Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Halloween Movies of Choice 2020: Movies 11 to 15 - Revenge

It's almost the end of October and I'm only 10 movies into my reviews!  I've been having so much fun watching the films I haven't been blogging about them.  I have noticed, however, that this year's viewing has had many flicks featuring revenge as the plot driver.  Revenge has long been a staple theme of horror movies, so it takes some finesse to pull off a revenge plot and not simply slip into the same old predictable patterns.  Here's a loooong post about five freaky films dealing with the wretched rewards of revenge ...

    "To seek revenge may lead to hell,
    but everyone does it and seldom as well
            as Sweeney,
            as Sweeney Todd.
    The Demon barber of Fleet Street."

SPOILERS!  As always, WATCH before reading if you want your revenge with max surprises!

11.  Sweeney Todd - 2007

The 1982 stage recorded version of Sweeney Todd with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn is my favorite telling of this chilling modern myth.  I blogged about it in my 2017 Halloween movie reviews here, and I still think it is a must see for the season.  That old stage version is overwhelmingly creepy, horrible, and wicked, with stunning performances.  I love it.  However, the Tim Burton version with Depp as Todd still has some charms, and it gives me the chance to include Sweeney Todd in my 'revenge' post without being (too) redundant.

The best parts of this version are the costumes and sets.  The scenes are so gritty you want to wash your hands - you can feel the dirt, smell the sooty air, and quickly start longing for any oasis of color to let you breathe.  When the blood starts pouring it's almost a relief.

Depp can play bizarre characters with a particular charm, and his version of Todd is no exception.  His voice isn't quite up to the role - Todd has one of the most challenging low (bass-baritone) parts ever written.  But he's nicely brooding and his thousand-mile stare goes right through you.  

Bonham-Carter looks perfectly at home in the fantastical setting as if born there, which is nearly true given how often she was type-cast in period films requiring corsets and lace.  Unfortunately her voice distracts too much.  This is a movie, not theatre, so Bonham-Carter's voice could have been dubbed, augmented, or mixed differently.  The choice to leave it as is means it is overwhelmed by the music and sometimes barely audible.

My favorite performance here is by Rickman, who plays the despicable Judge Turpin.  This Turpin is evil and he knows it.  In fact he's almost bored with it.  He sees the whole world as evil, and Rickman does a fantastic job of playing Turpin as a reflection of Todd.  You can see more clearly how much alike they are in their depravity.  Neither of them takes responsibility for their choices nor for their consequences.

Todd is a devious planner who spends all his time scheming his revenge.  He's also intelligent enough to be able to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.  He has not a shred of regret or remorse, only showing human emotion when he mistakenly kills his own wife.  Todd knows revenge is damning, but obviously gave up on any ideas of god or heaven long ago - there is only hell for Todd in life, so he hardly has a reason to think death will be different.  He doesn't really care.  His revenge is all that matters to him.  And as the words above say, Todd gets his revenge on everyone in the end, even on himself after a fashion.

12.  Theater of Blood - 1973

If you love old-school horror you can't miss this relentless, spiteful little foray into the mind of a deranged actor.  The glorious Vincent Price stars as Lionheart, who has had his performances in Shakespeare's plays panned one to many times.  After being denied a coveted award, Lionheart throws himself off of a balcony in despair.  His body is not recovered, and he is assumed dead.  We suspect Lionheart is a ghost or has somehow survived and has now dedicated himself to fantastical revenge.  

This movie doesn't really have any tension; for a short while you wonder exactly who is doing the dastardly deeds, but not for long.  You can predict that Lionheart will get his revenge pretty thoroughly, and the only question is if his very last victim will survive.  You don't actually care - you are kind of rooting for Price both because it's Price, and because the movie paints theatre critics as pompous, ignorant, and selfishly cruel - more prima-donna than the actors they review.

No one is terribly likable in this thing, except maybe Lionheart's daughter (played by the always amazing Diana Rigg) who after having witnessed her father's distraught suicide is a bit unhinged herself.  Lionheart might be seen as more sympathetic if he weren't having so much sadistic fun with his murders.  Price plays his role with both deep hatred and a sense of irony, as if his character is aware on some level that his 'performances' have gone a bit over the top. 

The joy here is the nature of Lionheart's revenge.  He is playing out the murder scenes from his last season of Shakespeare plays, and each is more inventive that the last.  Some have required clever set-ups lasting many weeks, and are timed to fall perfectly into place.  

Lionheart does not see himself as evil; he claims his revenge is justice for all the lives ruined by the careless comments of critics.  He loses everything in the end, but there is no indication he thought the ending would be anything other than one of the tragedies he played so many times before.  His only regret is the death of his daughter.  Before falling into the flames with her body in his arms, he quotes from King Lear:

    "Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so
    That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone forever.
    I know when one is dead and when one lives.
    She’s dead as earth."

Even at this last moment, the remaining critic is so detached from this tragedy of Price's last words, he smiles and says, "Of course, he was madly overacting, as usual."  You wonder what the horror really is - perhaps it's that a person can live through all of this and have gained not an ounce of sympathy or perspective.

