from Carpenter and Cronenberg and even without the genre prestige, Lewis Teague affords the film a classy, novelistic pace. Subplots from the book are rearranged and parsed down cunningly. Wallace's extramarital affair and Cujo's rapidly worsening foamy mouth are contrasted even better on film than the book was able to do in print. Elmer Bernstein's score is typically fantastic.

The first death does not even occur until halfway through the runtime, at which point the rollercoaster drops from the top of the hill. Pure class. Stephen King's trash paradoxically necessitates a touch of class for any successful film. His personal stab at pure trash delerium, Maximum Overdrive, could only last through the first act before running out of steam and trying to make you care about a romance.

Cujo is maybe the most concise King novel ever, with only six main characters and a dog. At the heart of the story there is merely a family unit in danger, first by betrayal and then by the teeth of ol' Cooj. Except that's not grand enough for King in the novel; the dog may actually be posessed by the spirit of The Castle Rock Killer, last seen in The Dead Zone and now speaking to Wallace's son as a malevolent boogeyman in his closet. The first few chapters that illustrate young Tad's fear of the dark, and his room, and the sadistic nature of evil that children comprehend on a gut level when they begin to have nightmares are easily the best of the book. They're the only part that Teague couldn't do better in live action, and are relegated to a disarmingly cute scene in which Tad runs to bed after turning the lights out. It's a bit heavy to shoehorn into a story about a rabid dog, less logical than the ghostly allusions around the living car Christine (which Carpenter excised from his film out of convenience - it's more fun not to know. This quintessential King theme would get its full exercise a couple years later with IT.

Oh yeah, the kid dies in the book. The dark forces from the impenetrable beyond win. King never receieved so much hate mail in his life!

Teague never had much of a career. All anyone remembers him for is this and his other creature feature, the John Sayles-penned Alligator, which isn't half as good as this. His biggest commercial success, Navy SEALS, is admired mostly by illiterates.

Sayles also penned The Howling and years later, Dee Wallace appeared in Alligator II: The Mutation. What does it all mean? For one brief and shining moment, the perfect director met the perfect actor for the perfect project. Shame no one noticed.

Who Let The Dog Out?
- brilliant DVD reissue tagline

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Return to Sleepaway Camp (2008, Robert Hiltzik)

Every 25 years Robert Hiltzik rises from total obscurity to make a Sleepaway Camp movie. What circumstances kept Hiltzik's only further brush with cinema to his turn as "Fred Myers" in the 2002 horror short Grandma's Secret Recipe? As other horror aisle creeps had, I'd seen the Pamela Springsteen adorned cover of the official 1988 horror-comedy sequel and watched it first...

Before seeing the original 1983 slasher classic I'd written the 2003 announcement of production off as the type of cash-in only made possible by the internet. Like a Mortal Kombat vs Batman video game. Instead I was struck by the raw dumb power of doom tone poetry and authentic Summer Camp experiences relived, proving once again that most Friday the 13th ripoffs are better than the originals. The twist ending has also become an internet/pop culture punchline, look for it soon on Family Guy and Jimmy Kimmel.

Return to Sleepaway Camp is unique to any horror sequel of its kind. Hiltzik has reappeared out of the mist to make a slasher movie the way he would've if this were still 1983. The teens and adolescents don't use cell phones. Hell, even the counsellors aren't using cell phones once the shit hits the fan. There's no attempts at modern slang and the only pop culture reference is to The Beastie Boys' 1998 single Intergalactic. Every character is basically the archetype they need to be, from mean jocks to sassy black girls to scrawny nerdlings.

Shockingly several members of the 1983 original have returned, to almost no consequence. They're there to be the only ones who could know what's going on when the killings begin. They also know that since the original film's killer has billing in the opening titles, it's probably her again. And it is, or is it? (It is.) The real question is why anyone from the original would be working anywhere near that damn camp.

The structure is not vintage, on the other hand. The second murder doesn't even happen until the third act. This is a more logical choice plot-wise than the original, which peppered the murders throughout each act while the camp stays open and no kids are sent home despite a murderer being on the loose. Here, the first killing looks like an accident and is written off as such, sealing some more kids' fates. Hiltzik admirably retains one of the more shocking aspects of the original, that kids under 16 could get snuffed. No one is safe! He also sometimes reuses the original's frequent choice to show only the aftermath of murders, as gruesome special effects still life.

All of these aspects are quirky and delicious and secondary only to introducing - and he does get an "introducing" opening credit, how old school is that - Michael Gibney as Alan, the fat kid whom everyone hates. Killings aside, this film is his one note story.

