Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Hell Night (1981, Tom DeSimone)

Hell Night was released in the epicenter of the slasher movie craze and is considerably better than most of the competition. Tom DeSimone has a fine eye despite or possibly due to his directorial beginnings in gay porn, pulling off at least a couple genuinely suspenseful sequences and a few that could actually scare someone. The climax featuring Linda Blair as the Final Girl is gripping and some of the body fodder manage to make an impression, namely Peter Barton (whose sculpted face would be squashed in the shower by Jason Voorhees a couple years later) and Vincent Van Patten, who has the most unexpected character arc of any slasher film victim I've ever seen. Theirs and the other kids deaths are creative without being gratuitously gross and the story is well paced around the predicament of being stuck in a spooky old house which they initially ventured to as a fraternity / sorority initiation stunt. Add to this the insensitive portrayal of a deformed killer and you almost have a thematically empty yet competently entertaining version of Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse, minus the genius.

The screenplay was scribed by Randy Feldman, who would go on to write the ludicrously silly buddy action comedy Tango & Cash. While Hell Night doesn't have as many absurdities as that mess, there are still some memorably gaping plot holes made into necessities for the story to move along. Garth Manor, the haunted mansion where the kids are staying, has supposedly been used year in and out for this ritual game of chicken. Why then is this the first time the homicidal hermit who resides there has decided to strike at the intruders? How did he survive there in secret for so long? The real answer is that the film wouldn't be possible otherwise, and in an idiotic way Feldman's illogic is what makes the story unpredictable and scary.

One of the more unnerving ambiguities might have even been deliberate: in an echo of the Vincent Price classic House On Haunted Hill, some of the houseguests scares are rigged by their hosts while others turn out to be actual ghouls. One such scene finds Linda Blair slowly approached by a ghost who may or may not be one of the special effects set up by the fraternity and sorority masters of ceremony. The idea that some college kids could generate a three dimensional apparition is very farfetched, yet the lack of a second appearance in the film by the ghost leaves the possibility open. Hell Night has the dumb luck of benefitting from these non-considerations.

There are three interchangeable persons responsible for the pranks around Garth Manor preceding the real mayhem to come, and they all die before the four lead characters inside realize that the jokes are over  and someone or something is actually alive in the fun - er, haunted house. Linda Blair is established in the opening scenes as tomboyish and ambivalent about staying the night at the manor to join a sorority. Her chaste romance with Peter Barton isn't convincing at all and only serves to justify his being the second-to-last-to-go, which is unnecessary. They're both game actors, but unlike Feldman's lax approach to a logical plot, there's not upside to his bland dialogue or characterizations.

The surprise star turn comes from Vincent Van Patten, who joins Blair and Barton in their overnight dare with some British bimbo he picked up. After tossing off easily the best sexual banter of the film, he manages to escape the mansions tall spiky fence and run through town looking for help while the others are still trapped. Suddenly imbued with desperate heroism, he drops his cocky horndog act and does whatever necessary to save his friends. Thanks to some convenient coincidences from Feldman, he manages to bring a shotgun back to the manor after stealing it from the least guarded police station evidence room in movie history.

Hell Night is a very simple scary story told fairly well. Without the body count or Linda Blair's exciting ultimate chase from the killer, it would scarcely qualify as a slasher. The haunted house setting gives the story a focus usually lacking in the genre and allows DeSimone to continually build atmosphere around the old fashioned locale and differ to spookiness rather than violence. Any casual horror fan will not be disappointed, especially if they watch with the lights out.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Bruce F. Kawin on The Funhouse

The following is an photo-illustration of excerpts from Bruce F. Kawin's excellent essay The Funhouse and The Howling, first published in the Fall 1981 Film Quarterly and reprinted in the anthology American Horrors: Essays on the Modern Horror Film which is available on Amazon. These quotations are intended as film criticism/analysis under Fair Use and I would urge interested persons to purchase the book for the complete article.

