Monday, January 26, 2009
Future-Kill is the greatest testament in history to the importance of a good poster. Famed Alien (1979) production designer and full time artist HR Giger painted the one-sheet and not only did this help get the film into theaters, the unforgettable sight of an HG Giger poster on the shelf of your video store horror section virtually guaranteed that a certain type of horror movie fan would satisfy their curiosity someday, never mind the quality of the product.
I've been there now, and am warning anyone who has been tempted by their Giger fandom and the enticing tagline The stars of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre are back: this is for bad movie masochists only, and even then....sheesh. This is not easily digestible camp, but an endurance test which insidiously thwarts the hopeful expectations we hold for movies that might be so bad they're good.
There are two stories as to how Giger's art preserved this pain for hapless future trash fans. The first, corroborated by Giger himself, is that director Ronald W. Moore begged him in tears and pleaded that his movie would be doomed otherwise. This seems obvious, though I don't think Giger would've agreed to help if he'd actually watched what he was attaching his name to. The conflicting story is that one of the two Texas Chainsaw stars who were "back," Edwin "Hitch-Hiker" Neal, was an avid poster collector and got Giger involved himself. Given that Neal's credits on the film also extend to additional dialogue, associate producing, and dialogue coaching I guess it's possible he assisted with the coercion of Giger because the dialogue and acting of Future-Kill is sheer torture.
Pity poor Marilyn Burns, the unforgettable heroine and true star of Chainsaw. Her performance set the standard for every horror movie heroine that ran from a knife wielding psycho, and Future-Kill reduces her to an extended cameo in the ugliest post-apocalyptic biker slut costume imaginable. She deserved better. Even Tobe Hooper himself misused her in the ludicrous Chainsaw follow-up, Eaten Alive.
Neal is also in stupid sci-fi costume, a far cruddier version of the character on the poster. There aren't many others in elaborate costumes, only punks and new wavers who call themselves "Mutants." Neal calls himself "Splatter," which was the movie's original title just as "Leatherface" was for Chainsaw. Future-Kill is near-future movie, that most tenuous of science fiction subgenres in which the futurism is painted with the lightest of brushstrokes. In capable hands, this can evoke a world familiarly low tech and yet otherworldly, as in the first Mad Max or Escape From New York.
The brushstrokes of Future-Kill are akin to a paint roller thrown at a wall. In the near future, said "Mutants" like Neal and Burns are anti-nuclear protesters who have segregated themselves from the rest of society and dwell exclusively in the bad part of town. The part of the bad part of town is played by downtown Austin, Texas, late at night when all the shops are closed. The Mutants don't appear to do anything but show up at the occasional anti-nuke protest, the rest of their days are spent loitering around like they're waiting for the Adam Ant concert.
There are a lot of stories that could been made from this scenario, and Moore opts for a ripoff of The Warriors which inadvertently manages to create an even stranger near future than he'd intended. After the credits and introduction of Splatter as the villain of the Mutant movement - unlike the others, he resorts to violence - we're placed in the company of stupid 80s movie frat full of thirty somethings acting like jackasses. They're at a stupid party, pulling stupid pranks and they're all utterly loathsome. As a result of a botched prank, this group of five or six jackasses are required to go the Mutant side of town and kidnap one of them to get regain full frat privileges or whatever.
When they get to the Mutant side of town, whom do they pick out but Splatter and some of his goons? One of the frats gets iced, their car gets stripped and the posse is stuck running across town, fighting for survival.
What's most bizarre is that every single character in the story is either a Mutant or a frat, creating the impression that in the not too distant future these will be the only two classes of society...Those rich enough to attend college and those whose societal conscience compels them to dress like Cyndi Lauper.
This is when the movie becomes frustrating to no end. Despite the veneer of the horror genre which landed the VHS in the horror section of any video store you'd find it in, the body count does not belong to these jerks. They actually prove quite capable at defending themselves from Splatter's goons, so much so that they barely flinch at their overnight transformation from frat dickheads to action heroes. Moore's horrible editing and seemingly improvised screenplay make them ridiculously callous, never mentioning the few deaths among their own party and cracking wise in one scene when they were traumatized in the last one.
