Monday, October 31, 2011

HALLOWEENAGE #31: THE SHINING (1997)

So Stephen King was legendarily displeased with Stanley Kubrick's liberty-taking adaptation of THE SHINING.  A friend told me this story when we went to the Kubrick SHINING and it's tremendous, so let's pretend it's true: 

"Kubrick didn't have any contact with Stephen King before the movie except one time he called him late at night and the conversation was like...

KUBRICK: Is this Stephen King?
KING: Yes.  It's 2 in the morning!
KUBRICK: Stephen King, your novel suggest that you believe in an afterlife.  Do you believe in an afterlife?
KING: Uh...yes.
KUBRICK: (pause)  Well, I don't.  (hangs up)"


Whatever the case may be, Kubrick's film excised whole swaths of King's book and changed a lot of things around, so there was more reason for this remake than the usual "people know the title, so maybe they will pay to see this by mistake".  Plus it was a mini-series on ABC and occupied multiple nights like roustabouts occupy Wall Street, so very little had to be trimmed due to time constraints.  This is both a good and a bad thing.


I guess addressing the differences would be a good place to start.  Tony is this edition is not a croaking finger, he's a fully-formed floating nerd from the future who dispenses warnings to young psychic Danny.  Much more is made of Jack's alcoholism, including scenes at the AA meeting and him swinging around a copy of the Big Book.  Also, Jack's bitter relationship with his dad comes into play here, making me wonder how much of that is autobiographical, since King also mined it for the "Jordy Verrill" portion of CREEPSHOW.  Of course, a big difference is that this has a different cast.


Did you know that I hate child actors?  I'm not as fond of Kubrick's SHINING as some, but one of its strengths is the way that Danny never becomes annoying or cloying.  Bad remake, bad!  Because Courtland Mead as this Danny swallows way too much screen time with inane dialogue and songs about snow.  Plus he has an annoying nineties haircut, like he took a picture of one of the cannibals from CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and told his beautician that he wanted to look like that.  Child actors should be seen, not heard, if they can't be sentenced to live on a farm where cameras are not allowed.  Too cute and cloying.  Advantage: Kubrick.


I like Rebecca DeMornay.  She is a knockout and a solid actress and I would love the chance to disappoint her, but perhaps this is not the right role for someone of classic beauty.  To me, Shelly Duvall works better in the role and seems more fragile and imperiled.  But Mornay delivers a really energetic performance and definitely should not ever feel jealous of Duvall.  I love you both equally.  Advantage: Kubrick.  

The casting of Steven Weber from that show WINGS was an interesting choice and he wisely opts to not channel Nicholson.  Pretty good performance, although it does feel hindered by TV content restrictions, as it's hard to take a person seriously as a crazy person when he keeps calling someone a "damned pup".  It's hard to top Nicholson's screeching screaming and camping around as well.  Advantage: Kubrick.


There are things that this SHINING does better, though.  It's much more a straight horror film, so the horror elements that come into play are sometimes more effective.  The tub lady is an easy highlight here, as she's memorably grotesque.  Sometimes the ghosts look iffy or laughable...


...but sometimes they make the whole four hours of this worth watching.  And there are fun cameos!


I've never read the book (and probably never will), but occasionally the dialogue is a little corny, especially the earnest interchanges between Jack and Wendy.  When people are shrieking and going nuts, it's fine, but those scenes could maybe benefit from a heavy editing hand.  Danny's dialogue, too, feels unconvincing, like kid dialogue from the fifties cut and pasted into a 1970s(?) setting.  The more obvious supernatural elements work just fine here and I wouldn't say that either film's approach is superior.  Of course, this SHINING lacks some of Kubrick's pricey helicoptered camera shots and stuff, but director Mick Garris of MASTERS OF HORROR renown does a good job at framing shots and keeping camera movement interesting and none too showy.


One more weakness and then I am never watching a horror movie again because I am so tired: the CGI hedge animals here.  Oh my god, this bungle!  They look terrible!  Thankfully, they show up at the midpoint of the film and then only briefly, but they are not even a tenth of the greatness that Kubrick's hedge maze is.  I actually became embarrassed for the film.  Such a poor choice. 


This is quite long and demanding of your time, but if you enjoy the story or books in general or the Kubrick version, you should probably check this out.  It's pretty interesting, if also pretty flawed.  