The Funhouse may well contribute to (a) return to the better energies and impulses of the (horror) genre, though again it is entirely possible that audiences will watch it for its tentshow dancing girls and two murdered women (it is hardly a redeeming issue that there are also three murdered men). It may do so because of its reflexivity - its relentless emphasis on the victims' having chosen to go the equivalent of a horror film - and because of its ruthless caricatures of phallic aggression, which is absolutely never validated as it is in Halloween.

To take an explicit example: the father / barker who owns the funhouse (played by Kevin Conway, last seen in The Lathe of Heaven) is killed by being thrust onto a sword held by a mannequin; it protrudes through the front of his belly, and he grasps it like an erection.

In a slightly reversed echo of Malory's Morte d'Arthur (Mordred's killing his father by hauling himself along the spear that has impaled him), the barker tries to kill but only wounds the male good guy, Buzz, by forcing him belly first onto that sword, in a homoerotic patriarchal nightmare that could not possibly please the audience.

To take another example: the monster in this film (played very well by the mime Wayne Doba, with special makeup executed by Craig Reardon and designed by the ubiquitous Rick Baker) is an unlovable child on the model of the Frankenstein monster, and about halfway through the film he tries to buy the sexual favors of the palm reader, Madame Zena (Sylvia Miles).

He is presented as pathetic, and more than that he has a premature orgasm - which is, of course, a taboo in pornography and in similar fantasy structures: the knives in Halloween and Psycho may imply sexual dysfunction on the part of the killers, but as symbols they are always hard, and that is one reason such images may appeal to rapists, who are often impotent but who are in any case using sex only as an outlet for violent hatred.

When he goes on to kill Madame Zena, he indirectly shorts out the electrical system, and the funhouse (in which the four protagonists are hiding overnight, for fun) comes momentarily to life. The point is that the funhouse/horror film is here explicity tied to perversity and sexual frustration rather than to sexual fulfillment.

The other female killing makes a similar point in a more horrible way. It is a genre convention to pass moral judgment on the victims by killing them off in what are presented as appropriate ways. (The fellow who gets the idea of staying in the funhouse, for instance, besides being selfish, dope-oriented, and greedy, is killed just after recounting a story of how he once tried to scare his brother but was locked in a closet for his troubles; thus it seems appropriate that he should die trapped in the funhouse.)

The character Liz is presented as promiscuous, and so one might expect that her punishment will be connected with her sexuality. When she is trapped by the monster, she attempts to seduce him - but it is obvious that she is terrified, that she is simply doing the cleverest thing she can think of under the circumstances (she has witnessed the scene with Madame Zena and has to distract him long enough to stab him; she does, but the wound does not kill him.)

Instead of the conventional spectacle of a woman's being punished for sexual activity, there is the horrifying image of her being murdered by an unimaginably ugly and impotent rapist.

As in the best horror films, there is an unsettling mixture of identification with the victim and a reluctant compassion for the monster. There is nothing remotely titillating about these and similar scenes, yet they cannot be called disgusting; what they have instead is a horrible beauty that has always been one of the central attractions of the genre and the core of its claim to art.

Where this all comes together is in three remarkable reflexive sequences: the opening, the conclusion, and a scene in the middle, where the father confronts his monstrous son. "As God is my witness," he says, "I don't hate the sound of your voice." Until this point the monster has been wearing a Frankenstein mask, a downright brilliant gesture, not just because the Frankenstein monster is the correct prototype (the child rejected by his creator and looking for love) but because with the mask on he appears part of the normal world, the world that includes horror images as elements in its playground.

Now the father criticizes him so harshly that the son tears off his mask and confronts him with what he is. The horror, the audience discovers, is real; as the ads say, "There is something alive in the funhouse," and the fun in a horror film is in confronting the possibility that the horrors are not made up.

The Funhouse contacts reality in its analysis of the impact of horror films on the fantasy lives of (its) audience...

A young boy - in subjective camera - looks at a Frankenstein poster, takes a knife from his bedroom wall, puts on a clown mask, and heads for the bathroom where his sister Amy (the lead and seer-figure, played by Elizabeth Berridge) is taking a shower.

