October 29, 2013

24 Hours Of Halloween Horror Part I: Zombies And Slashers and Universal Classics


I’m a bit of a crazy person.

My friends Jason and Lucy loooooove Halloween and, more specifically, Halloween movies.  Every year they host a movie marathon full of all sorts of crazy shit and I’ve been looking forward to it ever since they first put the bug in my ear a few months ago.  They set the date for the Saturday before Halloween, scheduling 12 hours of non-stop horror from noon to midnight.  The only hitch was that I had already planned on attending the Coolidge's 13th Annual Halloween Marathon, taking place immediately thereafter from midnight to noon.  For most people this would present an insurmountable problem, forcing them to choose one marathon over the other.


I just said fuck it and went to both.

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I arrived at Jason and Lucy's apartment in Somerville just before noon.  I was the first one there, but they had clearly been prepping the place for quite some time.  The living room was packed with enough comfy chairs, pillows and blankets to seat about 15 people with nary a bad seat in the house.  I snagged myself a prime spot on the couch and settled in while loads of bizarre horror trailers looped on the TV and Halloween music drifted out of the speakers.  Jason hung sheets to black out the windows while Lucy literally cranked up their Whirley Pop and filled two big bowls with perfectly seasoned popcorn.  Throw in the two jack-o-lantern buckets stuffed with candy (one chocolate, one fruity), the refrigerator full of beers and the impending pizza delivery, it quickly became clear that I'd be taking a break from conscientious eating.*  It was also clear that this was gonna be a good day.

Let the madness begin!

Zombie Flesh Eaters, a.k.a. Zombie, a.k.a. Zombi 2 (1979)

Yes, that's right.  That's a zombie fighting a shark.

We started the day with Lucio Fucli's undead masterpiece Zombie Flesh Eaters, originally sold in Italy as an unofficial sequel to Romero's Dawn Of The Dead.  The story centers on a reporter and a woman who travel to a tropical island in search of her father after the old man's boat arrives in New York Harbor with only a single zombie on board.  They track down a British doctor who's been doing experiments and studying the locals, many of whom seem to be rising from the grave to attack the living.  Soon it's a race to evade the zombie hordes and get off the island alive.

A perfect way to kick things off.  After the initial zombie attack the story is a bit slow to get started, but really Fulci's just lulling you into a false sense of security.  The second half of the film is full of some really fantastic zombie attacks, including the infamous one above in which an underwater zombie fights off an actual shark.  (The zombie is actually the shark trainer in heavy makeup.)  There's also a really fantastic scene in which the doctor's wife gets a pretty serious splinter to the face.  It's incredibly cool that Fulci is able to use Romero's modern zombie sensibility while also bringing it all back to island voodoo, the proper birthplace of zombies.  The last thirty minutes is chock full of that really awesome Italian gore, with latex skin and gurgling red paint galore.  And, like so many Italian films of that era, the cast is made up of both English and Italian speaking actors, all of whom speak their own native language with no sound recorded on set.  That means every line of dialogue is done in post, so sometimes it feels like you're watching a dubbed foreign film and sometimes it just feels like you're watching an American film made up entirely of shitty ADR.  There's an inherently comical element to the disconnect between what you're seeing and what you're hearing; combine that with some really well staged zombie attacks (I'm particularly fond of the conquistador graveyard) and the first rate make-up and practical effects, and you've got an absolute classic with a seriously killer ending.

The Mummy (1932)

I was feeling guilty about going through an entire month of horror films without ever getting around to any of the Universal Classic Monsters, something I planned on doing way back in week two.  I felt so bad that I even forced myself to purchase the Blu-ray boxed set of beautiful new restorations when Amazon had it listed at over 50% off last week.  Thankfully, Jason makes it a point to watch at least one Universal Monster movie every October and this year he settled on The Mummy starring Boris Karloff in the title role.  He brings a remarkable sense of quiet menace to Imhotep, who only appears as the traditional cloth-wrapped corpse in the film's opening scene.  He's quickly revived and escapes into the desert, at which point the film jumps forward ten years and Karloff spends the rest of the film posing as a wrinkled contemporary Egyptian.  My understanding is that the incongruity between the general public's perception of these characters and their actual early execution is a running theme throughout these films.

