Monday, October 31, 2016

Never Sleep Again: A Look Back at the Nightmare on Elm Street series

Starting in 1984, a monster was unleashed on cinema screens everywhere. A unique and memorable villain, a child murderer named Freddy Krueger. Killed by a vigilante group of parents after he got off on a technicality, Freddy has come back as some sort of ghost demon capable of infiltrating the dreams of their children and if the kids die in their dreams, they also die in real life. Inspired initially by a series of articles in the L.A Times about a group of Hmong refugees dying mysteriously after waking from terrible nightmares, writer/director Wes Craven came up with a plot that gave birth to a monster that would return time and again to terrorize teenagers everywhere.

 "Whatever you do, don't fall asleep."

The original that started it all crafted a new form of slasher movie, one with overt supernatural themes and the idea of the sins of the parents returning to be revisited upon the children. The film found a great hook in the idea that if you fall asleep, you die since everyone has to sleep at some point, so you can only delay sleep for so long.

The kids of Springwood are starting to all dream of the same guy, a horribly burned man who wears a glove with razor blade claws. As her friends start dropping one by one, Nancy (played by Heather Lagenkamp) and her boyfriend Glen (played by Johnny Depp) try to work out what is happening and more importantly how to stop the boogeyman haunting their dreams, a man named Freddy Krueger (played by Robert Englund). 

Writer/Director Wes Craven didn't have a huge budget to work with, making the film through the burgeoning film studio New Line Cinema, but he makes every cent count as he comes up with some truly evocative and haunting imagery. The thing that always set the Nightmare series apart was the imagination that could be unleashed in each entry and it was apparent from the very beginning. Robert Englund gives an iconic and scary performance as Krueger, so much so that he was impossible to replace for the sequels. Heather Lagenkamp is equally great as Nancy. Nancy was always different from usual horror movie "final girls" in the sense that she actively fought Freddy, learning from each encounter from Freddy and finally not only figuring out how to beat him but actively setting traps for him and taking the fight to him. In terms of final girls, she was one of the best.

It seems like every big eighties horror series has that one odd duck entry that doesn't really match with the rest of the series. Halloween had Halloween III, Friday the 13th had Friday the 13th Part V (and Jason Goes to Hell). This one has A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge. Still, even if it flies in the face of what came before and what would come after, if taken on it's own merits, this film has it's own bizarre moments.

This film picks up five years after the first film, with Jesse (played by Mark Patton) and his family moving into the house previously occupied by Nancy in the first film. Strange things happen almost immediately. Jesse is having weird dreams of Freddy (played by Robert Englund) and the house is constantly swelteringly hot. As Jesse continues to dream, it becomes apparent that Freddy has special plans for Jesse. He intends to possess Jesse to break out into the real world again. With the help of his girlfriend Lisa (played by Kim Myers) and friend Grady (played by Robert Rusler), he has to figure out a way to stop Freddy before he breaks through and kills again.
The second film is a strange duck in many ways, but primarily because it doesn't really follow on from the first one. If taken as a stand alone film, it's a bit more intriguing but taken as part of what came before and what came after, this one just doesn't fit. The whole point of the series was that Freddy tormented his victims in their sleep. They couldn't escape him that way because everyone has to sleep. Trying to come back into the real world seems...counter productive. Still, the film has it's moments. It's one of the few horror movies of the era to focus on a male lead, which is a refreshing change of pace. There are also some curious homosexual subtexts that run through the film. Hell, not even subtext, it's text. It's pretty much a subplot. Poor Jesse is struggling with his sexuality throughout the film. Needless to say, this film has gained a certain following within the gay community. I'm able to enjoy the second film on it's own, but as a part of the overall series, it doesn't really fit at all. 

"Welcome to Prime Time, bitch!"

When it came time to do a third film, New Line Cinema had realized the error of their ways. A quick cash grab sequel wasn't going to satisfy the fans of the films and something a little more carefully thought out was required. New Line managed to woo Wes Craven to come back and write the script for the third one. The script was subsequently re-written by Frank Darabont and director Chuck Russell and in the process crafted one of the best films in the series, perhaps even the best one after the original, with A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

For the third outing in the series, the action moves to a mental asylum ward populated by the last of the Elm Street kids. The latest addition, Kristen (played by Patricia Arquette), is admitted due to an apparent suicide attempt, but was actually because of a run in with Freddy. She goes ballistic when they try to sedate her until a familiar face intervenes, Nancy Thompson (played by Heather Langenkamp), who is now a grad student specializing in dream therapy. She tries to explain what is happening to the kids to their doctor, Neil Gordon (played by Craig Wasson), that their dreams can literally kill them. Meanwhile, she begins to work with the kids and teach them how to control their dreams and fight back against Freddy, leading to a last stand between Nancy, Kristen and the rest of the remaining Elm Street kids and Freddy. 

Dream Warriors is one of the strongest entries in the series because it makes you care about each of the kids. They are not just cannon fodder for Freddy but each a fully formed character you want to see survive. This of course adds more suspense and tension to the film because you want to see these kids survive. They're all survivors and none are victims and that adds to the film and makes it stronger. The return of Nancy, the heroine from the first film also adds to the film. It also expands on the mythology of Freddy and how they finally lay him to rest at the end makes sense and would have made a fitting concluding chapter, but nothing will keep Freddy down but a diminishing box office.

With the release of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, the series started to make a sharp shift away from the darker horror aspects of the previous films and the more fully developed characters to a jokier Freddy and a larger emphasis on elaborate dream sequences. In some ways this hurt the series in the sense that it robbed Freddy of any real ability to truly scare. But at the same time, Part 4 remains an entertaining piece of 80's horror.  

After the events of the third film, the remaining Elm Street kids have been released from the hospital and resumed their normal teenage lives. It doesn't last long though when Freddy finds a way back and is resurrected in one of their dreams by flaming dog piss (I swear I am not making this up!) and back to torment the dreams of our plucky young survivors. But Freddy has finally met his match in Alice (played by Lisa Wilcox). Alice starts off the film as this quiet and reserved girl, but as the film goes on and her friends drop one by one to Freddy, she starts gaining their skills and grows stronger each time until she is able to face Freddy herself. 

Renny Harlin directed the fourth film and manged to create one of the most visually interesting Nightmare films. It may favor spectacle over character, but it is impressive spectacle, especially for the budget they had to work with. They managed to craft some genuinely inventive and creative sequences for the film. While not all the characters were well developed, I really responded to the character of Alice and not only how reserved she was at the beginning but also how she grew as the film went along. The film may have been a shifting change to a more crowd-pleasing and spectacle driven sensibility, but Part Four still worked and brought the goods. 

By the time the fifth film came about, it was starting to become clear that the producers were running out of ideas for the series. Coming out just one year after Part 4, we catch up with the survivors of the previous film as they once again tangle with the dream demon that never says die.