(Hooper reveals her bare chest as well, the only nudity in the film and another subtle refutation of slasher convention that nudity will prefigure the death of any teenager - cinemachine)

The parody of Halloween is entirely explicit, and one cringes at the prospect of another Boogey Man or Prom Night. In shots that just as closely echo Psycho he pulls aside the shower curtain and jabs the butcher knife at Amy's belly - where it is revealed to be a rubber toy.

The boy is a straightforward image of the child not as horror-object but as horror-audience, and if Hooper's audience finds him as harmless as their own presumed self-image, they will learn, as the boy later does, that there is more at issue than fun, that these games are connected in a meaningful way with genuine rape and murder in an unattractively perverse context.

This is an image of the child that critiques the child images of The Exorcist, The Omen and Halloween rather than reinforces them, and scorns utterly those in Prom Night and its ilk. Amy then goes downstairs to wait for her date, where she finds her parents watching Bride of Frankenstein on television, a film that by the end will be revealed as the same sort of clue provided by The Wolf Man in The Howling.

For in the end the monster tries to make Amy his bride in death. He has cornered her in the basement of the funhouse; she holds him off with a steel pole. She is distracted by a (false) skeleton that drops behind her, but has the self-posesession to realize which is the real horror and strikes at him. He pulls the bar away and accidentally electrocutes himself on the power plant, an echo of his killing of Madame Zena; this starts in motion the mechanism that pulls the ride's carts, which catches him in its hooks and chains. He appears to be dead, and Amy stands before him - but he revives and almost succeeds in pulling her toward him.

This further echoes the recent death of his father and the business with the sword, for both of them try to destroy their destroyers on emblems of their own perverse power. But she gets away, and the monster is ground in half by the wheels of the mechanism, in one of the greatest and most vivid images in the recent history of the movies. The point is that the heroine, being "normal," cannot finally destroy this monster; he can only be destroyed by his own kind, by his own metaphysical category (as there are only supernatural ways of killing vampires and werewolves), by his own level of imagery.

What destroys him is the funhouse from which he is inseparable and which is an emblem of the horror film in general. Thus this image celerates the self-enclosed qualities of the genre, the ways it is a law unto itself (again, like myth), which are the keys to the ways it impinges on reality.

For great writing on The Funhouse and other Tobe Hooper films, check out The Tobe Hooper Appreciation Society.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (1986, Tobe Hooper) Cinemachine Commentary Track

When I was younger I wasn't allowed to watch scary movies. Years away from having my own video store card, I relied on TV and other methods, one being to save allowance money for the videos themselves. One of the movies I wanted to see the most was The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and at Suncoast Video, a now defunct chain of movie stores for malls which catered to the video store trolls, the VHS cost a whopping $30. At Borders, however, the sequel only cost ten.

The original became my favorite horror movie of all time and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 will always hold a place in my heart not from being the more accessible in both senses of the word. I loved horror comedies, and as I realized the film was funny and genuinely creepy instead of grimly shocking. Horror movies and comedies both try to catch us off guard and there are only a few films which juggle both with equal weight. Like so many Tobe Hooper films this one was unfairly chastised in its time and neglected in large measure. Caroline Williams, your Blood-Con 2010 or whatever booth should never see a dull moment.

Hooper made his sequel in the vein of the previous year's successful Re-Animator and Return of the Living Dead, a disturbingly amusing self parody with genuine scares. Hooper being Hooper, the scares are the kind that nestle under your skin and lay eggs to hatch later. Chainsaw 2 was even grosser than Re-Animator and released with the handicap of no MPAA rating thanks to the ubiquitous  Tom Savini. How do you begin to censor a scene of a man staggering around after being flayed of skin when the agonizing entirety is actually integral to the plot? Unlike the Chainsaw sequels to come, this entry was idiosyncratic even in light of the more humorous direction horror films were going, less overtly slapstick (as in the similarly chainsaw-wielding Evil Dead 2) and without the camp of the Nightmare On Elm Street series. Horror fans forsook Hooper as a sellout for the apparent affront to his own gritty classic and they were sorely mistaken.