There really are very few deaths amongst their own. Anyone who's sat through a slasher movie full of hateful characters has at least had their deaths to look forward to. Astonishingly, all but two survive and we're forced to listen to their dumb asses all night until they finally kill Splatter and the movie can end.
At one point a good hearted Mutant girl takes the Frats to a Mutant bar to see post-Punky New Wave Mutant band Max and the Make-Ups. This is easily the most bearable part of the entire movie, they're a real band and not too bad.
You might be tempted by the poster art, you might be tempted by the incongruousness of a science fiction near future in which fraternities play pranks on the post-apocalyptic dregs of society, but this is a film which punishes you for watching. As my girlfriend put it - not enough future, not enough killing.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Bad taste has formalities.
A degree of distance from the audience is an important one. The hit and run scene from The Toxic Avenger plays out with such ignorant disregard for this formality that it unintentionally becomes amongst the most disturbing in cult film history. The joke is the same as Death Race 2000 except that the killers and victim are 80s comedy stock players rather than comic book mutants in ridiculous costumes. The tone is arguably just as cartoonish, but the violence carries out with lingering attention to realism.
Fifteen years later in Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV when Troma paid homage to themselves and repeated the same scene, Sgt Kabukiman NYPD drove the car. Hell, fifty minutes later in the original Toxie, a man gets his arm torn off and doesn't notice until he looks at the stump. The actors have caught up to the sadism and are in on the joke. Protocol has been established for the new era of gory comedy, an era which has not yet ended.
Evil children movies are never star vehicles. No one knows who the children in Village of the Damned were. Patty McCormack gave the most well known evil child performance of her day in The Bad Seed and made her name synonymous with the subgenre. On the other hand, who remembers the name of the other most famous evil child in film, Damien? Maybe they don't because he's not a self-employed evil child, he's the second coming of Satan. The Children of the Corn are eventually revealed to be worshipping a Lovecraftian monster. McCormack was simply born bad in her film, and so in his is Maccaulay.
This doesn't make The Good Son a subversive mainstream movie, only a cynical one. Casting the most popular child actor of the day as a cartoonishly self-aware sociopathic killer would be an idiot's idea of subversive. Since director and co-producer Joseph Ruben made his name with the excellent The Stepfather, my guess is that he wanted to try making his own unique version of another familial horror story. One with more history as a subgenre, that he could plumb and sort through the aspects of what worked. The Stepfather had already become a slasher trilogy and Ruben needed respectability beyond that distinction. Lest anyone doubt The Stepfather was a good movie, it's being remade now.
What better way to put a new spin on the old evil-kid tale and elevate your rep to mainstream success than by casting Maccauly Culkin as the little bastard? For the patriarchal father-manager Kit, what better way to demonstrate his little star's range? See, not only can he play a mischievous good kid...Incidentally, the first and only time Maccauly scared me was when I saw the tail end of a Home Alone commercial as a kid. Why was this evil little kid making those poor men slip on toy cars??
Unlike The Bad Seed or even The Stepfather, The Good Son's killer isn't the center of the story. That would be too difficult, having to legitimize the character by getting close to him. Instead we're saddled with doe eyed Elijah Wood, nowhere near as big a child star as his counterpart but destined for the rarest and luckiest of all child star futures, a popular adult career. His eyeballs were just as large as they are now. His skull was still growing into them. Those eyeballs are worth their weight in instant empathy. Unlike shifty, smirking little Mac.
Distance. This is distance from Mac and close proximity to Elijah, even going so far as to kill the little fawn's mom in the opening scenes. But Mac is the one on the poster. Everyone in America was closer to him, not least of all the kids. Even as a kid I knew this was a tasteless ploy to corner the kids whose parents would let them watch anything, and those who would get their parents to take them to an 'R' flick because it had Mac.
Roger Ebert isn't good for much, but occasionally he'll point out to comic effect the cold bloodedness with which such surefire gimmicks are concocted in Hollywood and targeted at children. My favorite is his 1994 review of Milk Money. He pronounced prophecy upon The Good Son with this gem:
"If this kid grows up into another one of those pathetic, screwed-up former child stars who are always spilling their guts on the talk shows, a lot of adults will share the blame."