13.  Death Becomes Her - 1992

I have a soft spot for this morbid, freakish comedy.  The cast is fantastic, with Meryl Streep (Madeline), Goldie Hawn (Helen), Isabella Rossellini (Lisle), and Bruce Willis (Ernest, playing so off type as to be hardly recognizable.)  The film suffers from some misogyny and fat shaming, but within the context of the film these might play as commentary on our dysfunctional addiction to our physical appearance, and the systems that created and continue to enable that addiction. 

Madeline and Helen are high school rivals who can hardly remember who slighted who first, but who have spent years performing ever-escalating acts of revenge.  The final straw is glamorous Madeline seducing Ernest away from Helen.  Madeline actually hates Ernest and verbally abuses him for the next 14 years.  

Enter the complication, a potion provided by the ever intriguing Rossellini (Lisle) that is supposed to make one young and immortal.  Lisle might be a witch, a demon, or the devil himself, but it doesn't matter.  Both main characters take the potion without knowing the other has done so.  But as with all of these shady bargains, there is a catch.  The potion does not actually stop you from dying, it just keeps you conscious and animate if you do.

Before Helen can enact her plan of murderous revenge through Ernest, Madeline breaks her neck falling down the stairs.  Helen is shot through with a shotgun in another act of revenge by Madeline.  Helen and Madeline continue beating on one another until they realize there is no point since they are immortal and can't feel physical pain.  They also realize that their bodies are dead now, and have already begun to decompose.  

They talk Earnest into using his skills as a mortician to make them temporarily look normal, and eventually the three of them wind up at Lisle's big party, where she tries to talk Ernest into drinking the potion.  He refuses, even to save his own existence, as he falls several stories through a glass window and into a pool.  Helen and Madeline are shunned by Lisle and her community for being unable to get Ernest into the fold.  They realize they are now wholly dependent on one another, since they each alone can't do the complicated makeup necessary to hide their decay.  

Thirty seven years go by, leaving them with no remaining 'flesh' - they are instead dense, crumbling layers of paint, acrylic, and glue in the shape of people.  They attend Ernest's' funeral, where they learn he went on to marry, adopt, have six kids, travel the world, and give to charities.  When the minister suggests that thus Ernest found the secret to eternal life, both Helen and Madeline laugh.  The sound is derisive, sarcastic, and full of despair.  During a final act of petty revenge, the two get tangled up tripping on a paint can, fall down the stairs and their bodies shatter at the bottom into dozens of pieces.  With only their crusty faces still intact, Helen asks, "Do you remember where you parked the car?"

This is a great view of the nature and price of revenge.  Our characters get chance after chance to make different choices, to set aside pride and ego, to turn their backs on society's broken standards, and only Ernest finally does so.  It may be intended as further commentary that it is the man, not the women who has the power and privilege to do this.  Revenge hasn't damned Hawn and Streep to hell - they can't die.  Their revenge instead has made them something other than human.  They are undead, a kind of zombie.  They have either ultimately succeeded perfectly (their rival is a hideous inhuman monster), or failed perfectly (they themselves are now a hideous inhuman monster.)  

14.  Carrie - 1976

As I noted in my previous post of Stephen King re-watches, for some reason I've never really resonated with most of the adaptations of his work. The 1976 Carrie is more or less faithful to the novel, and has some excellent performances as well as iconic scenes, but suffers from ultra-slow pacing and over-the-top acts of cruelty. Carrie's mother is a religious fanatic who abuses Carrie at every turn. Even the 'nice' gym teacher physically assaults the mean girls when they show disrespect. The alpha mean girl is so warped she goads her boyfriend into slapping her, and then coos back up to him. It's a mind f*ck on every level.  

The ultimate squick-out is knowing that director De Palma and his bros (like Spielberg) used the filming to cruise chicks. Spielberg asked several of the young actors on dates before getting a yes from Amy Irving. Yucko.)

This means there is no one you can root for - you can't invest yourself in any of the characters, especially knowing that Carrie is going to go full on murderer by the end.  The people trying to 'help' Carrie are doing so because of their own issues and never bother to get Carrie's consent. There is nobody actually giving Carrie any agency, including the remorseful Sue (Amy Irving.)  Sue might be the one you root for, but she does not have enough screen time for the viewer to identify with her.

But as for revenge horror flicks, Carrie remains a classic.  Carrie has a crappy life, and the one time she's given a chance to try to fit in with her peers at prom, she is pranked so cruelly that her sanity temporarily snaps.  She imagines everyone is laughing at her, even though very few people are doing so.  Most are appalled at the prank.  Carrie uses her telekinetic powers to bar the doors, kills folks with a fire hose, or by electrocution, or with flying furniture, and then burns the place to the ground.  

By the time she gets home, she's sane enough to wash off the blood and go cry in her mother's arms.  But Mom has decided that Carrie is possessed of Satanic power and stabs her.  Carrie has to kill her mother in self defense, and then it seems she burns the house down around them, although it is not entirely clear that that is intentional.