Technically this is considered the source material for the Stephen Sommers franchise starring Brendan Fraser, but there aren't a whole lot of similarities.  Arnold Vosloo's character is also named Imhotep and the plot still centers around his attempt to reincarnate an ancient Egyptian princess in the body of a modern day beauty, but everything else is radically different.  Sommers' film is a rollicking adventure tale, with Fraser as the wannabe Indiana Jones, but Karl Freund's original is an exotic supernatural mystery that's far darker in tone.  Each have their own time and place I suppose.  The restoration here is so good that I'm really excited to delve into my shiny new boxed set even further.  Maybe I can knock out one movie a week or something.

Karloff has a weird line about how he doesn't like to be touched because of his "Eastern prejudice."  That phrase would become a running joke throughout the day.

Bud Abbot And Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Another great introduction to the Universal Classics.  About fifteen minutes into this movie I realized that not only was it the first time I was seeing Bella Lugosi's Dracula or Lon Chaney Jr's Wolfman, but it was also the first time I was seeing Abbott and Costello doing something other than arguing about baseball.  We do miss out on Karloff as Frankenstein's Monster, but it doesn't feel like a huge loss because the character is barely present in the movie.  There's a pretty remarkable blending of tones here: Abbot and Costello are as funny as ever, but Lugosi and Chaney are playing their famous characters pretty straight, resisting the urge to really ham it up or mock themselves to keep up with the comedians.  Everyone's just sort of doing their own thing and having a ball doing it and somehow it all just falls into place.  There's a whole lot of Costello encountering the monsters while Abbott is out of the room and while that might sound tiring on paper, watching the two of them argue is so entertaining that I not only didn't mind the contrivance, I actually wanted it to last the whole movie, for Abbott to NEVER see the monsters and remain convinced that Costello was just imagining things the whole time.

There's a whole running gag about two beautiful women named Sandra and Joan who are seemingly infatuated with Costello while Abbott keeps trying to convince his friend to "let him have one," talking about the women like they were cheeseburgers.  It's easy to write this behavior off as just an unfortunate relic of a bygone era, but I actually think the film is smarter than that.  Neither of the women is actually interested in Costello and they're both playing him to serve a greater agenda - Sandra wants to steal his brain to put in Frankenstein's Monster and Joan is an undercover insurance investigator who suspects the duo of theft.  The men's misogyny is thus undermined by two women who are both smart and capable and they make Abbott and Costello look like even bigger fools for trying to trade them like a pack of gum.  In reality both Sandra and Joan have the ability to completely destroy these men in very different ways, and Abbott and Costello have absolutely no idea what's really going on.  It's actually a fairly clever subplot that feels sharply ahead of its time.

Also, the hand drawn animations whenever Dracula turns into a bat totally rule.

Re-Animator (1985)

This is another flick I've been meaning to watch for years, despite knowing almost nothing about it other than that it stars Jeffrey Combs (familiar to me from his numerous roles on the various Star Treks) as a scientist who can bring back the dead thanks to a syringe full of some glowing green stuff.  That's actually the only thing you really need to know, as the movie isn't really concerned with exploring the characters with any kind of depth or even explaining exactly what's in the mystery reagent and how Dr. Herbert West managed to get his hands on it.  All that really matters is that West has got a duffel bag full of the stuff and he's willing to use it.  Director Stuart Gordon knows exactly what kind of movie he's making and he powers through all the perfunctory plot stuff in order to linger on violent reanimated corpses and insanely great visuals that will make you laugh and scream simultaneously.