Alice and her boyfriend Dan are getting ready to graduate high school and move on with their lives along with their new group of Freddy cannon fodder, er um, I mean friends. The majority of which have some sort of defining characteristic or fear that Freddy can exploit against them in a vivid dream sequence. Meanwhile, Alice and Dan have been getting rather intimate as Alice finds herself pregnant. It is because of this that Freddy is able to come back, going through the unborn child's dreams to access Alice and her friends. Who knew unborn babies dream? Learn something new every day. It's not long until Alice and Dan's friends start falling to Freddy's finger knives and have to once again figure out a way to stop him.

Still, the film is better than average for a late in the series sequel. It covers such controversial topics as teen pregnancy and even abortion. I have to appreciate it taking such things head on in a film that, let's be honest, is marketed to teenagers. Likewise, the dream sequences again are the star of the show, bringing some impressive and creative effects to the screen. There are a few new twists to the tale this time around, mainly that since the dreams are through Alice's unborn child, she can be pulled into a dream state even when she is wide awake, which makes for some jarring transitions in the film. We also see Alice's child in Alice's dreams as a grown boy named Jacob (played by Whitby Hertford) and the two of them teaming up to take down Krueger lends an unexpected poignancy to the film. Even though, by this point there was a well set formula to this film and even with the little flourishes it felt like it was just going through the motions. 

After the disappointing reception to Part 5, it was decided by the execs at New Line Cinema to craft a final entry to end the series. The resulting film, Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, was a jarring left turn compared to the films that came before it. While the previous films remained at least reasonably serious, despite Freddy's increasingly jokey behavior, this film is a live action cartoon. 

This film introduces us to John (played by Shon Greenblatt), who is the last of the Elm Street kids. Funny, several of these movies have included the last of the Elm Street kids and I don't recall him. Freddy manages to torment the kid in his dreams before flinging him back into the real world to go and round up some fresh victims for him. John wakes up without any memories except where he's from and soon finds his way to a halfway house of sorts for troubled kids. There he meets social worker Maggie (played by Lisa Zane), who decides to take him back to Springwood to try and retrace who he is. On the way there, they find they have a few stowaways in the form of Carlos (played by Ricky Dean Logan), Spencer (played by Breckin Meyer) and Tracy (played by Lezlie Dean). Once they hit Springwood, Freddy is waiting, working his way into each of their dreams. In the process, revelations are made about Freddy himself, who he was when he was alive and that one of the members of this new group may just have a familial connection to the dream demon, leading to the ultimate showdown to take Freddy out once and for all.

Freddy's Dead for much of it's run time plays much more like a black comedy than it does as a horror film. I laughed throughout the whole thing as Freddy took on each of the cast members in the dream world. Everything is played so over the top, so dialed up to eleven that it really does feel like a cartoon and Freddy is Wile Coyote. It is a jarring shift from the previous films, but it is at least amusing. It is cool to see a bit of backstory on Freddy as we see how he came to be and how he gained the power to impact people's dreams. At the same time though, the film doesn't quite come up with a convincing final demise for Freddy. It harkens back to the first one when Nancy pulled Freddy into the real world and offed him there, but he still came back for the next sequel. The third film had a far more satisfying final offing, with Freddy's remains laid to rest and consecrated with holy water. Nonetheless, the finale is pretty thrilling, but lacks that feeling that this time it's going to take. And of course, it didn't, not really.

When Wes Craven returned to the Nightmare series with Wes Craven's New Nightmare, he crafted a clever and unique sequel that managed to do the impossible. He made Freddy Krueger scary again. In the process, he let the series finally grow up and made a smart and thrilling new film that paid homage to the original film and it's stars.

The new film concerns Freddy Krueger trying to break out into the real world. When I say real world, I mean our world and our reality. So, in the movie we have Heather Langenkamp returning, but she's playing herself. Robert Englund is back and he's both playing himself and the new, meaner, and nastier Freddy. Wes Craven himself shows up to explain what is going on. Turns out, when they made the original Nightmare on Elm Street, the filmmakers unwittingly trapped a real demon within the guise of Freddy and he had been trapped there for the past ten years on the silver screen as they made sequel after sequel. But, now that Freddy's dead, he is trying to escape back into our reality. Heather realizes the demon has targeted her since she played Nancy in the original film, but has also targeted her young son, Dylan (played by Miko Hughes). As the line between fiction and reality continue to blur, Heather has to figure out how to defeat this demon once and for all and save not only herself but her young son as well.

When Wes Craven sat down to revisit the Nightmare on Elm Street series ahead of it's tenth anniversary, he couldn't find any sort of overarching storyline between the sequels to continue and instead came up with a clever and unique storyline that both functioned as it's own film but also honored the first film as well. Throughout the film there are little nods to the original film. At the same time, by setting the film in the real world and having all sorts of people play themselves in the film adds a very unique twist to the film. It also allows the series to grow up, away from teenagers and instead dealing with adults, with adult problems and also tapping into the fears of a parent trying to protect their child. It was a breath of fresh air and served as a wonderful and satisfying cap to the original Nightmare on Elm Street series. But it still wasn't the last we'd see of Mr. Krueger.

(The following originally appeared as part of my Looking Back at the Friday the 13th series, Part 3 post.)

Freddy vs. Jason had been an on again, off again thing since 1987 but the two studios, Paramount and New Line, could never reach a deal. When New Line picked up the rights to the Friday the 13th series in 1994, it seemed like the film was finally going to happen, even teasing it at the end of Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday with Freddy's claw pulling Jason's hockey mask down to hell. Sadly, it would take another nine years for the film to finally arrive in cinemas. But for a group of fans of either Jason, Freddy or both, myself included, when it finally arrived it was a huge event.

Freddy (played once again by Robert Englund) has found the children of Springfield have forgotten about him, rendering him powerless to invade their dreams. To counteract this, he recruits Jason (played by Ken Kirzinger) to head to Springwood and create a little terror with the idea that it will get people thinking Freddy again and he can come back. However, Jason gets carried away bringing about Freddy's ire and leads to an epic showdown between the two.

While by and large Freddy vs. Jason delivered on it's promise, it's not exactly perfect. The acting is a bit all over the place, with Kelly Rowland being the biggest offender playing an overall unpleasant character, Kia, whose improvised homophobic taunts to Freddy were less than appreciated not only by me but the film's writers as well. 

In the end though, the film is quite a bit of fun seeing two titans of terror square off against one another. The film really picks up once their fight starts, first in the dream world Freddy inhabits and then finishing in the real world. The film manages to accomplish the daunting task of blending the imaginative and surreal Nightmare on Elm Street series with more grounded stalk and slash Friday the 13th series. It's a film that was made for the fans of both series and for the most part, it delivers.

In the spring of 2010, a remake of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street was released with Jackie Earl Haley strapping on the famous razor glove in place of Robert Englund as a new group of teens start having nightmares they won't wake up from. Now, I know it's become fashionable to bash the remake, but I actually kind of liked it. It doesn't compare to the original and Englund will always be the true Freddy Krueger to me, but this film has some neat ideas of it's own that they pull off pretty well.