Summer Camp is trial by fire. The herding of children and teenagers into single areas untouched (at least until cell phones and Internet) by suburban niceties is a daily liberation full of danger and romance; only unguarded prisoners and the worlds they have made.

In this jungle there is invariably one kid who's kind of nuts, kind of out there. Universally despised by the staff and other kids, his life becomes a daily hell punctuated by outbursts and even a moment of violence that might send you home...only Hiltzik's Sleepaway Camps make the fine point of turning such angst into a slasher flick. Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th or for that matter Cropsy (who gets a shout-out) of The Burning are the campfire boogeymen of Summer Camp. And then there's that poster for Unhappy Campers...

Angela Baker was the picked upon outcast of the original who was revealed to be the killer. It was who you thought it was and not the red herring who had his own subplot. Here the subplot is the main plot and the fact Angela returns to kill is robbed of some of its surprise in the by the sado-comic Hiltzik-less .

While this movie may not be as openly sado-comic as those, you will at some point be giggling at the nonstop torment of fat annoying victimized Alan. It's nowhere near as subtle as Felissa Rose's touchingly shy portrayal of Angela and her burgeoning first crush. The ending tries so hard but don't expect anything as full frontal as the original...

Kids can be so mean
- tagline

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Point (1971, Fred Wolf)

Harry Nilsson is damn good and damned forgotten. From nearly the last generation of old fashioned self employed American/a singer/songwriters during the 70s, Nilsson also had a prolific film career beginning with Everybody's Talkin' from Midnight Cowboy in '69 and ending rather permanently with his death in 1994. Meanwhile Randy Newman was turning his attentions to film entirely after firing on both cylinders between film, 80s pop and the same magical 70s brand of wry, lyrical and skillfully polished tune-grinding. Between them and Paul Williams, a pattern of magical elfishness emerges.

The Point was originally Nilsson's 1970 foray into the lovely rock opera rash catching on since the previous year with Tommy by The Who. The album tracks are "Chapter" one through eight and narrated by Nilsson as a fable. In the land of pointy headed people and things, Oblio is born with a round head and must wear a pointy cap to at least attempt fitting in. His only friend is his dog Arrow. One day they are banished to the "forrest of pointlessness," only to discover that everything has "a point" after all - pointed philosophical metaphors ensue. Nilsson's narration is what tells the story, and his songs are merely reflective. "Me and My Arrow," the radio play hit, is simply a four verse melody as opposed to a musical with medleys of characters.

Unfortunately The Point (1971) the animated tv movie has a script. This would not be a problem were the film live action. By 1971 traditional American animation was pretty much beyond modest improvement for the next 16 years before Ralph Bakshi and John Kricfalusi's Mighty Mouse and Ren & Stimpy made the uptick of the 1990s possible by sheer shameless imitation.

Consequently Oblio goes from the shapeless pastel imitation of The Beatles' Yellow Submarine into this Ziggy-looking fleck smattering of sickening wholesomeness. Dig the dog. Everything looks this ugly and the acting is nothing but generic poses.

The dialogue is all unfunny filler, as dialogue from "writers" who stole the medium with zero talent would now do in all television animation. The Point has all the awful trends of animated features to come, except this one is made even moree (in)offensively cute by the new yuppie cowardice and self-righteous need to condescend to children. They must have hated them and now we have "cartoons" by cartoon "writers" like Adult Swim, grown up children with consequently stunted imaginations.

A decent animated film would've been the length of the album and half the length of the movie, which saccharinely pads itself with talkiness. The guy who wrote the script went on to do exactly nothing and the director Fred Wolf became a successful peddler of bad ugly faux-cute cartoons all through the 70s and 80s like Strawberry Shortcake and junk with marquee value like James Bond Jr.

Oblio became Sprout, the fruit of The Jolly Green Giant's loins, who is a vegetable.

For a Nilsson musical with balls for the whole family, watch Popeye in its new widescreen dvd.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Zach and Miri Try To Make An Apatow Movie

Zach and Miri Make a Porno Movie is about to disappear down the memory hole with Kevin Smith's career close behind. Or so it has seemed with each of his most recent films, each an increasingly desperate attempt at reinvention. I chronicle this descent into irrelevance full of schadenfreude.

Let's begin with the recent interview he gave to The Onion AV Club filled with delicious nuggets of self-loathing and heralded by this picture:

This is one of Kevin Smith's basic fat slob dork (to quote Kthor) stock expression for publicity stills, on the red carpet or in an environment where he actually had time to think of something else and this is what he's got.

