Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween Holocaust - Triple Threat of Terror: Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978), Halloween II (Rick Rosenthal, 1981) and Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1982) + Addendum - Halloween on the Big Screen...At Halloween!

Note: I'm updating yesterday's (admittedly rushed) post to include my thoughts on a one-off screening of the first film that I went to at a local cinema last night, after finding out about it at the 11th hour. I'll go into more detail about the experience below, but needless to say, I couldn't have imagined a more satisfying way to round off this month's viewing spree. (1/11/12)

It's hard to think of another movie (well, movies) that could be more appropriate/blindingly obvious to finish off this month long horror blogathon. Sure there are other great movies one can watch on Halloween night (Trick 'r Treat and Night of the Demons are two that spring to mind) but can any of them really measure up against the imposing stature of Carpenter's classic? I highly doubt it...

Due to the film's seminal status, it's perhaps even harder to think what one can possibly say about it that hasn't already been repeated to the point of cliche. As a result, it's probably best for me to briefly mention the effect the movie has had on me personally, and leave it at that. To cut a long story short, I'd say that Halloween was the gateway drug, so to speak, which is, for better or worse, largely responsible for my interest in/obsession with the horror genre, and I'm sure many others would say the same. Somewhat extending the drug analogy, you could also say that the film has functioned, for countless viewers including myself, as another rite of passage of sorts, further initiating them into the fascinating and, until now forbidden, adult world of various wild and sticky shenanigans.    

As a result of the movie's tendency to catch people during their teens, where they are at their most appropriately curious and impressionable, it also has the effect, during many later re-viewings, of being able to conjure up nostalgia for one's now long passed, formative years. Furthermore, watching it as an adult, you start to view the characters (as one often does their past self) with a slight degree of knowing bemusement, infused with affection.

The only other thing I'll add is that this is one of those horror films (like Ghostbusters, for me at least) that is so seemingly perfect that I find it endlessly re-watchable. Furthermore, due to its almost invisible style and technical excellence, it arguably provides a masterclass for the budding filmmaker to study and learn from.

Addendum: As I mentioned above, last night I had the unexpected pleasure of seeing the film in a theatre. I don't really head out to the cinema very often these days, mainly due to a combination of overpriced tickets and the almost wall-to-wall, uninspiring, homogeneous fluff that is there to choose from, so this was a somewhat rare treat for me in more ways than one. Plus, aside from being able to see the movie in all-enveloping, wall sized glory, there's always the wonderfully unpredictable bonus of seeing it with a group of strangers, who add to and transmute one's own experience with their varying, and often polarised, reactions.    

Seeing a familiar favourite on the big screen is often like watching it again for the first time and this was quite true when I watched Halloween last night. For one thing, the slow burning, dread-filled sense of inevitable and impending annihilation that one feels for the characters had never, until now, hit me like it did in the theatre last night. To be honest, that's no doubt partly due to the enhancing effects of the cheeky joint I smoked out back before heading in, and the resulting heightened awareness and borderline social anxiety that often brings with it. Obviously, seeing it on a screen one can barely escape also turns the volume up on things, so to speak. Needless to say, putting these two things in tandem is almost literally like being temporarily given a new pair of eyes with which to see the film.

The other things that struck me during this rewatch were mainly little moments of body language and bits of background detail; nothing that made me dramatically reevaluate the film, but all of them, in their own small ways, helping to bringing me further into its world.

As a cherry on top of this thoroughly enjoyable experience, I also had an eerie, slightly meta moment when the movie came to its end. While the credits were rolling and the audience was heading out of the theatre, I was in the process of getting my stuff together to cycle home, and was only half cognizant of what was occurring around me. Needless to say, I got a bit of a shock when the lights came up and I realised the room was now totally deserted. In retrospect, it sort of reminded of the scene in Argento's Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) where a woman is waiting in a busy park to meet someone and, after fumbling around her handbag and smoking a cigarette, suddenly realises the park is now empty and lifeless. Experiencing this for myself caught me a tad off balance at first, but it was an undeniably perfect way to finish the screening, before I had to head out into the dark, and on my lonesome way home. Also, after soaking in the film's autumnal ambience for the best part of a couple of hours, I certainly gained a new appreciation for all the groovy orange streetlights decorating the roads I had to travel.  