The film more or less follows the plot of the original with Nancy (played by Rooney Mara) and her boyfriend Quentin (played by Kyle Gallner) discover that they and all their friends are dreaming about the same horribly burned man in their dreams, a man known as Freddy. The begin to investigate to figure out why and as they dig deeper and deeper they find some long hidden secrets dating back to their early childhood that their parents have deliberately kept from them. As they do, they do whatever they can to try not to fall asleep, including chugging Red Bull and coffee, abusing ritalin and even towards the end injecting themselves with adrenaline. 

What I liked about the film was that it got more into the effects of sleep deprivation and just how inevitable having to sleep really is. It added a sense of dread to the film and desperation to the characters as they tried not to sleep. I also liked that they played with the history of Freddy a little and were bold enough to suggest he not only murdered kids but molested them as well, something the original film shied away from. Not only that, but they also suggested that Freddy actually was innocent of his crimes, adding an extra layer to his character and revenge motivations (of course, he wasn't really, he was just manipulating our characters, but it fooled me the first time I watched the movie. It was just the small touches that made the film work for me. Still, it doesn't match the original film. It plays a bit too closely to the original in plotting to ever really be suspenseful and the shoddy CGI is more of a distraction than a good addition. But there are little flourishes that added to the film and still made it worthwhile viewing for this Freddy fan. 

As a teenager myself back in the mid-nineties, I discovered both Freddy and Jason at about the same time and am a fan of both. But the Nightmare films were always a bit more high brow than the Friday the 13th films. Even at their worst, there was a cleverness and creativity to them that made them stand out a little more among the horror franchises. That's what I always enjoyed about them, the idea that anything could happen. It wasn't just a bunch of teens smoking dope and getting slaughtered by a masked killer, it was a little smarter than that, aimed a little higher. 

A couple years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Robert Englund, the original Freddy himself at a local convention and he couldn't have been more opposite of Freddy. He was sweet and funny, just a total teddy bear of a guy. He was even nice enough to sign my Nightmare on Elm Street box set, making it one of my prized possessions now. 

"One, two Freddy's coming for you. Three, four better lock your door. Five, Six, Grab a Crucifix. Seven, Eight, Better Stay Up Late. Nine, Ten, Never sleep again..."

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Indian Summer

There are certain films that I will habitually pull out at certain times of the year. Christmas movies come out during the corresponding Holiday, Scary movies come out around Halloween, etc. Usually some time in the month of October, during an unseasonably warm day, as the leaves are changing and fall is setting in good and proper there is another film I watch every year, Indian Summer

A group of adults have been invited back to their beloved childhood summer camp by the camp's owner, 'Unca Lou' Handler (played by Alan Arkin) to have a special week long reunion at the camp. The group includes Matt (played by Vincent Spano) and his wife Kelly (played by Julie Warner), who initially met at camp, Matt's neurotic cousin and business partner Brad (played by Kevin Pollack), the recently widowed Beth (played by Diane Lane), the perpetually single and fiercely independent Jennifer (played by Elizabeth Perkins), alpha male Jamie (played by Matt Craven) and his new girlfriend Gwen (played by Kimberly Williams), and Jack (played by Bill Paxton), who everyone remembers was the one who was kicked out of camp by Lou and are surprised to see back. Over the next week, these people reunite, relive old memories and perhaps gain some perspective over their lives. 

There is a certain charm to this film, which was written and directed by Mike Binder. He shot the film at and based it on his own real childhood summer camp, Camp Tamakwa, which is located in the Algonquin Park in Canada. Naturally, the film is gorgeous to look at. It was filmed in early fall just as the leaves begin to change and the film is infused with a lot of warm yellow and orange colors. The film is equally warm and funny throughout as the various characters reunite and more or less pick up where they left off while interacting with their beloved camp director Unca Lou. There is also an amusing subplot throughout the film as Matt, Jack and Jamie continue to conspire against Brad in a series of camp pranks in repayment for all the pranks he played on them as kids. Over the course of the weekend, old camp romances are rekindled as well, between Matt and Jennifer, revealing some of the strain on Matt and Kelly's marriage and Beth and Jack as well, who was friends with Beth's deceased husband Rick, who also attended camp with them as kids. 

The acting in the film is strong across the board. Diane Lane has the most dramatic role in the film as Beth, who is trying to figure out how to move on with her life after the sudden and tragic loss of her husband. Bill Paxton has his share of serious moments as well as Jack, who came to the camp reunion to try and make amends with Lou over their falling out so many years before. Alan Arkin is great in the role of Unca Lou Handler, the one character in the film based on a real person, who was one of the founders of Camp Tamakwa. Arkin exudes a sense of warmth in his role as he helps some of his favorite campers at a crossroads in their lives in his own slightly rascally way. I also have to mention Sam Raimi, who is a filmmaker in his own right, making a rare acting role in this film as camp handyman Stick Coder. There are little cutaways to him throughout the film where the mostly silent Stick is trying to work on something in the camp and usually results in these great moments of physical comedy. For example, there is a moment when he is unloading everyone's bags from the boat they take to get to the camp. You know he's going to end up in the water at some point, but Raimi masterfully milks the sequence and drags it out as long as possible and it is both hysterical and impressive. 

Growing up, I had a few experiences with Summer Camp. Nothing quite like in the movie, but there were summer bible camp retreats through our church for a like a week or so. I couldn't tell you a thing I learned from a religion standpoint, but I do have fond memories of swimming in the lake, the night time campfires and messing around with my friends. It was enough to make me not feel like I missed out on anything and enough that I can enjoy movies like this from a nostalgic point of view. 

Indian Summer is a beautifully shot, wonderfully acted and warmly funny movie that I watch every year around this time. It's a shamelessly feel good movie that I enjoy more and more each time I see it. 

Friday, October 28, 2016

Stephen King Week: The Dark Half

Once upon a time, in addition to writing books under his own name, Stephen King used to write books under the name Richard Bachman. In part to see if it was his skill as a writer or his name that made his books bestsellers and in part to write outside the usual "Stephen King" type of book. When it was discovered that he was Richard Bachman, King came clean about it to the public. It also inspired his novel, The Dark Half, which covered similar ground while also being an interesting spin on Jekyll and Hyde.  

Thad Beaumont (played by Timothy Hutton) never had much success writing under his own name, but is a bestselling author of sleazy crime novels under the name George Stark. This has provided well for him, his wife Liz (played by Amy Madigan) and their two twin infant sons. When confronted by a stranger, who tells Thad he knows he's George Stark and tries to blackmail him, Thad decides to go public instead. This is a relief to Liz as Thad's mood and personality would shift sharply when he was writing as George Stark and she personally hated, as well as books he wrote as George Stark. His publisher sets up an interview as well a photographer setting up a fake gravesite with headstone reading George Stark. Thad and Liz go along with it in good fun. Things take a dark turn when the people involved with the George Stark books as well as Thad's accuser start turning up dead. Has Thad finally cracked up and killing these people as Stark or has the fictional George Stark actually found a way to materialize into the real world? Thad, with help from his Anthropology professor friend Reggie (played by Julie Harris), scrambles to figure out what is happening and how to keep his family safe before local sheriff Alan Pangborn (played by Michael Rooker) throws him in prison for multiple murder. 