These belong to the classic "nerd family of photo poses" that include the popular quizzical-raised-eyebrow-while-stroking-the-barely-hairy chin:

So, the slips! The peeks into the aperture! First there's the usual self-deprecation about his own writing, which only sounds worse the more time passes, followed by a foot-stamping show of indignance over the low standards he's created for himself.

Italics mine.

AVC: You've drawn criticism in the past for writing dialogue that all sounds like one extended monologue.

KS: I get accused a lot of every character sounding like me. Which I'm like, "Well, it stands to reason." [Laughs.] Because I did write every character.

AVC: Do you think writing with Seth in mind helped Zack And Miri sound different?

KS: No more than so than writing with Ben in mind, or Jason Lee in mind, or Jason Mewes. Once I have the person, I start writing to that voice, so it wasn't different. It wasn't like, "Wow, writing for Seth suddenly made it completely different than everything else." To me, it was part of the same process. But I think for some reason, the movie scores points, or it gets looked at in a positive light by people, simply by virtue of the fact that it doesn't have Jay and Silent Bob in it. It's not set in New Jersey, it's not part of the Askewniverse, it's not interconnected with references to my other movies. So nobody's sitting there saying, "Oh, he's self-indulgently making that same fucking movie again." Suddenly, by virtue of the fact that it's got people I haven't worked with before, and it's set in Pittsburgh, people treat it like a "real movie." [Laughs.]

.....But it's been weird watching people react to this movie as if "It's a new step, a new direction for that fucking Clerks guy." And really, to me, it's just like the other ones. It just doesn't have Jay and Bob in it.

Smith is nothing if not passionate about his own lack of originality and development yet he needs to be perceived as having new things to offer. What a painful niche, being beholden to fanboys while trying to sustain a career with mass audiences.

The need for mainstream audiences is why he got Seth Rogen. So dig how hard he tries to put on the aw-shucks spin regarding the matter.

AVC: Because of Seth's presence, do you worry about comparisons to Judd Apatow's movies dogging this film?

KS: Let me tell you something: If the whole world mistook it for a Judd Apatow movie, I'd be a happy fucking camper. As long as it did that Judd Apatow business, fine, they can call it a Judd Apatow movie all they want. [Laughs.] No, not at all. I like Judd, and I like the movies that Judd has done quite a bit. When I saw 40-Year-Old Virgin, I was like, "Wow, somebody made a movie that I would have made." Since we did Clerks, I've seen many comedies, but nobody was doing that thing that we did where you mix raunch and sweetness and sentimentality. And Judd did it, and he was insanely commercially successful with it. For years, I thought that if you want to make a movie that mixes raunch and sentimentality, you have a $30 million box-office ceiling, because people aren't interested. You know: "You got your chocolate in my peanut butter." They want a raunchy comedy or they want a romantic comedy, or they want something serious or something comedic. The blend never seemed to go beyond our highest mark of $30 million. Then 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up and Superbad shattered that completely, and suddenly it turned the type of movie that I love making into something commercially viable. Suddenly I felt like, "My job just got much easier in terms of trying to sell this." So thank God there's a Judd Apatow. Not to mention he brought us Seth Rogen. Without Seth Rogen, I've got no Zack And Miri.

The obvious question is, if Judd Apatow has merely been making the kind of films Kevin Smith pioneered, why have none of Smith saccharine-slob films since Clerks been major hits with lasting impact? Obvious answer is, he spent the subsequent 15 years catering to his base of obsessives rather than develop new communication skills. These were not comedies that women went to. They were aimed at the demographic whose aspiration is to sound like Brodie, or Randall, or Jay, or their Hollywood story whoring wannabe standup author.

Smith's refusal to grow is illuminated quite well by comparison to Judd Apatow's recent successes. The 40 Year Old Virgin is a classical premise. Had it been made in the 70s or 80s it may have been called Better Late Than Never. The unexpected success and continued viability of Apatow's brand came from a few factors that have escaped Smith's comprehension.

Jovial vulgarity aside - no one has a trademark on that - the only similarity these two men's films share is the empathy afforded to characters. Imagine Rob Schneider playing Steve Carrel's part for a reminder of how such comedian-vehicles are usually ground out.

Being relatable is something else. Guys may sit around calling each other gay, but when we see this as a movie scene, are they going to sound like real guys you would know or will they sound like a jabberjaw screenwriter with no editor? Seth Rogen's star was made the instant he told his sparring partner that he was gay because he listens to Coldplay.