West is a perfect mad scientist, singularly focused and unconcerned with trivialities like politeness or, you know, morality of any kind.  All that matters to him is results and if that means being a tremendous dickhead  or killing your cat ("Details later.") then so be it.  Generally you'd expect an upright, idealistic hero to counterbalance a character like West, but his nice guy roommate Dan is such a boring pushover that he practically blends into the background.  Bruce Abbott can't hold his own with anyone in a scene, including Mace the security guard and his copy of Boudoir magazine.  (That's not a gramatical error.  The guy gets upstaged by a magazine.)  Barbara Crampton, who was lovely in the recent You're Next, acquits herself well as Dan's girlfriend Meg, even if her character is often left with little to do other than scream at the madness all around her.  But neither of these characters ever properly take charge of the situation and assert themselves.  Instead they just get sort of sucked into West's insanity and hold on for the ride.  The only other character that really steps up is Dr. Hill, the supremely creepy teacher who wants to bang Meg and steal West's potion for his own fame and fortune.  Hill's an outright villain - if he had a mustache, he'd spend half the movie twirling it - so by the time we get to the film's conclusion, in which Hill creates an army of reanimated and lobotomized corpses to do his bidding, (it's awesome) Herbert West practically becomes the fucking hero by default!  It's a hell of a turnaround and a great subversion of the classic and anticipated plot structure for this kind of movie.  Instead of Dan and/or Meg growing a spine and standing up to West, the movie simply introduces an even BIGGER asshole scientist so that West looks practically altruistic by comparison.

I'm tiptoeing around the finale a bit because there's some stuff in there that's absurd, great and just absurdly great and I was grateful to not know it was coming in advance.  Re-Animator is currently streaming on Netflix.  Watch it with friends and beers.

Black Christmas (1974)

Black Christmas was released the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the two films pretty much gave birth to the modern slasher genre.  But whereas Leatherface begat killers like Jason, Freddy and Michael Myers, Black Christmas is the direct forebearer of the more grounded, domestic killing sprees of films like Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, When A Stranger Calls or Prom Night, where it's less about the actual killer and more about executing the concept.  Here we've got a sorority house full of attractive young girls who are preparing to leave school for Christmas break.  An unseen killer, presented entirely through first person POV (You're welcome Friday The 13th!) sneaks into the house and starts to slowly pick the girls off one by one while simultaneously calling the house and screaming almost indecipherable obscenities over the phone.  Nobody is the wiser until the first victim's father arrives to bring her home and she's nowhere to be found.  The largely inept local police, led by John Saxon (who would later play Nancy's father in A Nightmare On Elm Street) finally start to take notice when a little girl is found murdered in the park nearby.  They put a tap on the sorority's phone and we get some great scenes of the phone company guy literally running up and down corridors trying to find what physical switch the call is coming from, leading to the infamous and destined to be co-opted line, "The calls are coming from inside the house!"

It's a great cast, including Olivia Hussey,  a wonderfully boozy Margot Kidder, a big-haired Andrea Martin (who would appear in the 2008 remake) and Marian Waldman as Mrs. Mac, the well-meaning house mother who's constantly sneaking shots of straight sherry from a collection of bottles hidden all over the house.  And while none of the kills are particularly gruesome, they are all pretty varied and fun.  We get suffocation by plastic bag, a pulley hook to the face and a stabbing with a crystal unicorn head among others.  But otherwise it's not a terribly flashy movie.  If you didn't know that Black Christmas was the film that influenced generations of horror filmmakers, you'd be tempted to write it off as just another movie about a psycho killing a herd of young hotties.  What sets it apart is that it got there first and set the bar for everyone that followed.  That and the film's ending, a really ballsy decision that not only have I never seen copied before, but one that provoked a perfect reaction from our assembled ranks.  Black Christmas is the one that started it all and it's just as great today as it ever was.

Sleepaway Camp (1983)

HOLY.  FUCK.

This movie was so insanely great that I simply cannot contain myself.  The fact that it does not exist on Blu-ray and the DVD looks to be out of print is downright criminal.

While I had heard the title before, I knew absolutely nothing about this movie going into it and trust me, that's the ideal situation.  In fact, I really hesitate to say anything at all about the movie and would rather just implore you to pull it straight to the top of your Netflix queue.  (Sadly it's not streaming on Netflix, although a few of the surely disappointing sequels are.  UPDATE: Jason rightly pointed out that the whole movie is available in HD on fucking YouTube of all places.  But seriously, plug your laptop into your TV.  It's worth it.)  The basic premise is obvious from the title: a series of brutal murders take place at a sleepaway camp and the killer's identity remains a mystery.  There is SOOO much more going on though and delving into really any detail would be a massive disservice.  Yeah, it feels silly to contort myself like this to avoid spoilers for a 30 year old movie, but Sleepaway Camp is very much a cult title and I'd rather use this as a platform to convince you to check this thing out for yourself, especially if you're a fan of seriously fucked up movies.  The film's final freeze frame is one of the most disturbing images I've ever seen in a movie and it's little wonder that it remains on screen throughout and even after the credits roll.  If any of that sounds appealing, stop reading now and just watch it.  You can thank me later.