Unlike the other movies mentioned here, Carrie does not plan her revenge.  It is done entirely in the heat of the moment, when Carrie has lost her grip.  There is no inherent evil in Carrie at all, and given her life to this point, she's surprisingly rational most of the time.  Carrie's revenge is treated more like a force of nature; it is the expected result of cruelty so extreme it must by some means burn itself away.  As noted, it's hard to root for someone who kills the innocent and guilty alike, but Carrie's lashing out under extreme circumstances seems like something we can understand.  Does this kind of revenge end with Carrie damned or not?  The sense of the times would be yes, reinforced by Carrie's hand bursting from the ground and grabbing Sue in a dream.  But just before that, Sue is leaving flowers at Carrie's grave, showing her own sympathy and remorse.   

15.  Pumpkinhead - 1988

I saved one of my very favorite revenge horror flicks for last.  You'll laugh, but it is Pumpkinhead.  If you haven't seen this recently you need to give it another try, almost entirely because of the performance of Lance Henriksen as Ed Harley.  The plot is a twist on the 'bargain with the devil.'  Deep in the woods, there's a demon you can summon if you've been wronged.  It's not something done lightly, as it's pretty clear summoning it is a terrible act of evil.  But when Ed Harley's cherished son is killed in a hit-and-run by teens from the city, Ed chooses to visit the local witch and get his revenge on them all.

The witch tells him the price is high, but he insists.  At her bidding he digs up a corpse and she infuses it with blood from both him and his dead boy.  It turns into a giant monster and stomps off.  Ed almost immediately regrets his choice, as when he's driving home he has a vision of his dead son waking and saying "What did you do, Daddy?"

The demon starts taking out the young people.  Ed sees and feels each kill as it happens, and his regret intensifies.  He goes back to the witch who tells him she can't stop it, and if he tries to stop it himself, he'll just "pay the final price that much sooner."

Ed resolves to destroy the demon.  He eventually heads home with the last teens to get better equipment to fight, and there Ed gets a good look at the demon's face.  It is starting to look like him, and he is beginning to change to look more like it.  When he accidentally steps into a pitchfork, he sees the monster react with the same pain.  He realizes that the only way to kill it is to kill himself.  With help from the last standing teen, Ed is dispatched and the demon goes up in flames.  The fantastic last scene is the witch putting Ed's withered and curled corpse into the same grave he dug up earlier.

One thing I adore about this flick is that you get a good look at the demon, and relatively early.  I like it when the monsters are in full view, and are even scarier for it.  I'm disappointed by a 'payoff' where we spend 2 hours afraid of the thing in the dark and then when we see it it's no big deal.  Pumpkinhead looks like it owes some of its design to the Xenomorph from Alien, but it still has enough of its own unique features to be creepy in its own right.

This movie shows the person taking revenge as human and relatable.  Ed's grief overwhelms him, and his desire for some kind of justice is understandable.  But Ed realizes that what he's getting isn't justice, instead he sees he's committing a far greater crime than the one that took his son from him in the first place.  Our take-away here is that once revenge is set loose, it has a life and a will of its own, and mere regret can't stop it.

Image Credits:  First pics are shots of dvd covers for each movie.  Following are promo pix or movie still ads for each film.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Halloween Movies of Choice 2020: Movies 8 to 10 - Rewatching Early Stephen King

Modern horror is in many ways "King's Monster."  King dug up the pieces of the genre, stitched them together, added lightning, and a gloriously gruesome entity emerged.  Given this, it's always baffled me that I was never a big fan of King's works.  I'm a writer and aficionado of all sorts of strange stuff, so why is it that most of King's writings and their adaptations never struck a cord with me?  I decided I'd take my October 2020 movie party to re-watch a few of his early flicks, and consider my impressions more deeply.

Okay, I'm not utterly without certain King favorites.  King has written a gigantic number of novels and stories, and some of these I have definitely come to like such as those that have seeped into movies via anthologies (Creepshow 2), or via other genres than direct horror (Stand By Me, Danse Macabre.)  Creepshow 2 in particular has King starring in a solo performance that I have always loved.  I'll post about that later ...

So let's take a look at three of these early King-novels-as-movie adaptations: The Shining (which I remember not liking at all) Salem's Lot (which I remember liking a little) and The Dead Zone (which was the only King movie of the time that I remember liking a whole lot).  Now that I've just re-watched them, maybe insight shall be gained.

SPOILERS OF ALL KINDS!  Total SPOILAGE!  But seriously, I think anyone interested in this post is gonna be pretty familiar with these already.

Movie 8 - The Shining 1980

This is of course the story of a caretaker, his spouse, and his son who winter over alone at a resort.  Wendy hopes for the family to reconnect, while Jack hopes to find writing inspiration.  We have no idea what Danny wants.  The one sentence plot is that Jack is possessed by evil spirits from the house, tries to kill his family, and ends up freezing to death in the hedge maze outside as his wife and child flee to safety. 