In all of Kevin Smith's hyper-verbiage, he's never been able to write a funny line that sounds like a funny line from your real friend in real life. In his world everyone's got entire comedic monologues memorized and ready to go. Even the more likable characters from any of his films are hardly relatable, except possibly from the first Clerks.

Apatow's know-how-I-know-you're-gay scene is so casually politically incorrect and honestly true to life that it utterly deflates Smith's previous occasional forays into gay shtick as the snickering Catholic boy fodder they are. Innuendos between Jay & Silent Bob, Dante & Randal, Kevin Smith Guy A and Kevin Smith Guy B...No wonder Zach and Miri has a female Kevin Smith Guy B and a gay couple who are actual characters and not punchlines. Apatow figured out that grown Gen-Xers are, well, grown, and include women who don't laugh compulsively at male gay panic.

Smith's hyperbolic dirtiness is all contrivance, like 37 or stink palm. When Apatow gets flithy, there's reality-based context, like being thrown up on or giving birth. This is the difference between a manchild geek's perspective and that of normal people who also happen to go see comedy movies. Apatow knows that real life is funniest and often contains vulgarity. His films honestly reflect that worldview, eliminating the choice of sides between detached, debased young hipsters and the older squares in Middle America.

Compare also the ludicrousness of Smith's films more heralded for their drama and maturity. 1995's Mallrats, Smith's follow-up to Clerks, was panned for being a 90 minute sitcom with dirty jokes and comic book geekery. The 1997 reaction was Chasing Amy, starring renowned dramatist Ben Affleck and critically renowned for a more mature romantic story that showed Smith's maturity.

At the time, he took the compliments and wouldn't self-deprecatingly point out the ludicrousness of plot. Now he will. Chasing Amy is about a lesbian who turns straight after sleeping with Affleck. At various points Star Wars and comic books are discussed.

Compare that to The 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up. From the titles alone we understand the potential for outrageous comedy, while losing your virginity or knocking a girl up are near-universal experiences with the potential for real human drama, not merely sitcom misunderstandings.

Here Forgetting Sarah Marshall must be singled out for being the least authentic, most sitcom-esque Judd Apatow production. The supporting cast is still more recognizably human than a Smith film.

Smith's sole sincere attempt at human dramedy was Jersey Girl, a bomb with nerds and normals alike, reinforcing the evidence that Smith has no capacity for combining sweetness and sickness, only oscillation between the two.

Zach and Miri is his stab at imitating another filmmaker through the co-option of his star player. observed that for an overnight star, Seth Rogen has been successful only in films written by himself or Apatow. If he can't save him, who can?

Apatow has also bested Smith by having a better couture of actor-comedian-friends. Seeing Jason Mewes or Jeff Anderson show up isn't a pleasant surprise anymore, it's a pathetic reminder that all of Smith's pre-celebrity friends are still the only cornerstone of his cottage industry. Especially after Clerks 2.

Oh, and Star Wars. The titular porno is "Star Whores." The characters think it's funny, which is out of character even for a bunch of nerds Kevin Smith based on himself. Which suggests again that less than Jersey Girl, but more so than ever before, Smith needed this movie to appeal to normals and women. Which it didn't.

'Nuff said, true believers!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Last House On The Left Part 1

And the road leads to nowhere

Has there ever been a famous horror director as Wes Craven whose work is so continuously epochal despite running the gamut from ridiculously bad shit to total brilliance with such random flucuations? For all the branding foresight John Carpenter had in attaching his name to Halloween he never made another horror picture that changed the way we thought about them (only The Thing comes close.) Tobe Hooper is synonymous with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but his entire subsequent genre career was sabotaged by bad luck and Steven Spielberg. Even George Romero's zombies overshadow his other fine entries, and the he directed in recent years didn't have the power to reanimate the trend of the living dead once again - if anything, they've put a bookend on the revival of zombies which actually began with the Romero-inspired Resident Evil video game.

Craven's major horror works are eponymous to the genre even for people who don't watch horror movies. This is largely due to the fact his successful films rode the fuckin' zeitgeist: A Nightmare On Elm Street is the ultimate 80s slasher film for combining the template with the special effects revolution. Scream is one of the most infuriating horror movies I've ever seen, coupling the cynical exploitation of nostalgia (a new thing at the time) with the godawful 1990s-present trend of post-ironic-sarcastic-hipster-speak. The film's box office and cultural impact cannot be denied.