Still here?  Okay, I will say this much: the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that Sleepaway Camp is one of the most brilliantly executed stylistic fake outs I've ever seen.  Especially watching the film today, you get so wrapped up in all the hilarious 80's fashion (some of the shortest shorts I've ever seen) and some really over the top performances in the supporting roles that you're quickly convinced you're just watching a bad movie.  But a lot of those weird performances and confusing story choices are really just a smokescreen that serve to keep you off balance and set up a finale that will absolutely knock you sideways.  Sleepaway Camp is a dark shard of psychological horror masquerading as low budget cheese.  It's like if you started out watching Troll 2 and at the end it had suddenly turned into Seven.

You must watch this movie.

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After Sleepaway Camp it was a little after 11:00 PM, which gave me just enough time to make my way over to the Coolidge before the festivities kicked off there.  I was missing out on Game 3 of the World Series, so I listened to the local radio broadcast on my way across town.  When I pulled up in front of the theater the Sox had tied the game up for the second time, but by the start of the first movie St Louis had won on a controversial and now-infamous obstruction call at third base.  (I agree that the ump made the correct call, but I also think that the rule itself probably needs to be revisited to consider intent.  Major League Baseball agrees.)

But no matter.  The Sox had plenty more games of baseball to play, and I had twelve more hours of movies to watch.


UP NEXT: Midnight To Noon At The Coolige!


*I've put myself back on my pre-wedding diet, although I haven't been quite as strict about it this time.  Getting to the gym has proven difficult, so it was either eat better or buy all new clothes.  I chose the former.


October 27, 2013

I Expected A Lot More From A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET

 “What is seen is not always what is real.”
For much of my life, Freddy Krueger has been considered the paragon of terror, the king of all psycho movie killers.  But while Friday The 13th genuinely surprised me with its smart and brutal filmmaking, A Nightmare On Elm Street feels like a trashy dime store comic book by comparison.

That makes sense to a certain degree.   Although he’s not actually present (in his most recognizable form) in the first Friday The 13th, Jason Voorhees is a flesh and blood attacker who’s extremely difficult to kill.  On the other hand, Freddy Krueger is ephemeral, a supernatural villain who exists purely in the dreams of his victims but whose lethality is not diminished by his lack of corporeal form.  As a result, he delights in torturing the local teens in a variety of almost cartoonish forms.  And while I’m always a fan of practical effects work, stuff like long-armed Freddy, Freddy wearing a Tina mask, and Freddy's tongue coming out of the phone receiver are actually more amusing than scary.  The sequences that work the best are the ones that focus more on the really intense gore, stuff like Amanda Wyss’s evisceration on the ceiling, or Johnny Depp’s bed sinkhole turned inverted geyser of blood.

I’m more surprised by all the movie’s missed opportunities.  The scariest thing in the entire film is the massive sleep deprivation.  These kids are terrified of what will happen when they fall asleep, so they end up going a full week without rest.  That will fuck a person right up, but there’s not a lot of attention paid to the possible side effects of keeping your eyes open for seven straight days.  Sure, we see Nancy popping some pills and chugging a lot of coffee (I particularly loved when she pulled a Mr. Coffee out from under her bed) but it just feels like lip service to a plot point.  Presumably Depp is also awake for most of the film but he remains completely level-headed throughout; he never gets manic, just drowsy.  This makes Nancy’s behavior feel less like the result of sleep deprivation and more like clich├ęd female hysteria.  They touch briefly on the idea of “dream skills,” or taking control of the dream in order to take away Freddy's power, but it’s never explored in any really meaningful way and quickly gets dropped in favor of pulling Freddy out of the dream and trapping him in a series of  elaborate Home Alone-style booby traps, which Nancy is hilariously able to set up in the span of ten minutes.