Things I liked:  Upon re-watching, I enjoyed the filming itself much more.  The long shots, camera angles, colors, and lighting are all highly effective, making the inside of the resort feel more like a hospital than a plush hotel.  Duvall is believable as a woman who is unable to leave her abusive husband, exhibiting well-known behaviors such as defending him in conversation by saying his breaking his son's arm was an understandable accident.

The character of Dick, who also has the Shine, is particularly likeable as the only person who attempts to actually bond with Danny.  Last, a ragingly possessed Nicholson on a rampage with an axe is some of the most alarming scenery-chewing you will ever see.

Things I didn't like:  Why cast Jack Nicholson in this role?  The actor had already developed a reputation for playing twitchy characters (as in the 1970 Five Easy Pieces famous 'chicken salad sandwich scene' and the entire movie of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.)  We are also told early on that Jack is prone to outbursts of temper and has battered both his wife and son.  Listening to him whine to the bartender is painfully pathetic.  Unlike in King's novel, the movie-Jack does not have a late moment of understanding and regret; he is wholly unsympathetic.  One look at Nicholson and the question isn't "will" he try to kill you, but "when."

There is absolutely no chemistry in this family.  They all act like complete strangers to one another.  Danny has no personality, and the addition of the invisible friend "Tony" does not serve any purpose.  "Redrum" spoken over and over devolves into babble, and writing a word backwards to be seen in a mirror is a old prank predating this movie.  Duvall screams so often I wasn't even hearing it anymore.  Dick, the only interesting character, spends half the movie both realizing there is a problem and then getting back to the hotel, only to be killed immediately upon arrival.

Overall, this thing is an awesome-looking mess.  I can see why King didn't like it, as this is not the story he wrote.  Although I don't feel any connection between the people in book, either, and am not compelled by King's recurring theme of places being evil and attracting evil.  The movie has no ... charm maybe?  No cleverness?  Except for Nicholson's ad-libbed "Here's Johnny" line, the movie takes itself too seriously, allowing for no shifts in tone that might enhance the viewers' sense of perspective on the story.

Movie 9 - Salem's Lot 1979

I love a vampire flick, and it was interesting to revisit how the TV mini-series of Salem's Lot worked with the old gothic tropes, as well as with Stoker's conception of Dracula.  This is of course the story of Ben who returns to his childhood hometown to write about a creepy house there, which unbeknownst to anyone now hides a vampire.  The townspeople are eventually converted into vampires, including Ben's girlfriend, before Ben and local teen Mark can stake Master Vampire Barlow through the heart and burn the whole place down.

What I liked:  Even now the vampire eyes are a very good effect.  Some of the townsfolk are sympathetic, and the girlfriend Susan is intelligent and self-possessed.  The floating vampire boys tapping on the windows are still a creepy sight.  Watching the people get picked off one by one is also chilling as they leave cars abandoned in the streets and tricycles overturned in their yards.  There is actual interpersonal chemistry between the school teacher Jason, Ben, and his girlfriend's father Bill (who seems relieved his daughter didn't pick a loser for a change.)

PLUS this film can claim one of my favorite scary scenes of all time - while Ben is driving a stake into Barlow's heart, his undead minions are slowly but surely crawling across the floor towards Matt, who is oblivious.  There are no jump scares and nothing is hidden, it's all right in front of you and the tension is fantastic.

What I disliked:  Why did they put "Hutch" (who still looks and acts like a police detective) in a Jeep if he doesn't know how to close a Jeep door?  He tries to slam it in almost every scene, and once even goes back and slams it again.  It's some of the only humor in the film and it's clearly not intended.  I'm assuming Hutch kept forgetting this wasn't his and Starsky's beat-up Torino.

Susan, who is otherwise portrayed as intelligent, goes to the Marsden house for absolutely no reason when she's supposed to be getting her mother to safety.  She must have inherited this from her father, who for absolutely no reason walks upstairs without Hutch and of course gets waxed.  The pushing-four-hours of running time is filled with people driving places and going in and out of doors and setting up conversations.  I cut out almost 25 minutes just by making people walk fast.  

The music that plays over most of the "action" seems to have been composed by the ghost of Wagner.  And as usual for horror movies, there's too much pointless non-horror-related-violence; such as one dude who thinks it's okay to beat his wife for infidelity, and Hutch who physically throws Mark on the ground and into furniture whenever Mark doesn't do what Hutch says.  The choppy editing and continuity gaffs make the production appear almost B-movie level.

But overall, this is an interesting and occasionally even fun vampire flick with some trope-defining moments.  If you use a bit of fast forward you can avoid the slow spots and much of the irritating music, getting to the scenes with actual character interactions and some good vampire freaky-ness.  There is in fact a dash of charm to be found, as we feel some of the director's (and no doubt King's) affection for this dysfunctional small town and its increasingly undead populace.  We encounter good, bad, and a lot of in-between in the humans of this town, and it puts the utterly inhuman elements of vampiric evil in stark relief.