Taking two steps back historically there is 1971's The Last House On The Left. A title that needs no introduction and a film that needs more discussion as seemingly everyone has heard of it yet no one gives Craven his due, save director Jon Keeyes' seminal documentary The American Nightmare. Keeyes puts Last House and every other significant horror film from Craven's aforementioned contemporaries into the context of the social and political turmoil of the 60s and 70s, and if there were ever a horror film whose apocalyptic vision of the times was worn right on the sleeve, this is it. Even more explicitly than Texas Chainsaw a couple years later, which I shall no longer regard as the modern horror film to bring the monsters out of Transylvania, make them human, and drop them into the American backyard armed with sadistic depravity rather than vampire fangs. Even the quasi-verite shaky-cam 16mm photography beats Tobe to the punch.

The reason Texas Chainsaw has already been remade twice before Last House (oh don't worry, it's coming) is Leatherface. For all of Chainsaw's well deserved rep as a progenitor of gritty and down-to-Earth horror films, there is still an iconic monster. So too has Psycho in Norman Bates, another inspiration from the , but it's an Alfred Hitchcock movie at the end of the day and you never begin to feel the action onscreen may actually be happening. Night of the Living Dead's newsreel verite gave credence to the idea the dead were actually walking about, but they're still zombies.

The Last House On The Left is the most excruciatingly uncomfortable fashioning of low budget, verite style and social commentary in horror films imaginable for the era it was made in. Even Wes shudders to look back on the sheer bleakness he was capable of as a first time filmmaker.

There is no glorification of death here. There is no glorification of the killers. There is no sympathy for the victims, or their avengers. There is risible contempt for the law in the form of country-fried comic relief vignettes about a bumbling sheriff which jarringly occur intermittently throughout the brutal main plot, mocking the distance between the two. The viewing experience is akin to a horror passion play: a mathematical formula for suffering alongside the helpless protagonists until the inevitable conclusion mercifully comes. The lights fade up and you re-enter reality, cleansed by the end of the terror and relief that it was only a movie...only a movie...only a movie...

Despite some trivia to the contrary, the legendary William Castle created that perfect tagline in 1964 with the Joan Crawford trash staple Straight-Jacket. But Last House sure as hell deserves it for making the requisite murders of a "horror movie" so horrifyingly protracted and real. Ironically the film's producer Sean S. Cunningham would go on to produce the most callous franchise of death porn until Saw parts 1-5 and counting, the Friday the 13th series.

The brutality of this film's mind lays in the fact that for all of Craven's sensitivity to the times - he was briefly an English professor before directing, and later produced a documentary about the Kent State shootings in 1981 - the point of this film is to make you understand in no uncertain terms that all that youthful idealism and naivete is going to get you slaughtered. Texas Chainsaw may have had hippies getting bumped off by cannibal rednecks, but Tobe Hooper's interest in that aspect was more or less limited to the victims' choice of transportation (a van,) wardrobe, and the idle readings of an astrological guidebook just prior to when the trouble begins.

Last House doesn't even cast hippies but teen girls who would've dated hippies to anger their parents. The threadbare setup shows a pair of happy-go-lucky naifs on their way to the big city to see the rock band "Bloodlust." Mom and Dad can't believe what their little girl is wearing, and then they're off. Somewhere in the back of Sean S. Cunningham's head, the setup is misinterpreted for the equation that mild infractions against pre-60s social mores = death.

Meanwhile, a gang of four escaped convicts holes up in an apartment in the big city. The leader is named Krug, pronounced as you would "Freddy Krueger." Wes must've really hated that childhood bully to bestow horror movie immortality on his name, twice.

Krug (last one on the left, above) an unforgettable is simultaneously so mean as to pop a child's balloon with a cigarette the first time we see him, and keep his own son, a fellow escapee, hooked on heroin to keep him in line. The cruelty of the entire gang (one man and woman aside from Krug & son) is characterized much the same way: cheesily traditional and yet sadistic beyond the laws of movie tradition, especially for 1972.

The woman is a straight cliche ditzy gun moll. She's crude and dumb. "Aaahhh, shyyaaadapp!" The first we hear of her is on the radio: she kicked a dog to death. For the fact she could be stealing a priceless necklace while Lucy & Ethel solve the mystery, we know she's capable of some real violence later on and doesn't disappoint.

"It's only a movie..." is not only a warning, there is ironic resonance within said movie's tone. This is not really a horror movie. It is a horrific movie.