As many others also attest, the film's first sequel blends so organically into its predecessor that I find it nigh on impossible to watch one without sticking the other on immediately after. It's not exactly as memorable or perfect as the original, but taken on its own merits, it's still an excellent example of the slasher subgenre, and to be fair, it was always going to suffer from being compared to its slightly older brother. 

Some people find fault with it because Jaime Lee Curtis spends much of the movie in a borderline comatose state, but personally I've never had a problem with this. Besides, we get a brief trippy, fever dream sequence because of it, and also, it sets things up nicely for later on, when Laurie is limping around the mostly deserted hospital, looking for assistance.

The second sequel is probably the most underrated in the entire franchise and, if I'm not mistaken, largely bombed when it was first released due to the absence of the series' now iconic villain. Apparently Carpenter and company wanted to move away from the original story and start telling some other tales set around the eponymous holiday. And it's a shame this failed, as it would have been fascinating to see what else they could have come up with.

I wouldn't go so far as to call it a great film exactly, but it's got such a delightfully barmy plot that I never fail to get a kick out of it. For the uninitiated, it's essentially the story of a mad toymaker who plans to unleash his own Halloween holocaust upon the kiddywinks by selling them some diabolical masks he's constructed (using stolen pieces of Stonehenge to give them their occult power, if I'm not mistaken) which, when activated by a TV signal sent out on Halloween night, will turn their pretty little heads into writhing masses of creepy crawlies. Plus, Tom Atkins is in it, so what else do you need?

The film has been fairly ubiquitous on British TV this October (showing up on several different channels) so hopefully it will grow in stature; I know it already has a small cult of admirers who sing its praises (self-included). If you haven't seen it though, I'd recommend giving it a chance; just take it for what it is and hopefully you'll enjoy it. 

Oh, and Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Halloween Holocaust: The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981)

Somewhat accidentally, I've ended up watching the Evil Dead trilogy in reverse during the course of this month's viewing, and this has proved to be both interesting and slightly instructive. It's well-known that the series leaned further away from horror and more towards comedy and slapstick as it passed through two sequels, but watching them in this counter-intuitive fashion really hammered it home. It's also allowed me to more fully appreciate what a great low-budget horror film the first installment really is, in comparison to its more tongue-in-cheek younger brothers. A slight vein of comedy is still present, but it's arguably subservient to, and intermingled with, the chills and thrills that dominate proceedings.

Upon its initial release in the UK (simultaneously on video and in theatres; a first of its kind, if I'm not mistaken) the film quickly became a poster child for the hysteria surrounding the 'Video Nasty' moral panic that was sweeping across the country at the time. Things got so farcical that the distributors (Palace Pictures, who later produced such genre gems as The Company of Wolves and Hardware) were eventually taken to court, where they successfully overturned accusations of obscenity.

To be honest, there's not a great amount I can really say about this film that hasn't already been expressed countless times. For instance, it probably goes without saying that the real star of the show here is the dynamic, freewheeling cinematography that is frequently on display, with its elaborate tracking shots, Dutch angles and expressionistic lighting. As a side note, one wonders if the film would have been remembered by so many if it wasn't so audaciously directed and technically well executed. On the other hand, I'd say that the stop motion and prosthetic effects are occasionally inconsistent, but for the most part quite effective. Come to think of it though, even the less convincing/successful ones still exude an almost uncanny creepiness at times, in spite of, or maybe even because of, their modest origins; the same can't really be said for the higher budgeted effects of the sequels. 

Finally, it would be frankly heinous not to briefly mention the contributions of Bruce Campbell. The film was clearly an effort of blood, sweat and tears for all involved, but no doubt especially so for Bruce, who always takes a bit of a beating at the hands of the admittedly sadistic Sam Raimi. Apparently, the actor even put his family's house up as collateral for a loan so that the movie could be blown up to 35mm for its wider release. Anyone that committed to getting a movie out there is a legend in my book. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Halloween Holocaust: Scarecrows (William Wesley, 1988)

I'd never heard of this cracking little film until just before watching it, and I'm assuming its seeming obscurity may have something to do with a lack of availability, although I might be wrong. Essentially, it's sort of like Predator meets Reservoir Dogs, with demonically possessed scarecrows taking the place of the alien hunter, and thieving paramilitary mercenaries instead of stylishly suited crooks. 