Movie 10 - The Dead Zone 1983

Johnny Smith wakes up from a five year coma and finds out his girlfriend has married, has a child, and that he now has developed psychic powers.  He saves some people from terrible fates, solves crimes, and eventually stops nuclear Armageddon by ending the prospects of a narcissistic presidential hopeful, although at the cost of his own (Johnny's) life.

What I liked:  This movie has aged well, and I love it as much as I ever have.  It conveys a constant, thrumming dread - the sense that something has been touched that is too intense for any human to bear for long, with consequences that cannot be predicted. The film contains complex and believable relationships, genuine warmth, nuanced characters, and some good performances.  

Christopher Walken is, as usual, fantastic in every way.  He carries this movie, totally selling how his experience changes him, his feelings of isolation, and his motivations for his choices.  Even Walken's physical performance is a standout, as over the course of the film he recovers his mobility even as he is slowly drained by his powers.  The way Johnny's visions are shown is not high-tech, but the sort of "flashback" mechanism works well.  By the end of the film we can feel Johnny's exhaustion as he tries to hang on to this world that has felt so alien to him since the moment he awoke.  Oh, and Martin Sheen is also a lot of fun as the smarmy candidate for senate - holding up a baby as a shield so he doesn't get shot.  The very bottom of the moral barrel.

What I didn't like:  I never liked the ending.  It is believable, but I feel that Johnny's journey is unfinished.  The vignettes in the movie give a smattering look at his powers, his choices, and the changes he undergoes, but I still feel that there was much more to explore with this premise, and especially with Walken's performance.  This leads me to how much I didn't like the doctor's idea that he shouldn't talk to his long lost mother because "it wasn't meant to be."  I find this fatalist attitude to be entirely self-defeating, and it undermines the subtlety of the premise.  I can understand him saying, "I can't open that door and be sure I'll survive.  It was hard to lose my mother, and I feel I can't take that emotional risk."  But saying "it wasn't meant to be" is a real chicken-out move.  Should the nurse not have heeded Johnny's warning and left her daughter to die?  Is this a whole "monkey's paw" situation?  This gives the impression that Johnny's powers are simply evil, rather than a chaotic but creative force that can be used for good.

Overall, there is so much warmth, humanity, and yes, charm in this film that we can't help but like the characters and find ourselves rooting for (or against) them.  There is genuine laughter and humor, which works very well to sharpen the edge of the frightening, mysterious, and violent moments, giving them extra punch.

In conclusion of my lengthy post here, it seems pretty clear what I think is missing from some of these stories and films - humor to provide perspective, warmth to contrast the horror, and charm to allow us to engage emotionally with the characters and their world.  I can see why it is I identify with the work of people like Tim Burton, who use more of these elements, rather than King, who is apt to give us something deeply horrific from page one and not let up.  Obviously most horror lovers want that sort of thing, since King is, well, the King of Horror.  But there are also folx like me whose appetites lie more towards the quirky, inky, ironic, and endearingly freakish realm of the genre.

Image Credits: King's pic from his amazon author page.  DVD covers for all three movies.  Other images still shots from movies or promo pix.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Halloween Movies of Choice 2020: Movies 4 to 7 - Vampires!

Vampire time!
It's October 13 and I've only posted reviews of three of the movies I've watched so far, so it's time for some catch up posts.  Let's dive in with the best possible subject: vampires!

For me, vampires are the pinnacle of gothic glory.  In my last series of posts in 2017, I reviewed the movies: What We Do in the Shadows (my current favorite to start Halloween season), Nosferatu, Fright Night (the old one), and Let Me In (American version).  These are solid vampire flicks, and well worth a watch depending on what you are seeking, such as dark humor, film noir, 80's creepy camp, or maybe something truly disturbing.  I have a massive backlog of vampire movies to watch, so I'm glad to have this excuse to do that and then wallow in their gory glory.

SPOILERS!  LOTS!  (No really)

4.    Let the Right One In - 2008

If you are looking for "I want to be deeply rattled by a vampire movie" then this will probably do the trick.

As I mentioned above, in my first series in 2017, I reviewed the American remake of this movie (Let Me In - 2010).  It was one of the most disturbing vampire movies I'd ever seen.  I decided to revisit the story through the lens of the original film.  The remake is basically the same movie, but there are enough differences that comparing them reveals more depth to this depraved tale.

Both of these movies deliver a wallop of vampire horror that will leave you reeling.  Certainly the movies ask the viewer, "What makes a monster?" both in terms of how people become monsters, and how we define that word.  In spite of the American version being more outwardly violent, this original film is more emotionally brutal and unforgiving, showing the hideous truth of vampirism with an unflinching gaze. 

Oskar is a twelve year old boy whose life is rife with neglect and abuse, particularly from constant bullying at school.  On one hand, he seems sensitive, mild, and good-natured.  On the other, we see evidence that the cycle of bullying is already in motion, as Oskar, who is obsessed stories of murders, acts out pretend revenge with a knife.  In the remake, the same boy (Owen) does not appear so antisocial.