But the whole point of Freddy is that he’s an spirit wreaking vengeance upon the neighborhood kids as punishment for the sins of their parents.  Nancy’s mother explains that the real Fred Krueger was a child murderer who managed to evade conviction on a technicality, prompting the local parents to form a lynch mob, trap him in a boiler room and roast him like a charcoal briquette.  But Nancy’s parents are the only ones who readily admit their role in all of this carnage, and they don’t really express any remorse for their actions either, at least not until kids start dying.  Nancy’s mother drinks herself into a stupor and we barely glimpse any of the other parents at all, let alone discover whether they were involved in Freddy’s death.  Sure it makes for a nifty origin story for the character, but it also feels like an interesting thematic element that gets largely paved over in favor of more finger knives.  That's understandable, but it's disappointing all the same.  I remember hearing that the recent remake, with Jackie Earl Haley as Krueger, actually started with that lynch mob scene, so I’m curious to see if that movie picked up the thread further or did anything at all interesting with it.  I’m not getting my hopes up.

The end is also totally ridiculous.  After burning to death in the real world for the second time, Freddy reappears once more in Nancy's dream.  This leads her back to the "dream skills" strategy and she seemingly wills Freddy out of existence.  (Hilariously, the exact same ending was used in Rise Of The Guardians.)  That just feels like Wes Craven wrote two different endings and couldn't decide which one to use, so he stuck them both in.  Then the whole movie is basically retconned away and everyone comes back to life with no memory of what transpired.  That is until Freddy suddenly shows up to suck Nancy's mother through a window and possess Johnny Depp's car.  What the fuck is that all about?  Are they really alive?  She has to be imagining it right?  Since Freddy can't actually appear in the real world unless someone pulls him out of a dream?  So did Freddy not get sent back to hell a minute before?  Something doesn't fit here.


I’ll tell you one thing: a green and red striped convertible top doesn’t hold a candle to demon-child Jason popping up out of the lake.

You win, Friday The 13th.

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Title: A Nightmare On Elm Street
Director: Wes Craven
Starring: Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, Amanda Wyss, Johnny Depp, John Saxon, Jsu Garcia
Year Of Release: 1984
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD





October 25, 2013

FRIDAY THE 13TH Is Not The Movie I Thought It Was

"But...then he's still out there."
Did you know that Jason Voorhees, the infamous hockey masked and machete wielding killer from the Friday The 13th franchise is not actually in the original Friday The 13th?

Because I sure as fuck didn't.

I've been waiting until the final days before Halloween to dive into some of the more storied horror franchises that, much like their deranged antagonists, simply refuse to die no matter how many subpar sequels get made.  I've always considered Jason, Freddy and Michael Myers to be the "big three" when it comes to psychotic eternal killers and, while I've seen a few of the Halloween movies over the years, I've somehow managed to almost completely avoid Freddy and Jason.  In fact, my only real experience with these two iconic characters is the fairly disappointing Freddy Vs Jason and the hilariously over-the-top Jason X, or as I call it, "Jason Goes To Space."  That one's worth watching for the holodeck/sleeping bag scene alone.

It's probably telling that the only Jason movie I've ever seen is the one on a space ship.  I never really got into horror as a genre when I was a kid, erring more on the side of sci-fi instead.  Of course the two are incredibly intertwined, and a lot of horror movies draw heavily from sci-fi roots.  But even something like John Carpenter's The Thing, which is a perfect blend of the two, didn't find its way in front of my eyeballs until very late in the game.  I know that my parents never really let me watch R rated movies and I didn't have any horror fanatic friends or older siblings to sneak this stuff to me when they weren't looking.  Then again, maybe I was just a total wuss as a kid.

Either way, I thought I had a pretty good read on the basics of Friday The 13th, but when I sat down to watch the 1980 original last night, I was thrown for a complete and total loop instead.  It's almost unfathomable that Jason X can trace its lineage all the way back to this quaint yet brutally effective slasher flick, in which the killer not only remains off camera for 90% of the movie, but is eventually revealed to be a character that hasn't even been seen or mentioned in any way.  There's a very oblique reference to a "boy drowning in '57" by Enos the truck driver at the very beginning, but that's it until Mrs. Voorhees shows up at the eleventh hour to explain away the entire movie, which up until that point was just a series of attractive teenagers getting killed off for no reason other than a very nonspecific curse.  Aside from a few disappointing off-camera deaths, most of the kills are really well executed (zing!) and the repeated use of the killer's POV is almost as creepy as the owner of Camp Crystal Lake himself, who I was pretty certain was gonna turn out to be a rapist.  My only real complaint is about the very end: the bit with the girl in the canoe is SO TOTALLY AWESOME that the cut away to the hospital feels like a huge letdown.  I appreciate that they didn't try to explain the previous moment away as a dream, but that makes the scene all the more unnecessary.  They should have quit while they were ahead.