Sunday, October 30, 2011

HALLOWEENAGE #30: DOCTOR DRACULA (1978)

I was taken aback and excited about this...


...but then I saw this and said, "FUCK FUCK FUCK!"...


...but this turned out to be a pretty good experience overall.  Al Adamson, director of BLAZING STEWARDESSES and DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN, made a pretty good bad movie here with the technical consultation of Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan.  Synopsizing the plot is going to be tough, but let's try: a gang of Satanists in tuxedos include a famous scholar named Wainwright, who is possessed by the spirit of Svengali.  At one of Wainwright's magic shows, he is confronted by a psychiatrist named Dr. Anatole Gregorio.  I doubt I am spoiling anything by revealing that the doctor in DOCTOR DRACULA is a vampire.  And vampires hate Satanists like Satanists hate Wiccans, apparently. 


There are whole other subplots involving dead moms and a girl named Trilby who is a goddess of psychic energy or some shit.  Plus a prostitute who gets turned into a slave of the Satanic grotto/coven, then exclaims, "I feel a lot better about the direction my life has taken!"  This thing is stuffed with good times, from lines like "He can't hear and can't speak, the way he expresses himself is through his magic tricks" to situations like Doctor Vampire answering the door with, "I was just about to go to bed" while wearing a full tuxedo.  It's such energetic nonsense that you won't have time to get bored.


A woman climbs a tree to escape a vampire and a girl possessed by her mom sounds just like Tony in THE SHINING and yet Robert Carradine as head Satanist Radcliff is still the best thing about DOCTOR DRACULA.  He delivers his lines with full-on Heston/Palance gusto, even when he has weird pauses in the middle of them, like he is trying to remember lines.  Even drunk or unprepared Carradine smokes everyone else in the cast.  Every Radcliff scene is a highlight.


The depiction of Satanism here as this weird booster club of middle-aged cranks makes me wonder how much input LaVey had into the finished product, as the Church of Satan allegedly started out as a similar gang of nerdy weirdos back in the sixties and it would seem to damage his mystique and profits to come right out and admit it.  I mean, I think it's cool that old people would get together to worship Satan and talk about "the mace of Lu Dong—Huxley wrote a book about it!", but I could see it going over badly with your typical moviegoing crowd.



This is atrocious and incompetent, but it avoids the cardinal bad-movie sin of putting me to sleep.  I'm actually surprised that it doesn't have more of a reputation, as I could definitely see people who like ROBOT MONSTER or TROLL 2 enjoying this.  Exquisite.


HALLOWEENAGE #29: SHOCK 'EM DEAD (1991)


IMDB-researching this was much more fun than watching the movie itself.  The gushing praise for the film should be in a textbook on ringer reviews and the fact that this is the first line of Traci Lords's bio—"Traci Lords is a study of a determined and complex woman with a very controversial background"—does not ever stop being incredible.  SHOCK 'EM DEAD is heavy metal horror, released in 1991, when this kind of metal was dying very quickly indeed.  For some reason, this feels more dated and less fun than similar flicks like 1988's BLACK ROSES and 1986's TRICK OR TREAT.  


I'd be curious to see how it was received in 1991, the same year in which Nevermind hit.  The story of loser  Martin, who strikes a deal with a voodoo woman to become the world's greatest rock star, but loses his soul in the process, SHOCK feels more like an "Up All Night" sex comedy with mild violence than any kind of horror film.  Same characters and stupid clothes from that era, same cramped sets and small jacuzzis.  And the music is much more embarrassing than Fastway's awesome TRICK OR TREAT soundtrack or the various true metal on BLACK ROSES.  This is tepid AOR, with titles like "Virgin Girl" and "Hairy Cherry".  


The music business scenes also seem really weird and ancient, with "band showcases" and lots of talk about six-figure advances.  Oh, yeah, and Traci Lords is in this, albeit not enough to warrant occupying the entire VHS cover.  She plays the bassist's girlfriend, who captures Martin's fancy after his rock star transformation into Vinnie Vincent or something.  She also stays fully clothed, which means that her acting ability is the only gift she gives this film and therefore ugh.  Traci wasn't bad in the NOT OF THIS EARTH remake and she's not terrible here, but her performance definitely ain't enough to salvage this thing.