The vampire child Eli has a generally androgynous aspect, but wears dresses and appears to everyone to be a human girl.  She is cold to her henchman Hakan, ordering him about as she fixates on her growing interest in Oskar.  The remake shows the vampire (Abby) to have more apparent compassion for her henchman Thomas, although we cannot know if some or all of this is feigned.  The remake has removed other creepy content including a hoard of cats attacking a newly made vampire, and that same vampire intentionally allowing themselves to be set on fire by sunlight.

So while the remake shows us a vampire slowly exploiting the vulnerability of an isolated boy, the original shows us a vampire encouraging and exploiting a boy's already extant antisocial behavior.  Either way, each film ends with the disturbing certainty that history has repeated itself, and the vampire has once again successfully ensnared a human to become their murdering henchman.  So don't be fooled by reviews describing this movie as "sweet" or "romantic" or other total nonsense.  Eli is a merciless killer who dismembers children.  No amount of potential affection (and it's never clear if there actually is any) that Eli has for Oskar can outweigh her leading him into lifelong bloody servitude.  Overall, I prefer this original to the remake.  It handles greater emotional brutality with more subtlety, and the actress playing Eli is simply sensational in the role.  Definitely a must see for vampire fans, especially those looking for something new under the "sun."

5.    Queen of the Damned - 2002

If you are looking for "I want a vampire movie with cool music that's not otherwise demanding" this one fills the bill.

In spite of my vampire addiction, I've never been an Anne Rice fan.  I tried several times to read some of the novels and stories in her vampire universe, but I've found them kind of boring.  The characters are all so unrelatable that I never cared what what happened to them.  Lestat, the main vampire of most of the stories, is particularly useless.  He is utterly unsympathetic, and as I tried to read the stories I kept hoping he'd get immolated at some point.  Then realized he was going to be a main, continuing character; I lost interest.

So why did I bother with "Queen of the Damned?"  The soundtrack.  I found the soundtrack years back and added a bunch of songs from it to my gritty Halloween playlist.  I finally decided I'd just watch this movie and see if it had any redeeming qualities in addition to the music.

Well, there are a few, but not enough.  Lestat continues to be a literal pain in the neck.  The actor portraying him does a great job, and has the voice, the look, and the arrogance down pat.  It's just that the character itself is a classic depiction of spoiled white royalty; he's a whiny, privileged, mopey baby in a man's body and ... yuck.  But even more of a pain is the bait-and-switch of the promotional images.  The promos show the "Queen of the Damned," a black woman vampire, who is front and center with Lestat behind her.  She looks awesome and very not your typical vampire and I hoped she'd give Lestat the what-for.

Nope.  Instead this movie is sort of about Lestat deciding that mortal life is precious from an I-can-destroy-humans-whenever-I-want-to-and-isn't-that-beautiful view.  It does not make him more palatable.  The glorious Queen only shows up near the end of the movie.  She's looking for Lestat to take him as her King; a kind of consort-slave-trophy to enjoy as she dominates humans and vampires alike.  The actress is terrifyingly perfect, lithe, and lethal.  At a glance you know this thing is not human and only sees you as furniture, at best.  Once you see her, you realize she's the only real vampire in the flick.  

Sadly, at the end she's ganged up on and destroyed by wishy-washy vampires who prefer the skulking-in-shadows lifestyle.  This scene is appalling from a social-justice/feminist perspective - as it is mostly white men and women (vampires) destroying a black woman (vampire.)  No.  Just no.  The apex of all vampiric power has quickened as female, black, confident, carnal - and of course white patriarchy is like "we can't have that, can we?" and down she goes.  Any real vampire would worship her.  Our take-away is that these vampires are still human enough to identify more with their prey than this glorious Queen of wretched evil.  Bah.

I still suggest the movie if only for the one scene where she literally tears the heart out of another vampire and eats it.  She does not look angry or happy as she kills him - that would be too human.  Instead, she's entertained, and perhaps mildly pleased with herself.  But neither he nor the twenty other vampires she kills in that scene are worth a second thought to her.  She does not, as they say, even break a sweat.  The other reason to watch is in fact the soundtrack, which is indeed quite fine.  Otherwise, this movie does not work as either camp, or dark humor, or real scares, or an exploration of mortality, or parody, or an examination of the nature of humanity, or really anything at all ...

6.    Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter - 2012

If you "want a campy, action-movie-style vampire flick with cool effects" then this is one to check out.

I had a great time watching this movie in spite of its many problems.  I'll start with what I liked.  The special effects are pretty good, and the vampires look totally gruesome.  The scenes of the Gettysburg battlefield aren't realistic, but are impressive anyway.  Having Lincoln as an action hero with a classic tragic backstory puts you right into the comic-book plot of the film.  The training montage is over-the-top axe-wielding fun.  There are all kinds of fantastic moments where the bad guys get pwned with improbable, cheer-inducing magnificence.  The women in the film such as Harriett Tubman and Mary Todd are shown as intelligent, bold, and resourceful.  The surprise ending to the climax is actually quite satisfying, and I think for once I won't spoil it.