Live-tweet bewilderment follows:













































































Friday The 13th was more than just a pleasant surprise.  It completely pulled the rug out from under me.  Now I want to go through the whole franchise, if only to figure out how they got from here to Uber-Jason.  The reality might be disappointing, but NOW I NEED TO KNOW.

PS: The original trailer is embedded below as always, but I'd urge you not to watch it if you've never seen the film.  (I realize that may not be a lot of you.)  The whole thing is essentially a list of kill scenes, and while it doesn't really include the money shots, it still feels like it gives away a lot.

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Title: Friday The 13th
Director: Sean S. Cunningham
Starring: Adrienne King, Jeannine Taylor, Kevin Bacon, Robbi Morgan, Harry Crosby, Laurie Bartram, Mark Nelson, Betsy Palmer
Year Of Release: 1980
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD




October 24, 2013

ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW Is The Gutsiest Film Of The Year

"Don't let your imagination run wild."
The fact that Escape From Tomorrow exists at all, let alone that I was able to pay money and see it in a theater with other humans, is downright astounding.

The film is a middle-aged, middle-class nightmare about Jim, a man who finds out that he's been fired on the last day of his family vacation at Disney World.  He ventures out into the park with his wife and two kids but quickly finds himself losing his grip on reality while simultaneously lusting after MILFs and a pair of French teenagers.  He hallucinates and is overcome with paranoia, but it remains to be seen whether or not it's all in his head or if there's something far more disturbing afoot.  That's a very basic description that doesn't even begin to hint at the sheer insanity that's packed into this black and white horrorshow,

But here's the totally mind-boggling part: much of the film was secretly filmed guerrilla-style at Disney World with absolutely no permission from the Walt Disney Corporation.   Director Randy Moore and his intrepid cinematographer Lucas Lee Graham spent days in the park for what sounds like an exhaustive pre-production process, not only scouting exact locations but also charting the movement of the sun across the park in order to figure out exactly what time of day would provide the proper lighting for each scene.  The cast and crew paid admission to enter the park and they shot scenes using the Canon 5D Mark II Digital SLR camera, blending in as tourists and staging innocuous scenes while riding and waiting in line for attractions.  They interact with costumed characters and cover an impressive amount of ground while pulling one over on the Happiest Place On Earth.

And somehow it looks gorgeous.  Considering the circumstances I was half expecting most of the park footage to be pretty rough, but you can really see how all of Moore and Graham's preparation paid off.  You'd never know by looking at it that they basically shot half the movie on the down low while ducking Disney security.  The staging and the shot composition is pretty amazing, and the "production value" of the reality happening all around them is worth it's weight in gold.  There are a few scenes that clearly utilize green screens and background plates, and while it's certainly noticeable it's not so distracting that it detracts from the scenes themselves.  I wish I could say the same about the cast.  The performances by Roy Abramsohn and Elena Schuber are pretty inconsistent; when they're out in the park surrounded by unsuspecting park-goers they're pretty natural, but they're downright cringeworthy in some of the more extreme moments staged on closed sets.