Like many other effective low budget horror pics, it's both taut and lean in its execution, single minded in its intent to terrify, and boasts a wonderfully intimate sense of place (which soon becomes appropriately claustrophobic). 

As I've only just seen the film for the first time (and in the wee hours as well), there's not a great deal more I can add at present. From what I remember though, I'd say that the cast were all very competent, portraying characters who were refreshingly three-dimensional. The eponymous straw-men are perhaps the creepiest I've seen on screen and are pure nightmare fuel. Personally though - and this is my only criticism of an otherwise excellent movie - I'd say that the scarecrows seem less frightening when they actually start moving about and wreaking bloody havoc, but that might just be me. I think maybe they could have staged these splatter set-pieces a bit more effectively, but as I've implied, my memory of some of the film is still slightly hazy, so will need to re-watch it before I make my mind up on this apparent issue. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Halloween Holocaust: Night of the Demons (Kevin S. Tenney, 1988)

Apparently quite successful when it was first released, although still relatively unknown (even to many horror fans), Night of the Demons would make an ideal movie for a Halloween after party; it's a fun, yet occasionally freaky romp that has the added bonus of being set on the holiday itself. 

Essentially a tale of teens conjuring up and then being taken over by a discarnate demonic entity (the first two Evil Dead movies would make obvious companion pieces), the film is very much of the 80's (I mean this as a good thing) in several wonderful ways. The first things that struck me when watching it were the driving, Carpenter-esque, synth score (composed by the director's brother, Dennis Michael Tenney) and the groovy, animated title sequence (which to my mind recalls bits of the "Night on Bald Mountain" segment from Fantasia); both help to set the ghoulish mood perfectly.   

Thanks to some scatterings of visual flair from the director (with notable assistance from the DP and production design team), inspired effects work from a young Steve Johnson, and lively performances from the ensemble cast (whose characters are broadly drawn but still somewhat believable), the film arguably transcends its relatively modest budget and set-up, therefore distinguishing itself from the reams of genre fodder being produced during the period. 

I'd say the film is worth seeing alone for the scene where Amelia Kinkade (who is now a famous pet psychic; apparently she's even met the Queen) freaks out tough guy Sal (Billy Gallo) by dancing wildly and erotically to "Stigmata Martyr" by Bauhaus, but there's also plenty more to recommend throughout the entire picture. 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Halloween Holocaust: The Addams Family (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1991)

Like Coppola's Dracula, which we looked at yesterday, this big screen outing for Charles Addams' famous family is another early 90's big budget genre film that is worth seeing for both its grand gothic visuals and, perhaps more importantly, the generosity of spirit it exudes. Whilst not really a horror film in the traditional sense, it's arguably an ideal movie to introduce the kiddywinks to the weird and wonderful world of the macabre.  

It occurred to me when re-watching the film recently that the plot is roughly in the vein of 'slobs against the snobs' movies such as Animal House and Caddyshack, but with fun-loving goths against crooked con artists. The audience surrogate character, who is pulled between these two polarised worlds is Gordon Craven (a near unrecognisable Christopher Lloyd, who gives a fantastic, physical performance and looks surprisingly even creepier with hair than without), who is pushed by his tyrannical mother (Elizabeth Wilson) and the Addams' family lawyer Tully Alford (Dan Hedaya) - who is deeply in debt to this dubious pair - into impersonating the Addams' long lost Uncle Fester, in order to gain access to the riches stashed away in the family vault. He's initially perplexed - and no doubt a little bit terrified - by the creepy, kooky bunch, and only hangs around to find the promised loot. Before long though, the off-kilter charm of the family has him thoroughly disarmed, and feeling more at home than he ever was as his mama's lap dog. However, as old family ties still run deep, the matriarch still manages to maintain an emotional hold over him, later compelling him to betray his recently met relations and give up his newly found domestic bliss.    