There was stuff in the movie that was both good and bad, in the sense that having it there both added and detracted at the same time.  The movie posits what might happen if vampires lived in slavery-era America.  The vampires see slavery as a means to obtain lots of disposable people, and they create empires in the south filled with slaves and the vampires that feed off of them.  That is plausible given the setup, but very problematic because it tempts us to dismiss the great evils of slavery as a product of demons, rather than of very real people in the real world acting demonically.  The movie takes an appropriately ethical stance in that it is certainly anti-slavery, but by conflating the evils of vampirism with the evils of slavery, it serves to potentially diminish the contributions of people like Tubman.  I mean, I love a good parody, but this movie can't decide if it's campy, vamp-killing fun or a serious commentary on the blood-sucking nature of slavery.

This leads us to the problems.  First, as noted above, the tone is totally inconsistent.  Is this a farce or a pointed take on civil-war America?  To be both, which is possible, one would need to apply a more nuanced hand than is given to this film.  I was getting whiplash trying to figure out what sort of roller-coaster I'd boarded.  The special effects as noted are cool overall, but the CGI stuff is overdone and not well blended.  The pace is slow then fast then slow then break-neck; the ride on this thing is uncomfortably unpredictable.

It's not unsurprising that I feel compelled to compare this movie to its parody, the 2012 "Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies."  I reviewed that one in 2017.  That is a movie that knows exactly what it is trying to do and hits the bullseye.  Plus the Abe actor is utter perfection.  If you are looking for camp-parody-dark-humor-fun and don't mind trading vampires for zombies, then go there.  If you want a bigger budget, slicker production, and a race-to-the-finish climax, then this vampire flick is where you want to be.  In spite of the issues, it's a great addition to the genre.

7.    A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night - 2014

If your mood is "I want a vampire film that feels brand new and yet timeless, that engages the brain and the emotions, that is dreadful without being overly gory" then give this one a try. 

Actually, it does not matter what mood you are in, you should give this a try because it is nearly flawless.

This film is so visually captivating that I probably should just post a pile of images here, rather than any words.  That would be consistent with the bare-bones dialog.  Everything is spoken in Persian, and the English subtitles rarely wrap to more than one line on the screen.  It's all in black and white, and every single shot is a tiny masterpiece.  This film is described by many as a vampire/ spaghetti-western, as it includes elements like violence, irony, anti-hero(es), a rough-and-tumble setting, deceit, lack of social order/stability, terror, and many of the visual cues and trappings of both of those genres.  

That categorization doesn't tell you anything, though.  And before I tell you anything I probably should watch it at least ten more times so I can figure out some of what the symbolism and imagery is trying to convey.  I mean, the cat for example.  The cat is a critical character in this film, even as it appears only a few times, but those times are pivotal.  Oh yeah, the cat is not mistreated and survives just fine, so you can feel free to watch this movie and see the humans get drained without worry.  

The setting is a fictional Iran, with a town so bleak it's called "Bad City."  A place where there is an open channel filled with bodies that never decay, and no one gives it a second glance as they walk by.  The strong prey on the helpless amid a town of squalor surrounded by desolation and oil rigs pumping endlessly up and down like vampires draining the ground of life.

The pace is slow, sometimes even literally slow-motion.  I can't usually sit still for tense scenes where I can't predict what might happen, but I was mesmerized.  This is a terrible beauty that comments on wealth, class, status, materialism, family, duty, revenge, feminism, power, age, desire, patriarchy, ambition, need, and most of the rest of life and death, too.  Just having the titular character skateboarding down a street with her open chador flowing out behind her like bat's wings is enough commentary to fill an entire book.

My favorite scene, although it's super hard to choose, is the one where our "heroes" meet by the power plant for a "date."  They've already spent the night together, but he has no idea who she is or if she's interested in him beyond that one-night-stand.  He's enthralled with her, and presents her with a pair of diamond earrings that he stole.  He notes her ears are not pierced, and says it's too bad she can't wear them.  She wordlessly (she almost never speaks) hands him a safety pin.  Surprised and also rather weirded-out, he does the job and she puts the earrings in.  You do not see her without them after that.  It's bizarre, tense, and feels utterly vulnerable.  It strikes me that this is their real "sex" scene.  This is the moment of consummation in their relationship.  

I could obviously go on and on about this vampire-art-noir creation, but it really would be better if you just watched it and enjoyed this refreshing and transformative take on the vampire genre.

Image Credits:  Wampire from publicdomainpictures.net.  Let Me In cd cover, promo pic, and movie still. Queen of the Damned dvd cover, movie still, and gif shot from ihorror.com.  Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter dvd cover, gif shot from horrorpix.com, and movie still.  A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night dvd cover and stills from the film.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Halloween Movies of Choice 2020 - Movies 1-3 Creepy Good Surprises

So 2020 is turning out to be a year fraught with it's own kind of horror, and for those of us with a creepy mindset, one of the best ways to take a break from real horrors is to engage with fake ones. In 2017 I did a blog series of 31 Halloween movies in 31 days, and I think the time is right for another round.

The first post of my 2017 movies is here - so if you need even more ideas, go check out that and the posts that follow it.