My best friend Nick understood all this pretty much equally. When you're young enough to still show a movie to one of your peers, which doesn't have the same significance now that film clips are available on a device in your pocket that can access YouTube, you hope they'll take to it as you did. We began quoting co-star Bill Moseley (who conceivably has more screen time than Leatherface) and I knew we were agreed. I couldn't have guessed that at the same time all over the country there were other people gradually discovering TCM 2 (as we called it) including the musician Buckethead who'd begin recording music albums with Moseley in character as "Chop-Top" and the "Cornbugs" and Rob Zombie - who'd introduce Bill to a much wider audience with his roles in House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects. Nick and I consumed all his side projects and made my VHS a perennial movie night staple.

As my Alan Smithee Podcast co-host Andrew and I are the most level-headed Batman 1989 and Tim Burton fans on the planet, so too my old chum Nick and I are the world's greatest Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 fans and the most qualified to record a fan commentary track. Even if we did blank on the recently tragically departed Lou Perrman's name. We're sorry, Lou. You were always simply your character "L.G." to us, and apparently L.G. was pretty much yourself.

Please enjoy our Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 commentary track with your own copy of the film at home.

If you don't have the special edition DVD, pick it up and find out how horror fans will usually come around in time and give second life to a great movie.

Visit The Devil's Playground, the original online home of Texas Chainsaw 2 and a tip o' the hat to Leatherfacette for posting the original L.M. Kit Carson script.

Visit Bill Moseley's official website at Chop-Top's BBQ.

For a great blog about all things Tobe Hooper, check out The Tobe Hooper Appreciation Society!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Shutter Island (2010, Martin Scorsese)

The short version of this review is that Shutter Island would have been a much better movie had DiCaprio played a plumber on Sh*tter Island.

As it was, he and Scorsese have made nothing but a hoary mass of decades-old psychological thriller and ghost movie cliches which the critical establishment wouldn't consider praising for one second if not for their names. Particularly irksome is when a prestigious director like Scorsese deigns every few decades to condescendingly lower himself to the level of making a scary movie (his last was the Cape Fear remake in 1991) they set about the task by moving down a virtual checklist of the genre's current formulas, just as DeNiro's version of Robert Mitchum's Cape Fear villain became a near-unkillable slasher movie psycho by the end of that film. Whether this happens out of contempt for genre film audiences, a director's ignorance of the genre's pitfall cliches or some self-delusional arrogance that they can bring new life to the cliches of a genre that's normally beneath them, I have no idea.

There are two big clues in the first ten minutes that Scorsese is phoning it in. First, the soundtrack blares a collection of modern classical music, à la The Shining. In fact, that's even where one of the cues is re-used from. Second, the sinister head doctor of the island asylum is Ben Kingsley, who only turns up in sci-fi and horror movies like Species and Bloodrayne when they need a touch of class from a prestigious actor who isn't too proud.

About an hour later the cheese has reaches full pungency, in what I assume is supposed to be the film's scariest sequence: DiCaprio creeps down a dimly lit hallway by the light of a single match, is attacked by a crazy person who jumps from the shadows with an accompanying hit of loud music, and shortly thereafter has a conversation with another madman behind bars played by Jackie Earl Haley - the weird looking character actor flavor of the month and, by corollary, Michael Bay's choice for the new Freddy Krueger in his Nightmare On Elm Street remake. You don't have to have seen a lot of horror movies to be underwhelmed by this greatest hits compilation, even people who don't go to them have probably seen enough horror movie trailers to anticipate what's coming next. In fact, this sequence and every other halfway unsettling visual in the film was crammed into the trailer, giving the false impression that the complete film might have even spookier scenes in store. No, Shutter Island is one good two minute trailer wrapped inside a staggering two hours and eighteen minutes of tedium.