The actual nitty gritty of Mac's evil is built up with a good degree of suspense, except that occasionally he'll spout a sinister line written specifically for the trailer. "You think this is a game...?" "If I let you go, do you think you would fly...?" There's no rejoinders to these moments, the scenes simply trail off into oblivion. The various antisocial budding-psycho things Mac does are convincing, they're what the worst kid you ever knew did for laughs. Fake body thrown on the freeway, shooting arrows and BB guns at animals. What constantly undercuts the credibility is Ian McEwan's mini-monologues for him. He's erudite about his love of chaos, and he's only ten. Maybe he's growing up to become Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.
After Mac's done almost-nearly killing people and animals, he starts making real attempts on people and only Elijah knows how crazy he is. Eventually we're lead to one the most convenient and emotionally implausible Hollywood endings ever, in which the heretofore useless mother is the one who finally stops her evil kid.
Evil kids almost always get away with it. The degree of contrivance allowed to punish Mac in the end here suggests last-minute executive meddling...It wouldn't have set a good example for the kids who want to be him. This is studio imitation trash from a director trying to escape the genre slums and a child actor making the worst possible choice to show his range.
What would this movie have looked like with balls instead of cheap respectability? The best trash protocol for evil kid movies is the distance to let them be as evil as possible. Maccauly never successfully kills anyone in The Good Son because that would be going too far - too far in a movie about an inexplicably evil kid with a fully developed philosophy for being evil.
Six months before Good Son's release there was Mikey, a low budget killer kid movie which strives for inappropriate carnage the way only a movie without stars can. The trailer makes me salivate.
Then there's Bloody Birthday, my other long awaited evil kid movie. In part because Julie Brown gets naked.
Maybe something about the phenomenon of Maccauly Culkin commanded a resurgence of the evil kid genre. No wonder they finally came out with Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice in 1992, eight years after the first one, with the tagline "These children are home alone, too. But their parents won't be coming back."
Monday, January 12, 2009
If you enjoy my reviews, you're sure to enjoy my witty banter with Andrew Wickliffe of The Stop Button in our semi-regular podcast An Alan Smithee Podcast!
In our new episode we discuss Hollywood sequels - the big movers and shakers like Jaws 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Aliens, The Godfather Part II and Rambo: First Blood Part II.
How did these sequels popularize the standard convention of sequels? When did it become common practice to make "trilogies"? When did sequels peak, and at what point did they essentially get replaced by remakes?
All kinds of theories and snide remarks, PLUS a hilarious voicemail decrying our unfair review of the greatest sequel - nay, the greatest film ever made - The Dark Knight.
Click here to join the fun, and don't forget to subscribe via iTunes or your MP3 player of choice!
Friday, January 9, 2009
Movies in general are twice as long as they need to be. Movies today, 2.5 to three times as long. Once Upon A Time In America is at 3.5 hours exactly as long as necessary, and was cut down to less than half that length upon release. I've never had a film so long fly by so quickly. This is epic in both senses of the word - length and breadth of story - and fully justifies itself.
I've also never seen a great film so neglected despite its reputation. The title alone evokes greatness on a superficial level, being a "Once Upon a Time" film by Sergio Leone. The runtime being sliced in half upon the original release may have crippled it the most, though Ebert publicized the fact the European release was untouched and therefore comprehensible. Many critics' lists have mentioned it over the years but there's never been a serious movement to rediscover it.
1984 wasn't a good year for a serious and sprawling portrait of America anyways. The era of Spielberg and Lucas was still going strong and although the studios hadn't yet given up entirely on movies for adults, the average moviegoer might have discounted a gangster movie starring Robert De Niro with the verdict of been-there-done-that. And then have gone to see Ghostbusters, The Terminator or Temple of Doom.
Ten years earlier The Godfather became a classic in its own time. Had Once Upon a Time came out that year instead, it probably would not have because there isn't as much macho dialogue to quote. De Niro barely says a thing. Most of his performance is in his eyes, as a wistful old man. Almost all the dialogue is left up to the noisy kids whom De Niro's character and his friends used to be.
The weight placed on the child actors must have been another point of contention with the studio, any one of the kids gets more screen time than James Woods and barely less screen time than De Niro himself. They're also fantastic, convincing not only as turn of the century children but as doppelgangers for their adult counterparts. The whole film wouldn't work without them. Young Jennifer Connelly was a better actress as a child than the actress playing the adult version of her character ever was.