So here we go!

Movies 1-3 - Creepy Good Surprises!

My theme for these first three movies is merely that they were much better than I had thought they'd be.  Nothing like a "pleasant" surprise.

Note: As always spoilers abound! Watch before reading!

1.    Sucker Punch - 2011

I originally avoided this movie because I heard there was a subplot related to trauma and mental illness, along with a setting in a sort of '50s insane asylum.  As someone with mental disability and PTSD, I didn't want to be dragged through another ableist slog of a horror film.  But I finally decided to give it a chance, and wow, I'm glad I did.  This movie is a wonderfully bizarre blend of film noir, period piece, steampunk, horror, action, weird, sci-fi, fantasy, manga, thriller, and pretty more.  The special effects, soundtrack, and much of the acting are gritty and great.

Our heroine "Babydoll" sees her father in law murder both her mother and sister, and then he frames Babydoll for these crimes and packs her off to a private institution that still practices lobotomies as a form of "treatment."  We, and Babydoll, overhear him bribe a slimy orderly to see to it that Babydoll is lobotomized almost immediately.  She seems to retreat into a complex fantasy world with multiple levels, imagining that she is working to free herself and other inmates from a human sex-trafficking brothel.

I'm not sure why this movie didn't make a bigger splash, because it seems have a lot to offer.  Perhaps it has to do with the various ways in which 'sucker punch' can be interpreted; maybe it's realizing that the 'fantasy' Babydoll conjures is actually playing out in the 'real' world; or maybe it's the way in which the team members die; or maybe it's the ultimate confirmation that even Babydoll does not escape her fate.  

The movie is also disjointed, moving through three levels of perceived reality.  Perhaps it's too triggering for some.  Certainly, I found Babydoll's situation to be agonizing, but I was able to finish the film because it depicts people taking control of their fate in even hopeless circumstances.  In the end, I was captivated by the total weirdness of it all, the honestly gruesome plot, and the fantastic action worlds of the meta-fantasy filled with mechs and monsters.  Sucker Punch is perfectly appropriate Halloween fare, and worth a watch (or rewatch) this season.


2.    Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - 2016

Why, oh why, did this film not get all the super kudos?  Yes, the plot is obtuse and sometimes impenetrable, but the filming is amazing, the costumes are perfect, and every single actor has completely bought in and gives their all.  Are the reviewers not genre-savvy?  I see all sorts of criticisms out there about the predictability and lack of surprises and do the reviewers not realize this is a parody and it uses well-known tropes as part of the vehicle for that parody?  Sigh. 

Anyway, I loved this thing.  It's ridiculous and beautiful.  If you are not captivated by the scene where Elizabeth and her future husband resort to hand to hand combat as a result of a failed marriage proposal, then I don't know what you want from a movie.  I was doubly sold when a friend who has a squeamish tummy couldn't even make it through the beginning exposition with the paper-pop ups.  She saw all the paper-depicted-gore and turned green.  Then she vetoed the movie on the grounds that it looked disgusting.  Which it is.  It's a zombie movie, right?

This is a seriously excellent zombie flick with dedicated performances.  Some of the landscape scenes are simply haunting.  The fight scenes in gowns are wonderful.  Oh, and the riffs on Austin's work are spot on, and often word for word from the book.  This romp is well worth your time for Halloween.  Enjoy the zombie glory and don't worry too much about the point and you'll have plenty of fun.


3.      Vampyr - 1932
  
I generally enjoy old black and white horror films, the earlier the better.  Film was precious enough and novel enough in the first decade of the 1900's that it was often used for projects of some importance or cultural significance.  By the 1930s, things were already changing, and it was more common to find film used for "less vital" topics that the producers did not imagine would be of interest a hundred years later.

The movie Nosferatu 1922, which I reviewed in my last series here, has consistently captivated those of us who love the vampire genre.  I had not heard similar praise for Vampyr, and given the later 1932 date I thought maybe it just wasn't up to snuff.  So I put off watching it.  That was a mistake since this is an absolute gem, with tons of disturbing imagery and a deliciously foreboding tone.

Our hero stumbles upon a family cursed by a vampire.  As the lord of the house is killed to keep him quiet, our hero reads the old man's journal and uncovers the nature of the curse.  The younger daughter of the lord assists him in his searches for the prime vampire, who must be destroyed to free her sister before the sister becomes a vampire, herself.

Along the way is all the great, creepy scenes, and a really very disturbing end for the village doctor, who was in league with the vampire.  I'll mention that only once before have I seen so
meone offed in this manner, and I thought it was horrifically original.  Nope, here it is all the way back in 1932.

This aged beauty of a film is worth the watch, even with the grainy, blurry texture of the remaining prints.  Definitely put it on your watch list for the season.
Image Credits:  Sucker Punch I own this CD case and also from https://www.awn.com/vfxworld/stitching-together-sucker-punch . PPZ CD case and then studio promo image.  Evil Dead II movie case and action shot from http://www.bookofthedead.ws/website/evil_dead_2_props.html.  CD case for Vampyr images from screen shots.