"Bland" is a pretty fair term to use for the whole thing.  It's not the worst movie ever, although it might be the worst heavy metal horror film ever (ROCK N ROLL NIGHTMARE is a little more memorable than this...can't think of anything else that might trump it for sheer boredom or putridness).  

HALLOWEENAGE #28: NARCO SATANICO (1984?)


So I heard about this thing on Cincinnati's groovy Night of the Living Podcast, but I'm not even sure that I have the correct NARCO SATANICO, as this is allegedly a retitled TERROR, SEXO Y BRUJERIA that was padded with added footage.  IMDB lists a NARCOSATANICOS DIABOLICOS, released in 1991, that is apparently a sexy comedy.  So who knows?  There aren't even any narcos in this, apart from the various magical remedies used by the witch who helps Vicky obtain the love of Ricardo.  Using Satan's aid.


Satan fathered lies, though, and Vicky ends up killing Ricardo.  Ricardo's ghost then possesses his brother Carlos and sends him lusting after Vicky for a while before giving her her murder back.  Along with the way, there's some weird stuff, like rapid editing of a guy in a demon mask and a cat overdubbed with a panther roar, but mostly NARCO SATANICO plays like a cheapo grindhouse movie, though not as crushingly dull as the worst of them.


One thing that apparently still happens in Mexico is that superstition is spliced with science, so the end of this features a courtroom scene in which one man mocks another for not keeping abreast of the current trends in "hypnometric trances".  See, everyone has two bodies, their physical bodies and their astral bodies.  So the testimony in this case is conducted under hypnometric influence, with possessed Carlos traversing the astral landscape.  Underneath the lovingly-lingered-upon cross in the courtroom.  But then this ends with a zombie ripping out guts, so I forgive it.  Not the best thing ever, but not godawful either.  I'd be curious to see the other, more rib-tickling NARCOSATANICOS...

Saturday, October 29, 2011

HALLOWEENAGE #27: STRAIT-JACKET (1964)


I had a very fun argument with a friend about the merits of William Castle and Alfred Hitchcock.  My contention is that Castle is like the American Hitchcock, only less good and more fun.  I would probably pick other films as supporting evidence for this before STRAIT-JACKET.  Not that it's bad, it just doesn't hit the highs of 13 GHOSTS and HOMICIDAL.


Part of the problem is that STRAIT-JACKET sort of lacks the humorous, playful touches of those earlier films.  Derived from a script by Robert (PSYCHO) Bloch, it's a way more straitforward mystery/thriller.  William Castle doesn't even show up to intro the film while chain-smoking!  On the debit side, the acting is perhaps a little more memorable than normal, largely thanks to Joan Crawford as released-asylum-mom Lucy, who was put away twenty years ago for axe-murdering her unfaithful husband and his girlfriend.


Lucy's released into the care of her daughter Carol, who plans to wed rich boy Michael, perhaps over the objections of his rich parents.  Deaths by axe start happening.  If you have seen a horror movie before, you will probably be able to predict the assorted twists in this one.  It's not particularly rich in dialogue or excellent in execution, but it's all right.  Opt for older Castle first if you're just diving into his body of work, though.  

Friday, October 28, 2011

HALLOWEENAGE #26: SHE CREATURE (2001)

It's pretty singular that this exists because "mermaid" is my monster of choice when discussing innovative villains with friends.  Mermaids, before they were little mermaids and dolls with brushable hair, were the Sirens of The Odyssey and objects of simultaneous desire and terror.  Sounds good to me.  SHE CREATURE is pretty close to what I had in mind and the fact that is works so well is a credit to me and my good ideas. 


Some Irish carnies with a mermaid act get a real mermaid through carny chicanery and plop her on a boat for the States, where money can be made.  One of the carnies is a relatively sweet and sympathetic character named Lily, who becomes frienemies with the fishwoman.  Also, mermaids have a sort of problem once a month or so with their weird moon cycle business.  That is plenty of plot to make a good movie.


And this is a good movie.  I cannot believe it was made for television (IMDB says), because the performances and direction and atmosphere are far too professional.  IMDB also says that it's "Mermaid Chronicles Part I", although I wouldn't bet on a sequel appearing ten years after the fact for a movie that almost no one has ever heard of.  Unless you make it happen, horror consumer.