More than anything else, I have to give Escape From Tomorrow credit for its incredible ambition.  On top of the ridiculous production process, the film itself is totally balls out WEIRD, but in a way that I totally loved.  You have to respect Randy Moore for taking on an incredible production challenge in service of a script that's hardly an easy sell in the first place.  This is in no way a film for everyone and you're almost certain to walk away with more questions than answers, but it's also not really a film that's interested in spelling everything out for you.  It wants to make you uncomfortable, subverting the whole notion of these plastic, prepackaged vacation experiences and imagining what kind of bizarre, twisted underbelly might lurk beneath the surface, whether that takes the form of turkey legs that are really made of emu, or Disney princesses as high-priced hookers.  The crazier side of the film is utterly fascinating to watch - is Jim just stressed from losing his job, or is there something far more sinister going on?  I honestly couldn't tell you.  But the weird truly works because Moore also perfectly captures the familiar surface level of Disney World, from waiting in line all day for the Buzz Lightyear ride to the constant wail of screaming babies, to spending ten minutes telling your kid that no, they CAN'T get that overpriced souvenir.  The careful balance between the two universes helps keep the audience grounded, although in this case that's a pretty relative term.

I watched Escape From Tomorrow with my buddy Warren and my wife Jamie.  When we all lived in Los Angeles, Jamie used to get a resident pass for Disneyland and head down there with friends a few times every year.  It is, quite simply, her favorite place in the world that isn't Paris.  She understandably didn't care for the movie, as she prefers her innocent, cheerful version of the theme park to Moore's cracked mirror of dementia.  When it comes to Disney-related films, she's much more excited about the upcoming Saving Mr. Banks, in which Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney to Emma Thompson's P.L. Travers.  Hilariously we got a trailer for that directly before the movie began.  Well played.

But the thing I will never forget about this screening is the moment late in the film when Jim, clad a Hawaiian shit and cuffed khakis (a.k.a. the ultimate dad vacation wear) is walking barefoot around his hotel room and stubs his toe on a piece of furniture.  A close-up of his foot reveals a wound that's bleeding profusely.  Warren, unwilling to believe that Jim's injury would be manifest so severely, quickly let out a skeptical, "What the hell?"  Jamie immediately turned to him and responded, "Really?  Out of everything we've seen, that's where you draw the line?"  I immediately burst out laughing.  Patton Oswalt knows what I'm talking about.

Warren and I were talking about the movie again last night while watching the Cardinals botch routine plays in Game 1 of the World Series, and we were marveling that Disney, a company that's notoriously litigious, ever allowed the film to be released in the first place.  When it played at Sundance this year, the consensus was that Escape would almost certainly never see the light of day, but my understanding is that Disney merely asked for a few specific moments to be trimmed and otherwise put up no real fight when the Producer's Distribution Agency picked up the rights and gave the film a limited theatrical release simultaneously with VOD.*  But having now seen the movie I'm actually not all that surprised.  There's little about the film I would classify as conventional and it's simply not designed for mass appeal.  Sure, it doesn't paint the theme park in a particularly flattering light, but this version of Disney World also exists in a heightened state that no one could possibly confuse for reality.  If they had caught Moore in the act of filming that would be one thing, but once it started screening at festivals then the Pandorica was already open, so to speak.  I'm sure Disney realized that the film was never going to make millions of dollars and that going after Moore after the fact was only going to make them look like bullies and elevate the movie's profile - "It's the movie Disney doesn't want you to see!"  That would have been a hell of a selling point, whereas now it will exist merely as a cult curiosity that's praised by critics for being ballsy while going unseen by the majority of the public.

So props to Disney for taking the high road here.  Then again, I'm sure their park security guards are going to be far more vigilant from now on...



*It only played in Boston at the Somerville Theater and only for one week, but you can still buy or rent the film through iTunes or Amazon.

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Title: Escape From Tomorrow
Director: Randy Moore
Starring: Roy Abramsohn, Elena Schuber, Jack Dalton, Katelynn Rodriguez, Annet Mahendru
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Somerville Theater





October 23, 2013

NOSFERATU Needs More Vampire While SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE Needs Less Cary Elwes

"It will cost you sweat and tears and perhaps...a little blood."
I'm gonna keep this short and sweet because I'm fucking exhausted.  This is the time of year when sports has the ability to slowly take over my life.  Right now there's college football, NFL games, the start of the NHL and oh yeah, THE RED SOX IN THE WORLD FUCKING SERIES.  On top of all that, I've still got to watch a movie a day.  And write them up.

Yikes.