Ennio Morricone is more versatile than anyone gives him credit for, aping bittersweet Jewish violins just as well as he aped Carpenter-synth in The Thing two years earlier.
Leone can tell a story in a single shot just by slowly zooming out from one focal point. If people had already lost their attention spans for great films of this scope, and studio heads were already validating them, maybe its better he didn't live to see how much worse things became. As a monument to a lost era of American life, its construction also memorializes a lost excellence in filmmaking.
Monday, January 5, 2009
There's a story from the production of the original Howling in which someone went over Joe Dante's head and hired a lot of topless women as extras for the climactic confrontation at the end. Dee Wallace, trash cinema's favorite mother figure, was livid at the seemingly broken promise of a "classy" horror picture. The final say came to just one producer, who sped through the highways in the middle of the night, pulled up at the scene of the nudity, took one look and said "It's STUPID." Then he drove off and that was that.
Gary Bradner's original Howling novel is said to differ greatly from Dante's adaptation. Observing that he co-wrote Howling II's screenplay, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the near-inclusion of gratuitous nudity on the set of the first film was simply in adherence to Bradner's apparent mania for werewolf boobage.
There are more hairy breasts in this piece of dementia than a Ralph Bakshi cartoon, and with half as much plot.
The producers must have felt some powerful need to make every aspect of this sequel as different as possible from the original. In Howling I, the hilariously unpretentious Dick Miller matter-of-factly explained that Hollywood's old fashioned lore about werewolves was baloney. Howling II opens with the very old fashioned horror icon Christopher Lee pretentiously prophecising about ancient werewolf lore, while floating in space. Howling I deliberately takes place in non-"horror movie" locations, like downtown LA and a coastal New Age nature retreat. Most of Howling II is set in Transylvania. Howling I had werewolf effects no one had seen before, like practical makeup transformations and rod-puppet werewolves that towered over the human actors. Howling II's werewolves, when they're not naked women covered in fur, are indistinguishable from men in gorilla suits.
Most conspicuously, Dante directed The Howling as an deceptively modern reinvention of the werewolf flick, the better to draw one into the eerie supernatural elements. Howling II's director Philippe Mora goes modern in the worst way possible, by pacing the story as a 90 minute music video circa 1985 MTV. Hyperactive cuts, comic book style wipes, and scenes that last mere seconds. If Chris Lee even mentions the word "werewolf," you've got a 50% chance of Mora cutting to a previous werewolf scene as a helpful reminder of what they look like. Compounding the dissonance is an official Theme to The Howling II, performed early in the film by an actual stinky New Wavish band in a pointless LA club scene and then repeated ad nauseam until you like it, bitch.
In the most bizarre segue possible from the original movie, (spoiler) Dee Wallace is the actual sister mentioned by the title. Not only that, she's not even dead yet. First her newsroom transformation is recreated, with an actress who looks nothing like her, turning into a cheap Halloween mask werewolf that looks nothing like the were-Shitszu from the previous film. Then to heap further disrespect upon Dee and Dante, Bradner and Mora have Christopher Lee dig up her grave to drive a stake through her heart. This is literally the least original thing you can do with Christopher Lee and the most wildly inappropriate cliche to use in a werewolf movie. Coupled with the Transylvania setting, you have to wonder if Lee even read the script when he supposedly took the role on the grounds he'd never done a werewolf flick before.
Howling II's missteps and flailing attempts at outrageousness are very generous. This is the type of film one either turns off in disgust after the first ten minutes, or sits back and enjoys for the spectacle. Between naked actors covered in hair and growling their lines at each other and Christopher Lee in new wave sunglasses, I opted for the latter. This is one of the great trainwreck sequels of all time, a worser 80s horror sequel than Nightmare On Elm Street 2 and lot funnier. Absolutely essential viewing for bad movie junkies.
When the end credits feature an endless loop of Sybil Danning ripping off her top, that's Mora making some kind of friendly admission to the mess he's made; simultaneously rewarding your perseverance while continuing to disrespect your intelligence.
Oh yeah, and because I don't know where to note this - there's a recycled music cue from Return of the Living Dead, and Hostel Part II all but steals the Transylvanian village scene. Who knew?