The only purpose this film might serve is in reaching the absolute nadir of the "it was all in the main character's head" twist ending, and urging a referendum on this scourge. Fight Club was a great movie. Unfortunately it's longest lasting influence has been ruining every other thriller in the past eleven years by successfully translating the novel's mindbender ending to the screen, demonstrating for every lazy hack the easiest way to surprise their audience at the end. The worst part is that there's no way to see it coming; Fight Club had to translate to film the literary technique of the unreliable narrator to retain the integrity of the story, hence the constant narration. In every hacky imitation of this twist, including Shutter Island, the protagonist simply goes about his business like any other main character in a movie, until suddenly it turns out he was crazy the whole time and the things you saw him seeing weren't real - sucker!

Scorsese had to at least heard of Fight Club, which must be why he chose to adapt a novel which piles on another layer of incredulousness in a vain attempt at differentiating itself: not only is Leo crazy and has been hallucinating things that we the audience had no way of knowing weren't real, everyone around him knew he was crazy and was only playing along in order to cure him. People should have been groaning and laughing at this contrived idiocy on the way out of the theater as if Leo had awoken from bed at the end and everything had been a dream, the dramatic effect is virtually the same. I can't imagine that many people who enjoyed the twist would even want to see the film again in the future just for the lifeless recitation of horror film formalities.

The story might have been alright clocking in as a 22 minute Twilight Zone episode instead of the unrestrained length of most films today. The pacing is screwed up long before the final surprises even begin to unfold, when at barely halfway through DiCaprio abruptly reveals to his partner that he's actually known what the island's deep dark secret is before they even arrived. You don't have to check your watch to know that there's enough movie left that this big revelation will be followed by at least one more. Worse, the most obvious guess as to what the final revelation will be doesn't even contradict the final final revelation that most of the film was all in Leo's head. Had they followed the initial revelation of the island's secret to some kind of conclusion it would have merely been trite, not insulting.

In a stunningly tasteless bid to lend some kind of emotional gravity to any of this treacle, DiCaprio's character has many flashbacks to murdered men, women and children he saw in a concentration camp, culminating in a revelatory flashback to the murder of his own children. The trailer did a fairly good job of obscuring that the film is set in the 1950s and I'm pretty sure that less people would have been interested if the MPAA had created a "Contains Intense Scenes of Holocaust Violence You Weren't Even Expecting" disclaimer. The effect resembles as much an emotional bear trap as much as the gotcha ending is an intellectual one - who the hell was expecting to see Leo liberating a vividly recreated Dachau when they got their ticket ripped for a fun night of being scared at the movies?

I'm beginning to give Tarantino more credit for leaving the Holocaust out of Inlgourious Basterds entirely. Who'd have thought Scorsese would be even less sensitive than the director of Death Proof, using the camps as a throwaway plot detail which in typical Hollywood fashion allows for one character to offhandedly compare the US government to the Nazis? As the camera lingers on the bodies of children for the third or fourth time it's all too clear Scorsese was beginning to feel guilty about how worthless this movie is and doubled down on abject sadness as the one response he'd be able to provoke with this generic material.

Years from now, cultural historians will realize that the true heir of the unreliable narrator device from the printed word was not film but video games. Stick with me for a minute here. Novels have greater access to the inner workings of a character's thoughts than films, which are unable to do so overtly without voiceover narration (or poor writing where characters walk around saying what's on their mind unsolicited, ie. The Dark Knight.) Video games do not employ voiceover narration, yet in games which take metaphysical plot twists such as the Silent Hill or Metal Gear Solid series, you the player have remained in control of your avatar's actions and are more likely to have feel you've accomplished something by having reached the denouement by your own efforts than if you've passively watched a story unfold only to be informed by the teller that none of it was real. This actually goes back as far as the second Super Mario Brothers game published in 1988, which ends by revealing that the whole game was all a dream. Mario's dream, even. Yet in video games this extreme turnabout has not yet become a hackneyed trend as it has in films, and the once exciting Martin Scorsese has incontrovertibly joined the ranks of the boring and predictable - by trying, ironically, to end his film unpredictably.