Thankfully, this is a very self-contained story and it's enjoyable as a self-contained thing, although it definitely leaves space open for future killer-mermaid adventures.  I wasn't going to hate any movie that had both carnies and mermaids, but I didn't expect to love this as much as I did.  Recommended as hell.

HALLOWEENAGE #25: THE BLACK PIT OF DR. M (1958)

I'm going against the grain with this one, as the consensus seems to be that it's an exemplary piece of fifties horror while I find it just pretty good and not lacking flaws.  It's fine and fun, but I wouldn't cite it as the Ultimate in genre film for this era.


One big stumbling block for me is that BLACK PIT is suffused in religion.  Weird fifties hyperCatholicism touches everything in what is essentially a tweak of the Frankenstein tale: Drs. Aldama and Masali agree that whichever of them dies first will find a way to come back so that the other can go to the other world and return in a living body.  


Aldama dies first, leaving behind a daughter which he'd earlier abandoned.  The daughter ends up at Masali's sanitarium and chaos ensues before Masali learns of the "horrible price to pay" to accomplish his trip to the beyond.  This starts slowly, but picks up pace as it throws in all kinds of crazy happenings, from a lab accident to a music box-lulled madwoman.  The acting is pretty solid and there's some absolutely gorgeous lighting and cinematography to be seen.


But it kind of ends up feeling like a LEFT BEHIND movie when the movie shoves Roman Popery down your throat.  It ain't subtle, either...Dr. M "cannot go" to a little church and says, "If I knew how to pray..." before the narrator reminds us how Paul said we're not supposed to uncover covered things.  FRANKENSTEIN obviously had a bit of this man-playing-God business, but it was much more delicate about it.  


I can see why the outlandish elements of the plot and the artful design would win hearts, but this just didn't feel like anything I need to revisit.  The Jesus stuff is cloying and the slow parts are pretty damn deliberate.  It's worth a watch, especially given how many smart people love it, so check it out and make up your own damn mind.  See if you can complete the "senseless struggle to break the barrier that separates us from God."

Thursday, October 27, 2011

HALLOWEENAGE #24: SHEITAN (2006)

Did you ever see a French film and feel bad about yourself because it was so artsy and difficult to understand?  Well, problem solved because SHEITAN exists.  This is pretty much the same city kids-go-to-the-country-to-die movie you've seen one billion times already, only more annoying because the kids are both French and way into club/hip hop culture.


It's momentarily entertaining to hear poncy French and see translations like the one above (don't get me started on the DJ who "don't give a fuck about holidays"), but the initial portion of the film is also the most aggravating because it's full of club scenes and driving scenes and it's shot with every shitty unnecessary camera technique and trendy lens you've seen in every video with people waving money over ridiculous cars ever.  Also, the Equal Opportunity laws for crews in France must be pretty rigid because this gang of kids includes one of everything except that they forgot an Eskimo.  Too bad they all pretty much dress and act the same way!  It's like every race has its very own Kevin Federline.


Once they get to the sticks, the camera stops having so many seizures and they meet the best thing about this movie, Vincent Cassel as Joseph, a creepily endearing caretaker guy.  Cassel's just so exuberant and persistent that it makes you want to like the movie more.  But it mostly unfolds the way you'd expect, the way that all films which are fifteenth-generation TEXAS CHAINSAW children do, with city folks being picked off by the backwoods mutants.  It tries oh so very hard! to include oddball humor including hillbilly racisms, but ultimately I laughed out loud this many times:  .


HIGH TENSION happened, so this also has a few twists, of course.  Overall, it feels very French in a bad way, more like the showier side of IRREVERSIBLE than something that's taut and well-crafted like INSIDE or IN MY SKIN.  Those of you who like metal have heard that new Morbid Angel thing.  Imagine the creative sessions when they were writing "Too Extreme" and congratulating themselves ahead of time on cutting edges and how it would take listeners aback.  And then it ended up being received like, "Oh, yeah, this sort of sounds like things we've heard before, in the nineties."  Yes, pretty much, this is like that.  Skip.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

HALLOWEENAGE #23: THE HYPNOTIC EYE (1960)

No matter how you weigh it, THE HYPNOTIC EYE is quite a treat.  Remarkably brutal for 1960 (a full three years before BLOOD FEAST upped the ante), the film centers around a string of self-mutilations performed by beautiful girls.  Oh, those trendy and silly women, splashing their faces with sulfuric acid and using straight razors instead of lipstick!  We don't see it all, but we see enough and the lurid detail really shocks, given conventional wisdom about the bleedover period from the fifties into the sixties.