The rocking, shocking new wave of horror
Saturday, January 3, 2009
This is a false advertisement lawsuit waiting to happen.
Given the delicious trailer for Gran Torino, your honor, I was expecting a return to ass kicking form for Clint Eastwood. Not to say that his directorial skills have diminished in recent years, only that he hasn't made a film in which he, Clint Eastwood, busts skulls in his own inimitable manner.
I was teased - teased! - with the prospect of Walking Tall for seniors by this trailer. If not that, then at least a subtle, understated version of a late-period Death Wish sequel wherein an elderly bad dude like Charles Bronson unrealistically kicks the asses of young whippersnappers. A friend eagerly brought the trailer to my attention as a taste of the ol' Dirty Harry and we were both excited. Somehow, he walked out of the film satisfied, though our original expectations were undermined almost entirely.
My problem is I love trash too much. If the trailer of a film represents the product the studio most wanted, then for once I'm in agreement with the studio and at odds with the auteur.
Eastwood having turned respectable after Unforgiven, there wouldn't be trash on the level of even the Dirty Harry franchise days. The promised trade-off would be a meditation on a persona whose pre-1970 machismo could give unique power to the character of a racist bigot at odds with an ethnically changing neighborhood, which, oh boy, includes gangs of furrigner thugs. The trailer promises a bubbling cauldron of geriatric and violence which explodes in begrudging defense of his furrigner neighbors.
The characterization of the racial dynamics in this movie have as much authenticity and weight to them as Charles Bronson defending the old Jewish couple in the slums of Death Wish 3 from the whooping punks outside, without the guilty pleasure to follow of kicked asses.
Flags Of Our Fathers literally put me to sleep by moving the story at the pace of an elderly man. On one hand its a breath of fresh air in the age of incompetent music video style direction, but on the other hand I literally fell asleep. Torino sadly does the same - even if Clint can frame a shot elegantly, which he often does.
The one saving grace is the racism. Not that Eastwood is believable as a racist, or that his abrupt warming up to the Asian family is any more plausible. The family is so ridiculously idealized as perfectly naturalized citizens, what racist wouldn't love them? They were on the North Vietnamese side of the 'Nam, but seriously, is that going to matter to a Korean war vet for whom a gook is a gook is a gook? And yes, naturalized as they are, there's of course one inconsequential requisite scene of ethnic tradition for credibility.
If all racists can be won over by the good home cooking of non-white families, then holy moley, what are they waiting for?
I can't believe there's any danger of violence about to break out if the embittered xenophobe at the heart of things doesn't even hate his targets enough to lash out. That's why this movie fails as a thriller, were that it even wanted to be one. Clint only pulls out his finger as a gun at some hoods twice in the aforementioned trailer, yer honor...
No, the high-mindedness of Nick Schenk's screenplay boils down race relations to I'm-OK-you're-OK as long as your third generation daughter talks like a white sitcom goody goody. At least the gangs in Death Wish 3 felt like they could conceivably be dangerous. There's only one in Clint's whole neighborhood, for pete's sake, and when they're finally defeated it's virtually the end of all gang violence in that part of Michigan forever.
Where IS everybody? Couldn't they have hired some extras? Michigan has the third worst homelessness rate in the country, where are the bums? The insularity of it all turns the wooden dialogue and cliched characters from an after-school special into a damn school play.
Anyways, the racism. I say it's the one saving grace because unconvincing as it is, it's there. Schenk may well have had a glossary of antiquated racist terms he wanted to get through, since they're sprinkled so liberally, all the way 'till the end. Eastwood also calls people motherfuckers and pussies, which is funny, but not nearly as funny as walking into his Asian neighbor's home and calling a whole gathering of them "fish heads." That's some Archie Bunker class, right there. The white and affluent crowd I saw this film with laughed their pecker heads off, because we've never even heard such creative slurs in the post-PC multicultural utopia of today.
Oh, and the other saving grace: my peals of laughter at Eastwood singing for probably the first and last time since Paint Your Wagon. I don't recall the lyrics, but all the next day I found myself humming the basic melody and making up my own...
Well I'm no jerk
and I'm no mean-o
I just drive my
One love, y'all