I had a soft spot for The Dark Half and how it explores the dark side of fiction writers, especially those who write about not so nice things. As a fiction writer myself, I am able to relate to a degree to Thad Beaumont and have myself wondered what the appeal is to the darker side of life and why I write about it. I don't really have any answers to that question, but it is something to ponder nonetheless, I suppose. George Romero directed the film as well as wrote the screenplay and captured these themes from the original novel quite well. The film does run a bit on the long side, but it takes it's time to develop it's characters as well and I never felt like the film was slow. I mention it only to appreciate the fact that the film took it's time to tell the story properly. 

The acting is pretty great in the movie as well. Timothy Hutton has the heavy lifting to do with playing both Thad Beaumont, doting father and college professor, and the dark and nasty George Stark character. He manages both roles quite well and creates two very distinct characters, although given how much scenery he was chewing I suspect he was having more fun playing Stark. Amy Madigan, who we just don't see enough in movies if you ask me, does well as Liz. She is a strong and capable woman in her own right, trying to help her husband figure out what is going on as well as trying to keep her family safe. I also have to single out Julie Harris as Thad's professor friend Reggie. She gave a wonderful performance as this eccentric, pipe smoking academic that Thad turns to for help. She is such a wonderfully colorful character and I just loved every scene she was in. 

The Dark Half is a movie that I have always felt was really underrated. It has a strong cast, is well directed and it tells it's story well. Yet, it feels like the film has largely been forgotten about but I feel it's one of the stronger adaptations of Stephen King's works. But then again, maybe it's because I'm a writer myself and therefore it holds more appeal for me. So, from my terribly biased point of view, I have to admit I enjoyed this one.   

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Stephen King Week: Apt Pupil

There are few Stephen King stories I have found as absolutely chilling as his novella Apt Pupil. Perhaps because it didn't deal with ghouls and the supernatural but a far more real and tangible evil. It was a story firmly grounded in reality. Bryan Singer's adaptation of that story into a feature film starring Ian McKellen and Brad Renfro managed to capture the same feeling as the book, creating a film every bit as frightening as the source material. 

After learning about the Holocaust in school, Todd Bowden (played by Brad Renfro) starts researching the topic more extensively. One night, much to his surprise, he recognizes an old man on the bus from his research as Auchwitz SS Commander Kurt Dussander (played by Ian McKellan). Todd confronts Kurt at his home and Kurt initially denies who he is. When it becomes clear the boy won't leave, he asks Todd what he wants. Todd proceeds to blackmail Kurt into telling him everything that happened in the camps, that he wants to know everything they won't tell him in school. Kurt begrudgingly agrees and from then on everyday after school, Todd goes to Kurt's house to hear gruesome stories of Kurt's time working in the Concentration Camp. As more and more stories are told, they start impacting Todd. He begins having nightmares and his grades begin to slip. But he presses on, continuing to visit Kurt. There is another unexpected side effect as the telling of these stories starts to re-awaken Kurt's more sadistic and violent side as well. 

Bryan Singer, fresh off The Usual Suspects, wanted to adapt King's novel into a feature film. The script by Brandon Boyce manages to capture the essence King's novella while also adjusting some aspects of it for the film. The bulk of the story is a battle of wits between Todd and Kurt and both Brad Renfro and Ian McKellen capture this struggle wonderfully. There is also a growing tension throughout the film as both Kurt and Todd's twisted friendship grows and also Kurt's darker Nazi self begins to re-emerge. In one of the most harrowing scenes of the film, Todd brings Kurt a replica SS uniform and insists Kurt put it on. Once Kurt does, Todd orders him to march in place and at first Kurt plays along, but as the orders continue Kurt's Nazi persona starts to come out and you once again begin to see the man who at one time ordered the gassing of thousands of Jewish people. McKellen's performance in this scene is absolutely chilling and the whole time I was thinking, "Oh my god kid, you have no idea what you are doing."

Not unlike Todd, I went through a period of my young adult life when I was a bit fixated on the Holocaust. It was something I just found myself interested in. It was more of a need to try and understand something so horrific could actually happen, rather than the more twisted needs of Todd. But still, I could relate to his interest, at least to a certain extent. I even took a course in college about it. It was specifically a media relations class, since I was a journalism major, about Propaganda in WWII but the Holocaust and how it came about was a big part of the course. It was both incredibly fascinating and incredibly depressing. Needless to say, it cured me of such fascination and aside from the occasional film with it as a topic, I haven't thought of it much since. But I only bring it up because of that shared interest was something I brought to this film as a viewer. 

Apt Pupil is an absolutely chilling film for me about two people flirting with evil and subsequently the corruption of youth. It's a dark and at times intense film anchored by a pair of great performances from the two lead actors. It manages to capture King's novella quite well I thought. But, if you think the movie is messed up, you should read the book. It's even more messed up. It's part of the Different Seasons collection, which also gave us two other novellas that formed the basis of The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me. The film does a good job of standing on it's own though, as it should. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Stephen King Week: Cat's Eye

After seeing Drew Barrymore star in the adaptation of his novel Firestarter, Stephen King starting writing something specifically for Drew to star in at the prompting of producer Dino De Laurentis. The result was the anthology film Cat's Eye, with Drew starring in the wrap-around story that ties it all together. 

A cat, known as General, sees a vision of a young girl (played by Drew Barrymore) saying that the cat needs to find her, that she's in danger and there isn't much time. Before General has a chance to move, he's captured by a strange man as we move into the first story of the film, Quitter's Inc. General is taken to a building in downtown New York to the offices of a company called Quitter's Inc. The company promises to help people quit smoking. One such person is Dick Morrison (played by James Woods), who is coming to the company to try and quit smoking for his wife and young daughter. The owner of the company explains how his system works. Once Dick is signed up, he will be monitored and is he is caught smoking once, his wife will be brought to Quitter's Inc. and brought to a special room with a mesh metal floor. He shows Dick the room, with General in the place of a person in the room and presses a button as electric shocks coarse through the floor and General jumps around to avoid the shocks. He quickly stops the demonstration, reassuring Dick that the cat is fine. However, if he cheats, first time it's his wife. Second time it's his daughter and after that the punishments become more severe. Confident he can quit cold turkey, Dick leaves and is certain he can go through with the program. But those cravings start kicking in and Dick finds it harder and harder to resist.   

After escaping the offices of Quitters Inc. at the resolution of Dick's Story, General makes his way to Atlantic City, where he is scooped by a crime boss and casino owner Cressner (played by Kenneth McMillan) and taken to his penthouse apartment. There he meets with gambler and former tennis pro Johnny Norris. Norris has been sleeping with Cressner's wife, but Cressner makes him a wager. If Norris can walk the narrow ledge around the perimeter of the top floor of his hotel, he will let Norris keep his wife. In order to ensure Norris goes through with it, he also reveals he had one of his goons plant drugs in Norris' car, so if he walks away a tip will be called into the Police and he will wind up going to jail. Seeing no choice, Norris agrees. It turns out to be far harder to do as Cressner and his goons keep popping up to make sure he's not cheating and at certain points harrassing him to try and make him fall. 