As you've no doubt gathered from the above synopsis, the film is basically about the importance of family over the self-centered acquisition of money and material wealth. Thankfully though, these themes are so lightly embedded into the story that it never feels like you're being bashed over the head by subtext; nonetheless, it's nice to know the movie has some meat on its bones, so to speak.

The contributions of all involved - both in front of and behind the camera - are consummate and committed, with excellent performances all round from the likes of the late Raul Julia (who plays Gomez with infectious, head-to-toe gusto), a strangely alluring Anjelica Huston, and a young Christina Ricci, who plays Wednesday with an appropriate mix of poker faced deadly seriousness and diabolical glee (see the scene where she electrocutes her brother Pugsley for evidence of the latter). Barry Sonnenfeld, who was, prior to this picture a DP for the Coen brothers, working on the likes of Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, turns in a confident directorial debut here. He also apparently completed the film's cinematography when the first two people employed for the job left, one owing to other work commitments and the other due to sudden illness. I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the sumptuous score by Marc Shaiman, which recycles the famous theme from the TV series and also features many memorable cues of its own.

In a way, the brief pre-credit sequence - taken from one of Charles Addams' original cartoons - sums up another reason why this movie rocks. It shows a bunch of jolly Christmas carolers imploring us to "deck the halls" and all that jazz, before craning upwards to show the eponymous family tipping a cauldron of burning something-or-other onto these assembled purveyors of holiday cheer; and it screams out to me one basic message: "Death to Christmas! And long live Halloween!"  

Friday, October 26, 2012

Halloween Holocaust: Bram Stoker's Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992)

Celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year, Francis Ford Coppola's lavish, big budget adaptation of Stoker's classic novel is a rare and beautiful beast; a full blooded horror picture with blockbuster production values. I'd say that the film mostly benefits from the excesses associated with such a prestige production, but in other ways it is perhaps pulled back to being slightly shy of greatness by them. In other words, there's a certain amount of fat hanging around the edges of the picture that if trimmed may have made it into a leaner, more powerful film. However, having now seen it several times, I'm growing to love it more and more despite, and sometimes even because of, its apparent flaws. 

For the most part, everything about the movie is top drawer quality. It's a veritable banquet for the eyes and ears, with striking cinematography by Scorsese regular Michael Ballhaus, an achingly beautiful score by Wojciech Kilar, and wonderfully anachronistic, old-school visual effects work, supervised by Coppola's son Roman, who is now a frequent collaborator with an appropriately visual director, Wes Anderson. The film seems to make use of every cine-magic trick in the book to cast its beguiling spell, including superimposition, force perspective, multiple exposures, frame-dropping and graphic matches galore.      

As much as all this visual wizardry is extremely welcome (and worth seeing the film alone for if you're an aesthete) it would add up to naught but smoke and mirrors without a beating heart at its center to inject some life into proceedings. Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder almost carry the entire movie in this regard (with the former giving a especially memorable performance that is alternatingly seductive, menacing and affecting), although the aforementioned contributions of the crew, and solid support from the surrounding ensemble cast, all certainly help too. 

As I suggested earlier, there are some arguable problems with the film, despite its many merits. In a nutshell, I think the problem stems from things being spread a bit dramatically thin, so to speak, between the ensemble cast. Specifically, I think that all the action adventure shenanigans with Keanu Reeves (who adopts the most hilariously atrocious English accent I've ever heard), Anthony Hopkins (clearly having a ball in his role as Van Helsing) and company (including Richard E. Grant and Cary Elwes) somewhat dilutes the impact of the tragic-romance and horror aspects of the story (although they are admittedly part of the architecture of the plot). On the other hand, and as I also previously stated, now that I'm familiar with these seeming shortcomings, I'm starting to enjoy them for what they are, even if they do feel like they belong in another film. Though come to think of it, all of this could be construed as another way in which the movie is a glorious throwback; audiences arguably get it all: action, adventure, chills, thrills and romance. Needless to say, I still haven't entirely made my mind up about this one, and I'd say that's more of a complement than a criticism.

And just for shits and giggles, here's a promo shot of Keanu Reeves with grey hair; it shifts through several curious monochromatic shades in the latter part of the narrative (following his imprisonment in the Count's castle), before becoming silvery white at the end, which actually makes him look a little bit like Doc Brown from Back to the Future...