So you can probably guess that all of the self-mutilators have attended the same hypnosis show, starring the EU-accented Desmond.  If you're thinking that this sounds a lot like H.G. Lewis's WIZARD OF GORE, you are absolutely correct, although HYPNOTIC EYE is far more restrained and lacks the trademark Lewis boatloads of gore.  This movie has its own rewards, though.  I think I've mentioned how much I prefer whining German accents (like Kier's in BLOOD FOR DRACULA) over yelling ones.  Thanks to HYPNOTIC EYE, I've decided that I will pass on "you are getting sleeepy, sleepy" hypnotists for ones that bark orders and mock their subjects.  Desmond seems very impatient and constantly harangues the hypnotized to "Put your fingers together!  Try to do it!  Try harder!  You're not trying hard enough!  PUT YOUR FINGERS TOGETHER!!!"  I hope you also find this entertaining because at least ten minutes of the finale are devoted to it.


It doesn't stop being weird when Desmond leaves the screen.  There's a whole baffling section in the middle of the film devoted to mocking beatniks (perhaps culling inspiration from 1959's BUCKET OF BLOOD).  PS The beatnik who stands up and announces that, "I've just written a poem!" is Lawrence "King of the Beatniks" Lipton, FATHER OF JAMES "INSIDE THE ACTORS STUDIO" LIPTON.  


Guess who else is in this?  Allison Hayes from the original, good ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN!  And I'd mark this as her most queen-size performance, as her sneering portrayal of Desmond's wicked assistant is a major highlight of the film.  When he asks her how long they have to keep on doing [something, no spoiler], she says, "As long as there are faces like this" and it's like movie gold.  Also, there are lines that probably have very innocent explanations for the time, but which are very jarring now like, "She put her face into a ceiling fan because she thought it was a vibrator."  Uh.


It has mutilation + demanding hypnotist + bitch goddess Allison Hayes - boring stretches and ergo = worth a watch.  I would not mind more evil-hypnotist movies.  They have to be cheaper to make than even the cheapest vampire film because hypnotists don't sparkle or need fangs and really just need eyes, which most actors have.  A+++.

HALLOWEENAGE #22: THE STONE TAPE (1972)

I know people who met a famous Discovery Channel "ghost investigator".  He drunkenly complained that every person he encounters wants to tell him their ghost story and that he doesn't give a shit, he doesn't do this for the art of ghost hunting, he does it because it's lucrative.  The next day, he gave a presentation on demonology that included such authoritative sources as this priest he knows and contained stats like "only one out of every investigation actually has anything goin' on."  Watching THE STONE TAPE made me realize how far the craft of ghost hunting has fallen.  This is far less reliant on gimmicky tricks than your average Discovery broadcast.  It's not even particularly horrific for most of its running time.  It's about very logical and scientifically-bent people encountering something unknown.


Great genre TV is something mostly unknown, although Britain has a better track record than most countries (THREADS, GHOSTWATCH, etc.).  THE STONE TAPE was written by Nigel Kneale, author of THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN and THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT.  This maintains the intellectual slow-burn of those efforts and Kneale's deft plot twists and interesting characterizations lift what could have been a far lesser work.  Because this is a TV production, the budgetary shortfalls are naked for the world to see and some of the acting is a little uneven.  But the script carries it.


This story that is most important involves a research team from an electronics/appliances firm who occupy an ancient edifice in England to work on projects involving magnetic tape and stuff.  While there, some of them perceive the image of a woman on a set of ruined stairs, shrieking, that same image appearing over and over again.  Pressured by the company to produce results with commercial potential, their manager soon forces them to abandon their deliberate studies and go full bore, with pretty bad results.  I don't want to spoil a good time, but this is notable as much for what it doesn't explain as what it does.  Our modern writers haven't learned that lesson, which is why every sequel franchise will eventually get overanalyzed into tedium. But THE STONE TAPE works, with just enough exposition, and it sticks with you after viewing is done.


I am glad that I have horror movies to get me through bad days and bad weeks, and that there are still things like this that remind me that I haven't seen it all.