Once General escapes the Atlantic City penthouse, he is finally able to make it to the home of the little girl and discovers she needs protection from an evil little troll that is trying to steal the little girl's breath. The girl is immediately taken with General and wants to keep him, but he has a problem in the girl's mother (played by Candy Clark), who is superstitious about cats. So, General has his work cut out for him with trying to keep the girl safe while also dodging the disapproving mother that doesn't even want him in the house. 

The film was directed by Lewis Teague, who previously directed an adaptation of King's novel Cujo. While that movie was an intense thriller, this one is a great deal more playful and has it's tongue firmly planted in it's cheek. At one point, during the climactic battle between the little troll and General, the cat has the troll pinned on a record player and turns it on. What song plays, you ask? Why, "Every Breath You Take" by The Police, of course. The film is filled with references to other Stephen King works, such as appearances by Cujo himself as well as a certain red 1958 Plymouth Fury (with a bumper sticker that reads Rock and Roll will Never Die). During the Quitter's Inc. story, Dick is trying to distract himself from his cravings by watching a movie, which is of course David Cronenberg's adaptation of King's The Dead Zone. When the distraction doesn't work, he walks off in a huff wondering, "Who writes this crap?"

The film incorporates two stories by Stephen King from his Night Shift collection, "Quitter's Inc." and "The Ledge" and they are the strongest part of the movie. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the film as a whole, but the first two stories were better that the wrap-around story, usually referred to as the third story, "General." There just was something a bit more unique with the first two stories, especially the second one, which plays like classic Hitchcock. The third story is decent, but it just isn't as memorable as the first two stories which feel a bit more unique. 

Overall, Cat's Eye is an interesting installment in the realm of Stephen King films. It's anthology nature, with the story of this cat trying to get a little girl tying it all together. It's a bit more unique and I like that about the film. It never for a second really takes itself all that seriously either, content to just have a little bit of fun. It's not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a pretty fun one.  

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Stephen King Week: Cell

One of the most recent Stephen King adaptations was the film version of his novel, Cell. Described as King's take on the Zombie genre, it was one of his books that I felt would translate well to film. But yet, as the movie came out, I heard it wasn't very good. Curious to judge it for myself, I figured Stephen King week would be a good time to check it out.

Clay Riddell (played by John Cusack) is a graphic artist on his way home from a business trip to his wife and son when suddenly everyone's cell phones start to ring (Clay's had just run out of juice). When people answer their phone, they hear a sharp tone that instantly turns them into rabid and dangerously violent monsters. Clay barely manages to escape the airport with his life and into the subway below where he meets subway operator Tom McCourt (played by Samuel L. Jackson). The two partner up as Clay tries to make his way home to find his wife and son as society literally crumbles around them, picking up stray survivors along the way.

The film was directed by Tod Williams, who has a bit of a mixed filmography ranging from the found footage sequel Paranormal Activity 2 to the quirky indie comedy The Adventures of Sebastian Cole, the former I didn't think much of (I hate found footage movies, I'm sorry) to the very much enjoying the latter (if you ever wanted to see Clark "Agent Phil Coulson" Gregg play a transgender woman, that's your movie). Sadly, this is probably his worst movie. There is little that sets it apart from the glut of zombie movies that has by now permeated our culture. The idea of a cell phone signal being the cause of it is a novel idea, but the movie fails to make much of it. The screenplay was written by Stephen King himself as well as Adam Alleca. I'm not sure what happened in the process of translating the book to the screen, but so much of the film is lifeless. There are the occasional flourishes of creativity and black humor here and there, such as when Clay and Tom are driving a gas truck through a football field that is full of sleeping zombies (they power down at night, apparently) and the truck gets momentarily stuck in the resulting gore. You don't see much, but you don't need to as one's imagination is most likely filling in the blanks. There is also a plot point about the group of survivors all dreaming about a person in a red hoodie that never quite pays off in a satisfactory way. Aside from those small, occasional flourishes, the film plays out like pretty much every other zombie movie. 

The acting is likewise pretty bland, with both Cusack and Jackson downplaying every scene when we really need there to feel like there is a sense of urgency or panic. The world is literally falling apart around them and they seem oddly blase about it. But I suppose when you live in a world where Donald Trump is considered a viable presidential candidate, one expects the end of the world to be around the corner and resigns themselves to it. That's the only way this makes sense. There is no suspense in the film and the actors are pretty much stock end of the world horror movie characters. 

It's not that Cell is horrible exactly, it's just very bland and does little to justify it's existence. There is no tension for much of the movie, I didn't really care about any of the characters, it's painfully dull at times and when it isn't, it just feels very been there, done that. It's the worst kind of bad movie, it's one that's boring.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Stephen King Week: Carrie

Carrie has always been a film, and a book, close to my heart. I was bullied mercilessly throughout elementary and middle school, so I can really relate to and sympathize with the main character of Carrie White as she struggles with it herself in school as well as when she finally snaps when she's been pushed too far. With such a personal investment in the material, it's no wonder I liked Brian DePalma's 1976 adaptation so much.

One day after Gym class, Carrie White (played by Sissy Spacek) is showering when she gets her first period. Since her ultra-religious mother, Margaret (played by Piper Laurie), never her told her about sex or female human anatomy, Carrie is terrified and thinks she's dying. She runs to her classmates for help, who in turn mock her mercilessly and start throwing tampons and pads at her, chanting "plug it up!" until the gym teacher, Miss Collins (played by Betty Buckley), puts a stop to it. Horrified, Miss Collins gives all the girls a weeklong detention to be served on the athletic fields, and if they don't cooperate they are suspended and can't go to prom. One girl, Chris Hargenson (played by Nancy Allen) doesn't think it's fair and bails, vowing to get even with her boyfriend, Billy Nolan (played by John Travolta). Another of the girls, Sue Snell (played by Amy Irving) feels guilty over what happens and convinces her boyfriend, Tommy Ross (played by William Katt), to take Carrie to the prom in her place. When Chris learns of Sue's plans, she begins to plot the ultimate revenge on Carrie with Billy, unwittingly setting up the entire prom for disaster for Carrie White has a secret. She has telekinetic powers, the ability to move objects with her mind, and those powers are only getting stronger.

While Carrie has probably not aged well over the years, wearing it's mid-70's era on it's sleeve, if you can get past that part, the film remains just as potent, frightening and even surprisingly tender as ever. The performances are great in the film and it has a strong cast as well. Sissy Spacek is great as Carrie, portraying the vulnerability of Carrie who over the course of the film finds her inner strength and starts to come out of her shell. Piper Laurie is intense and frightening as Carrie's extremely religious mother in a performance that would seem over the top to me if I didn't already know there were people like that in the world. Nancy Allen is memorably nasty as mean girl Chris, with John Travolta being equally nasty as her boyfriend Billy.   

Brian DePalma directed the film with a lot of his signature styles he would use time and time again with usage of deep focus, filters, unique camera angles and even some great use of split screen to memorable effect. He also makes great use of slow motion leading up to the climactic moment when the prom goes terribly, terribly wrong, first for Carrie and then for everyone else. It's not really a spoiler since DePalma gives takes the audience through every step leading up to the Prom so we know exactly what is going to happen and the entire film is built around this moment anyway. We all know it's coming and DePalma is slowly ratcheting up the tension every step of the way. 

Overall, Carrie remains a classic of the horror genre on the strength of both it's story and it's performances. It's a film, and book, that resonated with me when I say it when I was in middle school and remains to be one for me today. It may be a little dated in some respects, but in others it remains as relevant as ever. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Halloween Horrorfest: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

I first became acquainted with The Rocky Horror Picture Show during my high school years during my time working in the theatre department, as it should be in retrospect. I've been to the midnight shows a few times but I also just genuinely love the film. With the new version airing on the Fox network, I figured it was time to revisit the iconic original film.

Newly engaged Brad (played by Barry Bostwick) and Janet (played by Susan Sarandon) are on their way to announce their engagement to the man they feel is responsible for them meeting in the first place, Dr. Everett Scott (played by Jonathan Adams). On the way to meet him, one of their tires blows out, stranding them in the storming weather. They go looking for a phone at a nearby castle. There they are greeted by the handyman, Riff-Raff (played by Richard O'Brien) and house maid Magenta (played by Patricia Quinn). Soon after, they meet other house members and guests before meeting the master of the house, Dr. Frank N. Furter (played by Tim Curry), a cross dressing, pansexual mad scientist. Frank invites Brad and Janet to stay for the party, a celebration for his latest creation. Not unlike Frankenstein, Frank has made himself a man. But instead of a crudely stitched together monstrosity, Frank has made a blonde haired, blue eyed hunk named Rocky (played by Peter Hinwood). What follow is a bizarre and strange night that will both horrify and then slowly break down the inhibitions of the square Brad and Janet, leaving them very different people in the morning.

There is something about The Rocky Horror Picture Show that has always been irresistible to me. Much of the credit has to go to Richard O'Brien who wrote the original stage show the film is based on and co-wrote the film with Jim Sharman. The film is a loving tribute to the 50's Sci-Fi and Horror B-movies while also being as outrageous and strange as it possibly can be. But yet, underneath all the outrageousness, there is the rather empowering message of "Don't Dream it, Be It," as Dr. Frank sings during the climactic Floor Show musical number. The fact that Dr. Frank lives so openly and so freely and the impact he has on his new guests is part of why the film has endured for the last 41 years. The music is really catchy too, with such standouts as "The Time Warp," "Sweet Transvestite," and "Hot Patootie" among them. Honestly, I love all of the songs  and know all of them by heart. 

The film has a strong cast as well, led by Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter in such an iconic performance that it's hard to separate the two. He just completely owns the role and gives such a spirited performance in the film. Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon do well as Brad and Janet who start the film as two very conservative squares and through the film loosen up more and more as they become more exposed to Frank's decadent life. Meat Loaf shows up as motorcycle riding Eddie for one song, Hot Patootie, before being murdered by a jealous, ice axe wielding Frank, but it's a hell of a song. Richard O'Brien is the definitive Riff Raff and his performance of not only "The Time Warp" but the opening song, "Science Fiction/Double Feature" are perfection.   

After all these years, I still genuinely love The Rocky Horror Picture Show. There has never been a movie quite like it that has quite reached the public the way it has. It continues to show in theatres across the country in midnight shows where the audience has call backs they shout back at the movie, a shadow cast that acts out the movie themselves in front of the screen as the audience uses various props during corresponding scenes in the film. It's a film going experience unlike any other that really has become a rite of passage for many. Some will pass it off, saying that they're just having fun with a bad movie. In several interviews, people will bring up Rocky Horror with Susan Sarandon, expecting her to brush it off or say something negative, but each time she's praised it, saying she loves it. Me too, Susan. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Halloween Horrorfest: Little Shop of Horrors

I've always had a soft spot for Little Shop of Horrors. Based on an ultra-cheap Roger Corman B-movie and an off-Broadway Musical inspired by said film, this film is a unique blend of musical, dark humor and horror. With a winning and catchy Musical score by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken and a fantastic cast, this has always been a favorite for me. 

Down on his luck Seymour Krelborn (played by Rick Moranis) works at a Flower Shop in a slum neighborhood known as Skid Row owned by Mr. Mushnik (played by Vincent Gardenia). Also working in the store is Audrey (played by Ellen Greene), who is in a relationship with her abusive boyfriend Orin Scrivello (played by Steve Martin) and also Seymour's crush. With sales down at the store and not a single customer, Mushnik threatens to close the store. Audrey is able to talk him out of it by suggesting Seymour display a strange plant he found in the shop window. It is a strange little plant, named Audrey II by Seymour, a sort of Venus Fly Trap. Almost immediately, new customers flood the store with new business. But the plant starts to wither and while trying to nurse it back, Seymour learns his exotic new plant feeds on human blood. Initially, Seymour feeds the plant some of his blood to get it to grow, but as the plant grows bigger, so does its appetite. 

There is a lot of love about Little Shop of Horrors. First off, it's a fantastic musical, with great lyrics and music written by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken crafting some very catchy and memorable songs. The film makes a successful transition from the Broadway stage to the big screen by director Frank Oz, who does a great job of opening up the film and keeping it from feeling too stagey. The actors do a great job, especially Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene, who created two characters so lovable the filmmakers had to change the ending (more on that later). Levi Stubbs (of The Four Tops) provided the voice of the plant Audrey II and does a phenomenal job as well, giving that plant so much personality. There is also our Greek chorus of sorts that work their way through the film, known as Crystal (played by Tichina Arnold), Ronette (played by Michelle Weeks), and Chiffon (played by Tisha Campbell), and named after famed 50's/60's girls groups, The Crystals, the Ronettes and The Chiffons.  

I also have to give props to the Special Effects team who brought Audrey II to life so convincingly. Played by several puppets at various stages of growth through the film, the way they made it work in the later stages to look so natural is an impressive feat of practical effects work. What they did was film the puppet at a slower speed and then when played back at normal speed would appear to be talking at a natural speed. Of course, this meant anytime an actor, usually Moranis, was in the same shot as the talking plant, they had to act out the scene in slow motion or mouth singing in slow motion. The fact that it looks all so seamless on screen is a testament to both the effects department and Moranis for pulling it off so well. 

The other big thing with the movie is the issue of it's ending. Now, if you don't want to know how it ends, you should leave now. Everyone who doesn't want spoilers gone? Good. Now, initially the movie ended just like the stage show. Audrey II eats everyone and the plant, as well as the plant's off spring, grow to monster size and take over the world in an extravaganza of model effects that still look impressive today. However, test audiences recoiled at an ending that saw their beloved Seymour and Audrey getting devoured by the plant and the film in turn received dismal scores. Realizing the stage show ending wasn't going to work, they re-shot the ending with Seymour triumphing over Audrey II and having his happy ending with Audrey. But, now with the wonders of Blu-Ray, we can have it both ways with the theatrical cut or the restored Director's Cut with the fully restored original ending. As for which one I prefer, it can vary. I enjoy the happy ending, but also the effects work on the original ending is genuinely impressive, if also a bit horrifying.      

Little Shop of Horrors never quite reached the cult film levels of say Rocky Horror Picture Show, but remains a fun musical all in it's own with some great performances and some genuinely catchy music that has actually been stuck in my head since I watched the movie. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Halloween Horrorfest: Howl

I'm such a sucker for movies like Howl. Take a group of strangers, stick them in a dire situation and force them to band together in order to survive. In the case of this film, it's a group of people stranded on a broken down commuter train forced to band together to fend off a pack of vicious werewolves. Sounds like my kind of movie.

Joe (played by Ed Speleers) is a guard (or conductor, as we know them in America) for a line of commuter trains servicing the London area to the various suburbs. He's about to get off a long shift when he discovers that 1. He has been turned down for the Supervisor position he applied for and 2. Since someone else called in sick, he has to do one more run, a red-eye train headed for Edinburgh. The passenger list is a light one with only a handful of people on board, but things look up when it turns out a girl he has a crush on, Ellen (played by Holly Weston), is manning the tea trolley. Things take a dark turn when the train has to make an emergency stop after hitting a deer and the driver, Tony (played by Sean Pertwee), goes to investigate and clear the carcass, when he's attacked and dragged away into the woods, leaving the passengers stranded. As the group becomes aware of the situation outside when an attempt to hike to the nearest station goes south, the hastily return to the train and wait for rescue. As the events wear on, a power struggle erupts between Joe and one of the passengers, Adrian (played by Elliot Cowan), as Joe tries to keep order and the passengers safe from the threat outside until help can arrive.  

The survival horror genre, which Howl falls neatly into, has a fairly well worn set of tropes which this film includes. But what made the film work for me were how well drawn the characters were as a whole and that made me want to root for them to survive. Ed Speleers makes for a great and unlikely hero as his character of Joe is put through the ringer over the course of the night and quickly grows into an assertive leader of the group. It also had a unique setting of a commuter train, something mundane and everyday, turned into a nightmare scenario. It's also easy for me to get into movies like this because it always gets me thinking of what I would do in this scenario. For the most part, the characters don't really make any bad decisions as the film goes along, which always helps. The film is well directed by Peter Hyett from a script by Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler. The film wastes no time in getting started and keeps a brisk pace all the way through to the end, which in this type of film always helps. The effects are strong as well, with some really interesting creature design on the werewolves, which can always make or break a creature feature like this. 

There is one thing about this movie that really bugged me is something that I've seen in a lot of movies and something I've grown really tired of is the bumbling, wimpy fat guy trope. There is a character in this movie that is one of the worst examples of this character type, constantly eating or in the bathroom and exists only to be really pathetic and eventually werewolf chow. Completely useless and really has no point in the movie except to be more cannon fodder. One more death scene. As an overweight person, but also a strong, competent, tough and smart person constantly seeing this image projected back at me as somehow overweight equals weak and pathetic is starting to really bug me. It's a small nitpick in an otherwise satisfying monster movie, but a nitpick nonetheless.  

Aside from that though, Howl is a fun monster movie with plenty of suspense and thrills. If you're into this sort of thing, it'd be one worth checking out for sure. It's currently available for streaming on Hulu.

The Accountant

"Do you like puzzles?"

There are movies that will grab my attention just on the basis of their trailer and The Accountant was definitely one of them. With a intriguing plot and a unique and intriguing main character, I knew it was one I had to see. I certainly was not disappointed either.

Christian Wolff (played by Ben Affleck) is a highly sought after accountant who had secretly worked with some of the biggest criminal organizations in the world to help them uncook their books and find out where the embezzlement occurred in their organization and who was responsible. When he's not working with higher profile clients, he works in his accounting office in an unassuming strip mall in suburban Illinois. He helps down on their luck people with their taxes, such as one couple who in repayment for his services they let him target practice with his rifles on their farm. Because, you see, when you work for dangerous people, there may come a time where they decide you'd be better off dead and Christian is well prepared for that possibility. Meanwhile, Treasury Director Ray King (played by J.K Simmons) has started to piece together that Christian has helped different criminal organizations and wants to find him. He assigns the case to Marybeth Medina (played by Cynthia Addai-Robinson) to track down Christian for him, letting her know she is only to report directly to him regarding it. 

Christian takes a new job with a local robotics company run by Lamar Black (played by John Lithgow), who have hired him to go over their books after a large discrepancy was found by another accountant, Dana Cummings (played by Anna Kendrick). Christian sets to working the records of the company and finds the source after working the numbers over the course of one night. Shortly after sharing their findings with the heads of the company, they find themselves targeted by several assassins, including the mysterious and charismatic Braxton (played by Jon Bernthal), forcing Christian and Dana to go on the run together and try to figure who wants them dead and why. 

While the plot of the film may seem routine thriller plotting, the execution is what makes the difference. A big part of what made the film work for me was the character of Christian. Ben Affleck turns in a fantastic performance playing an autistic and brilliant man who has a unique talent for both math and numbers. At the same time, Christian had a father who was career military and as they traveled around, he wanted to ensure no one took advantage of Christian, teaching him what he knew and finding others in whatever country they were stationed in to teach him further self defense skills. This results in a unique character who is brilliant, not very social, but if the need arises can be very lethal. It's a unique movie hero and Affleck's performance makes the character very intriguing and compelling. The other actors turn in good performances as well. I liked the interactions between Kendrick and Affleck's characters and am glad that they didn't try to force any sort of romance between the two. But still, the characters bonded and those scenes were great as well with small scenes such as the one where Affleck explained he took them to an expensive hotel rather than the Holiday Inn Express to hide out at because the towels were softer  (also because he thought she would like it). I just love little character details like that. 

The film was directed by Gavin O'Connor from a script written by Bill Dubuque. The film is very well plotted, but is one that requires attention with scenes at the beginning of the film not paying off completely until almost the end of the film. That's part of what I loved about this film though. Much like the main character, the film is a puzzle and asks it's viewer to start piecing together all the parts of the film together. It all comes together wonderfully at the end as the pieces all come together, but it does depend on the viewer to remember what happened before and keep up with the narrative. It's a bit deeper than your usual action thriller and I enjoyed that about it. The narrative isn't overly dense of complicated, but if you're going to sit down and watch the movie, do that. That's why the theatre is ideal for a movie like this because it forces you to remain perfectly attentive without distractions. The plotting of the film also held some nice surprises and did not end quite like I thought it would, which is always nice when a movie can pleasantly surprise me like that. 

Overall, I really enjoyed The Accountant. With a fantastic performance from Ben Affleck and a solid supporting cast and a great story as well as strong direction behind it, this was a fantastic film that I thoroughly enjoyed beginning to end. 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Halloween Horrorfest: Lady in White

I needed a bit of a palate cleanser after the vile High Tension and the simultaneously charming and frightening film Lady in White fit the bill quite nicely. With a genuinely thrilling and creepy story, this film is a fantastic ghost story in the traditional sense. It's one I first saw as a kid and is a film I remembered enjoying a lot. It was recently released on Blu-Ray by Scream Factory and I relished the chance to revisit it. 

Frankie Scarlatti (played by Lucas Haas) lives in the small coastal town of Willowpoint Falls with his Dad, Angelo (played by Alex Rocco), older brother Geno (played by Jason Presson) and his grandparents. After school on Halloween, Frankie is locked in the cloakroom by two of the school bullies, Donald (played by Jared Rushton) and Louie (played by Gregory Levinson). Unable to get out, Frankie decides to wait until someone finds him. No one comes though and soon night falls. While there, Frankie witnesses the incredible sight of the ghost of a girl roughly his age, Melissa Ann Montgomery (played by Joelle Jacobi), who is dancing around and talking to another unseen person. Soon, the scene turns dark as she is attacked and strangled by the same unseen person. The unseen person then picks up Melissa's body and walks out with it. Just after that, in present day, a man walks into the cloakroom and starts trying to unscrew the grate cover to the vent in the room when he notices Frankie in the corner. The man attacks Frankie, strangling him to unconsciousness. When he's revived by his father and recovers, he realizes he's just witnessed the murder of the first of several kids that have haunted their small town over the past ten years. Indeed, Frankie just may be able to piece together who actually is responsible, with some help from his brother Geno and the ghost of Melissa herself, as well as how Melissa connects to the legendary ghost, The Lady in White as well as the mysterious woman (played by Katherine Helmond) haunting the cottage by the cliffs. 

There is a lot to really love about Lady in White. Writer and Director Frank LaLoggia crafted a unique and memorable ghost story with a mixture of thrills, chills, mystery, humor and even a little magic. There is also a liberal dose of nostalgia, given the film's period setting of 1962, but LaLoggia manages to balance it all nicely and creates the film that is alternately putting a smile on my face or scaring the crap out of me. It's a unique mix, but it works. LaLoggia does a great job creating scares and thrilling scenes with style and mood rather than gore and I appreciated that. It's not an easy thing to do but he manages to pull it off. Part of what makes it work so well is that outside of the ghost story elements, the film is firmly planted in the everyday reality of the time period the story is set. The film even manages to work in the civil rights movement and racism into the story in a strong and poignant way when the Black school janitor is wrongfully accused of the killings and attacking Frankie. The characters in the film are also well drawn, especially Frankie and his family. There is a genuine love portrayed between them that really helps sell the story and the relationships between Frankie, Geno, and their father Angelo. Also, I really love the score for the film, composed by director Frank LaLoggia, and in fact I was listening to it while writing this review. It's filled with memorable themes that really add some extra flavor to the film.  

Revisiting this film after so many years was a joy. There were scenes I remembered so clearly in my mind and to see them play out again and seeing how well I remembered them was a treat. Scream Factory did a fantastic job on the Blu-ray with three different cuts of the film included (Theatrical, Director's Cut, and extended Director's Cut). Along with a commentary track and assorted other features, it's the best this film has been presented. This will no doubt become a Halloween staple in my house in the years to come as I enjoyed it just as much now, as an adult, as I did as a kid if not more so. If you're in the mood for a stylish and spooky ghost story, this would be a good one to check out.  

Friday, October 14, 2016

Halloween Horrorfest: High Tension

High Tension first caught my attention the same way many movies do, by having a really great trailer. This one was well done with no dialogue really and the whole thing being told through images with Sonic Youth's cover of "Superstar" playing over it (you can watch it here). It was evocative and memorable. I had to see it. When I did, I was really enjoying it until I got to the ending and then I saw the entire film fall apart for me before my eyes. Now, 13 years later, I've decided to give the movie a second chance to see if it really was as terrible of an ending as I remembered. 

Marie (played by Cecile de France) is traveling with her friend Alex (played by Maiwenn) to Alex's parent's house in the French countryside for the weekend. Upon meeting her parents and little brother, everyone settles in for a quiet evening. Later that night, the doorbell rings and Alex's father answers it to find a stranger at the door. The stranger attacks Alex's Dad, killing him and makes his way into the house. Marie is the first one to be awoken by the chaos and tries to find a phone to call for help while avoiding detection by the killer. The killer (played by Phillipe Nahon), proceeds to murder Alex's mother and then her little brother. He takes Alex and chains her up in his rusty, old truck. While the killer checks out the house one more time, Marie jumps into the back of the truck to try and free her friend but winds up getting locked in the back with her by accident (the killer is unaware she is also back there). The killer departs with both ladies in the back and it's going to be up to Marie to use all her wits to find a way out of the situation and free both herself and her friend. 

The film was directed by Alexandre Aja, who also co-wrote the script with Gregory Levasseur, and made a bit of a name for himself as a horror director with this grisly little horror flick and went on to move over to America to make several films over here, including the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, Mirrors, and Horns. This was sort of his breakthrough film though and for at least the first 3/4 of the film (we'll get to the ending later), it's easy to see why. High Tension is as advertised. It is a tense, suspenseful and uncompromising horror film. It's not hard to want to root for Marie and Alex to get out of their situation and hopefully turn the tables on their vile and despicable captor. I was particularly attached to Marie, who turns out to be one tough cookie, keeping her cool and working out how to get out of their predicament. She was a smart and capable heroine. I really liked her character and Cecile de France did a great job portraying her. And then we got to the ending. If you don't want to know how this film ends, you should turn back now because I'm going to spoil the hell out of it for you otherwise.

Everyone who doesn't want to be spoiled gone now? Ok, good. Here is the horribly misdirected twist the movie throws out for the last quarter of the film: Marie and the Killer are the same person. Marie has dissociative identity disorder and has kidnapped Alex because she is in love with her, or at least thinks she is. Now, there were lesbian undertones throughout the film between Marie and Alex, but somehow with this revelation that all becomes uglier and even distasteful. The ending felt like a betrayal to me as a viewer. I had spent three quarters of this movie fully invested in Marie and her attempts to rescue Alex. I cheered her on as she finally took out the killer, wailing on him with a fence post wrapped in barbed wire. But then this movie pulls out this asinine 180 on us that renders large portions of the movie completely pointless. The scene where Marie is trying to warn the cashier at the gas station about the killer and then subsequently trying to hide from him within the store? Completely pointless now. Nevermind trying to figure out what parts of the story were real and which parts were part of Marie's imagination. Suddenly, with this ill thought out twist, the entire movie becomes an aggravating and frustrating affair. If I could remake one movie, it would be this one. Dump the idiotic twist ending, make the lesbian subtext text (Alex is bringing Marie, her girlfriend, home to meet her parents), horror plot continues. The whole film would flow better and be much more rewarding in the end. 

High Tension is 3/4 of an effective horror thriller with a terrible ending that not only wrecks the movie but somehow makes it uglier, repugnant and unpleasant. It really did ruin the movie for me, which is shame because for awhile it was going great. As it is though, it's a total mess. All because of that stupid ending.