This past weekend was a busy one, with USC playing Notre Dame on Saturday night at the same time that the Red Sox clinched the ALCS, followed on Sunday by the Head Of The Charles Regatta and a Patriots loss to the Jets in a controversial play that still has analysts scratching their heads.  Somehow amidst all that testosteroniness I managed to squeeze in viewings of the silent vampire classic Nosferatu as well as Shadow Of The Vampire, a fictional account of Nosferatu's production based on rumors that the title character was played by an actual vampire.

There is shockingly little vampire stuff in Nosferatu.  Max Schreck's Count Orlok is utterly fantastic with a creature design that is singularly creepy, from his giant rabbit fangs to his spindly fingers and long nails.  Tragically, he's AWOL for too much of the movie, spending a big chunk of the story locked away in the hold of a ship bound for Germany.  In the meantime we get a lot of Hutter the estate agent falling down while trying to beat Orlok back to his wife Ellen, who's largely stuck at home with neighbors while getting psychic premonitions about her husband's doom.  When Orlok does arrive he brings a herd of plague rats with him, while also putting Hutter's boss Knock under some kind of spell that turns him into a raving lunatic despite never actually sharing a scene with the vampire.  The townsfolk decide to sacrifice Knock in order to bring an end to the plague (?) while Hutter returns home and warns Ellen that Orlok is out to get her, leading Ellen to eventually sacrifice herself in order to distract the Count the rising sun.  Day breaks and and the monster is disintegrated, which also magically lifts the plague from the land.

Considering that the whole script hinges on the lethal effects of sunlight, it's astounding just how much of this movie was shot during the day while pretending to be night.  In fact, when Hutter first meets Orlock, the Count immediately complains about the late hour and claims that it's after midnight, a statement that's immediately followed by the two men walking across an open courtyard while casting shadows on the ground.  It's pretty distracting, although the restoration I watched on Netflix Instant did an admirable job at recreating the original color tinting; the film was obviously shot in black and white, but most day scenes are colored yellow while night scenes are colored blue to help compensate for the wonky lighting.  Also, I have to wonder if most audiences were functionally illiterate in 1922, as most of the title cards remained on screen long enough for me to read each one about four times.  Has average reading speed increasing over the last 90 years?  Were they catering to people who couldn't read very well?  I'm curious only because it really grinds down the pace of the film - trim the title cards down to reasonable lengths and the movie would probably be about 15 minutes shorter.  The effects are truly impressive for the time, including one scene where Orlok appears as a transparent spectre and another where he climbs into a coffin and then levitates the lid into place.  And all the use of Orlok's freaky shadow is awesome.  But mostly I just wish that Nosferatu had a little bit more actual Nosferatu.

In that regard, Shadow Of The Vampire does not disappoint.  The always great Willem Dafoe stars as Max Schreck and it's a supremely creepy performance.  Apparently it was his work here that helped land him the role of the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, and it's little wonder as Schreck and the Goblin bare a striking resemblance to each other.  In fact, I wish that Raimi had used some of the Schreck prosthetics instead of that silly metallic mask, as Dafoe might then have had even a nominal ability to display human emotion.  Dafoe plays Schreck as a tragic character, an evil beast grown somewhat weary with age who finds motivation in his obsession with Greta Schroder, the film's leading lady.  She's dangled in front of his face like a carrot by the obsessive F.W. Murnau, played with a kind of manic focus by John Malkovich.  There's an admirable effort to recreate many of the shots in the original film, right down to grain of the film stock.  Unfortunately, the Shadow Of The Vampire vacillates between true horror and pure camp.  It's almost as if Dafoe and Malkovich are in one movie while Cary Elwes and Udo Kier are in another, and poor Eddie Izzard is stuck somewhere in the middle.  It's odd to say the least.  Then again, it was produced by Nicholas Cage.

Still, I feel like I haven't done enough justice to some of the horror classics this month.  We're about a week away from Halloween and it's becoming clear that I'm just not going to get around to any of the Universal Classic Monsters, which is a real shame.  Hopefully I'll get a chance to dive into a few before my year is up.

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Title: Nosferatu, A Symphony Of Horror
Director: F.W. Murnau
Starring: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schroder, Alexander Granach
Year Of Release: 1922
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (TV)



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Title: Shadow Of The Vampire
Director: E. Elias Merhige
Starring: Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich, Udo Kier, Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes, Catherine McCormack
Year Of Release: 2000
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD