Monday, October 20, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 19 - Tremors

#6 (Tie) - 8 Votes

Since I started this project, two different readers have suggested none too subtly that I may be overthinking things in writing about the appeal of these movies. "They're horror movies, they don't have to be smart/have meaning/be well made," and so forth. I don't mention in order to open up a debate, because I think I'm only barely doing anything like "analysis" anyway, and I've only given anything like a negative write-up to one movie so far, and it's arguably the most artsy-fartsy one on this entire list. Frankly, after the second person informed me that movies aren't for thinking, I exclaimed to myself, "I did it! I'm a real film writer now!"

I mention it, though, because I find that the most challenging movies for me to write about are often the ones that are pleasurable in obvious, uncomplicated and subtext-free ways. Tremors is one of those movies, a pleasant B-movie throwback with a monster that isn't a metaphor for anything. The Graboids aren't the product of our destructive effect on the environment, and their existence wasn't kept a secret by greedy real estate developers or a corrupt local government. The setting, a tiny desert town, doesn't function as a microcosm of anything; it's simply an economical way to bring together a small, diverse cast of characters in an isolated location. It's not an homage, parody of or commentary on giant monster movies; it's just an unassuming, well made and good-natured example of the subgenre that deserves its reputation as something of a classic.

More to the point, I remembered that I just wrote about Tremors last year at my friends' request. And even there, I admit that I'm straining to find things to say. So while I may be guilty of overthinking or overanalyzing or overwhatevering, at least I can admit it when I don't have much to say (and, since nobody is paying me to write this, I don't have to). Since, for reasons that would be tedious to go into here, I've had about 12 hours of sleep in three days, I'm going to make this my one "smartass kid passes in an essay about why he didn't write the assigned essay" post for the month. I'll just add one note to that older post - in mentioning that Fred Ward had a great year in 1990, I left out Miami Blues, a very good, underrated movie that I'll surely discuss in more detail with my next poll, "Tournament of Baldwins."

U.S. Release Date: January 19, 1990 (Also released that day: Everybody Wins, Sweetie)

What critics said at the time:

''Tremors' wants to be funny, but it spends too much time winking at the audience. More than anything else, it looks like the sort of movie that might have been put together so that tourists visiting Universal Studios could see a movie being made." - Vincent Canby, New York Times

"As concocted by S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock (who also did the original 'Short Circuit'), 'Tremors' evokes the populist spirit of '50s B-movies, much more so than such high-powered '80s remakes as 'The Fly,' 'The Thing' or 'The Blob.' Director Ron Underwood keeps things moving briskly, celebrating not the single-mindedness of the 'graboids' but the resourcefulness and resilience of the townspeople." - Richard Harrington, Washington Post

'90s Horror Poll: Day 18 - Funny Games

#7 (Tie) - 7 Votes

Before I get into the problems I have with Michael Haneke and Funny Games, his 1997 meta-thriller about a family held captive and tortured by two sneering upper-class teenagers, I should acknowledge that the movie demonstrates his considerable skill at crafting scenes and moments intended to provoke his audience into questioning their relationship to onscreen violence. The film does an excellent job of putting us on edge even before its smirking Leopold and Loeb (they call each other a variety of names througout, but we'll go with "Peter" and "Paul") announce their intentions. The prolonged scene where they repeatedly ask to borrow, then "accidentally" break their neigbors' eggs plays brilliantly on the question of when vacationing couple Anna and George will be provoked enough to stop being polite. Here, as elsewhere in the movie, Haneke maximizes our discomfort by letting scenes play out in fixed, static shots that go on for much longer than average. After the couple and their son Georgie have been taken hostage, most of the movie's violent and dramatic moments occur offscreen, and it's very disturbing to experience some of the most brutal moments entirely through the reactions of other characters. He's capable of both wringing as much tension as possible out of a protracted, real-time attempt at escape and determining one character's fate in a coldly off-handed gesture.

Brian De Palma has said that it's important, with a horror movie, that the audience not know if they can trust the filmmaker; that's definitely the case with Haneke, and his precision and mercilessness would make him an excellent horror filmmaker if he were so inclined. Except that, according to Haneke himself, Funny Games isn't a horror movie at all, but a self-reflexive criticism of the representation of violence in movies. By denying us conventional dramatic payoffs and the keeping the worst bits mostly offscreen, the movie is meant to make us question the entertainment value we get from onscreen representations of violence. Many consider the film a layered, complex exploration of the negative influence of violence in the media; however, I find it frustratingly obtuse and self-contradictory, its detached style in the service of a didactic, scolding message. Worse, Haneke seems uninterested in examining his own role in employing exactly the sort of emotional manipulation he means to condemn, or how it reflects on his career-long tendency towards bludgeoning the audience with moments of brutality that, apparently, we're supposed to blame ourselves for reacting to. While I don't know if Haneke himself is truly sadistic, Funny Games often feels like a session with a dominatrix who believes that we're the true perverts and he's flagellating us towards moral enlightenment.

It's tempting to cite the many quotes where Haneke contradicts himself about the movie's intentions, but I'll stick to the evidence in the movie itself. So what are the supposedly brilliant devices he employs to make his point? The killers explicitly reference the fact that they're in a movie; there are a few points when one of them addresses us directly, like a psychopathic Zach Morris; and there's one scene where an act of violent retribution is undone by one of the characters picking up a remote and literally rewinding the film. The first two devices have been used repeatedly in other movies, often in more subtle and interesting ways; the last, frankly, is very silly. Not only does Haneke fundamentally not understand the psychological experience of horror movies, where even fans who primarily enjoy the blood and gore undergo a complex process of identification with both the killer and the victims - he'd do well to read Carol J. Clover's writing on the subject - but his methods of advancing his argument are actually more crude and obvious than many straight horror filmmakers' own approach to screen violence. There are countless examples of horror movies, from Psycho to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer to most of De Palma's filmographythat demonstrate a more sophisticated understanding of our relationship to cinematic horror than Haneke's, films that actually invite us to explore the nature of onscreen and real-life violence instead of punishing us for being interested in the first place.

I also have to take exception with Haneke's low opinion with fans of the genre - while, yes, some horror fans just want to see fucked-up shit (who are, ironically, largely responsible for boosting the movie's reputation), most of us are far more interested in exploring the subtext of the films than he gives us credit for. This includes those of you who will disagree with my take on the movie and, I'm sure, are capable of intelligently explaining why. I must remind you, though, that Haneke himself famous said of Funny Games that "Anybody who leaves the cinema doesn't need the film, and anybody who stays does" (presumably, anyone who saw his shot-by-shot English-language remake needed a double dose). So one might argue that those who praise Funny Games are the depraved ones and, as I think it's well crafted but kind of stupid, I'm actually demonstrating greater moral enlightement (though not as great as Michael Haneke, because nobody is as enlightened as Michael Haneke, obviously). Put another way, anybody who doesn't need my thoughts on Funny Games stopped reading two paragraphs ago, and anyone who is still reading does. And all of us need Michael Haneke's fake Twitter account.

U.S. Release Date: March 11, 1998 (Also released that weekend: The Man in the Iron Mask, Chairman of the Board)

What critics said at the time:

"Symptomatic of the fascist mindset is the self-righteous application of a strict code of civility from which the ruler himself is naturally exempt. Thus, Haneke despise's the mass audience's pleasure in make-believe mayhem while demonstrating his own capacity to dish it out. The most honest aspects of Haneke's movies is the evident satisfaction the director derives from the authoritarian aspects of his position - demonstrated most spectacularly in Funny Games when the worm, as it were, finally turns. The wheel is rigged so that only Haneke can win." - J. Hoberman, Village Voice
"'Funny Games' is an intellectual's suspense film, which ultimately tries to critique and demystify violence. But, since our responses are never all cerebral, that's not entirely possible. Especially with villains like these: Giering, amusingly, recalls the lumpishly likable Beau Bridges and Frisch's sang froid suggests Patricia Highsmith's 'Talented Mr. Ripley' (and Alain Delon in the film version, 'Purple Noon'). The beleaguered family is truly sympathetic, especially Susanne Lothar as clear-headed wife Anna. And the form is so transparent, the storytelling so expert, that this film becomes unnervingly lucid. We always know where we are -- even if we're on the road to hell." - Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune

Sunday, October 19, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 17 - Lost Highway

#7 (Tie) - 7 Votes

While Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was considerably darker and more abrasive than the series, it still contains enough deadpan comedy that, along with the way it ends Laura Palmer's sad story with a disarming moment of grace, makes the question of whether it's a horror movie or not a debatable one. With David Lynch's next feature, Lost Highway, there's very little debate - it's basically a two-hour nightmare, one that ends without any moment of resolution for its protagonist(s?) or the audience, and what little humor it contains is very grim. While the story relies on noir staples like the seductive girlfriend of a violently jealous gangster, the villain here is most likely the protagonist's own disturbed mind. Lynch has said that he realized, after making the movie, that he was inspired by the O.J. Simpson trial, which actually makes perfect sense; it's a movie about a guy who creates an alternate life for himself to forget a terrible thing he's done, only to find that his own mind - in the form of the creepiest character Lynch has ever created - won't let him escape.

The movie begins with couple Fred (Bill Pullman) and Renee (Patricia Arquette), who are living in a sort of monosyllabic horror show of a failing marriage even before they start receiving videos showing the outside and, eventually, the inside of their house (I was annoyed when Michael Haneke either unintentionally repeated or blatantly stole this device for Caché and everyone was apparently fine with it). As with most mysteries in Lynch's movies, the tapes aren't a puzzle to be put together as much as a harbinger of darker things to come, which manifest themselves in the form of a guy in Kabuki makeup (played, in a queasy coincidence, by future possible wife murderer Robert Blake) who approaches Fred at a party and informs him that they've met before. The guy also tells Fred that he's at Fred and Renee's home right now; Fred calls home, at the mysterious man's insistence, and the man does indeed pick up at the other end. The scene is a perfect example of Lynch's amazing gift to take a scene that, on the page, could play like a lesser Twilight Zone episode and, by staging it just right, eliciting the right performances from his (presumably very trusting) actors and, especially, knowing just when to cut to tighter close-ups on his actors, creates a scene that works as a horror story in miniature.

The story soon jumps ahead to Fred in prison, accused of killing his wife, which he doesn't remember. One morning, after suffering a headache that looks slightly less painful than the one Michael Ironside gives Louis Del Grande in Scanners, Fred wakes up as a different person. Pete (Balthazar Getty), an auto mechanic in his early 20s, doesn't remember how he got there, but the movie switches tracks with him. Pete soon begins an affair with Alice (also Arquette), the mistress of a gangster named Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia). Just as the movie seems to be veering into Double Indemnity territory, bits of Fred's life start to intrude on Pete's story in strange ways, until the whole thing folds back on itself. The movie has a great deal in common, thematically and structurally, with Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, but while those movies end on a note of liberation for their trapped heroines, there's no exit for Fred at the end; it's easy to imagine the end credits simply looping back to the movie's beginning.

It's not quite as strong as the two later films, and once you start to understand what's happening to Fred/Pete, some of the details might start to seem unnecessarily obscure. But it contains some of Lynch's best work - the scene where Mr. Eddy assaults a tailgater is the most memorable in Loggia's filmography (other than his Minute Maid ad), and there's a great sex scene between Pete and Alice, scored to This Mortal Coil's "Song to the Siren,"* that takes a hairpin turn from beautiful to chilling (Arquette's performance is very underrated). And whenever the movie seems ready to fly off the rails, Blake returns to bring everything into frightening focus. Blake may be playing the devil (this was Blake's interpretation), or a projection of Fred's conscience (co-writer Barry Gifford thought so); personally, I think he's like the subconscious characters in Inception (albeit in a less literal way), determined to eject Fred from his own dream. Whatever the case may be, Blake is completely terrifying; late in the movie, there's a POV shot of Fred, from the driver's side of his car, pulling away as Blake approaches with a camera, grasping at Fred as he drives away, that is as suspenseful as any protracted chase in a slasher movie.

Given the theme of this month's poll, it's also worth noting that Lost Highway is immediately identifiable as a late-'90s movie. Lynch's films often feel like they're taking place in the present and the recent past at the same time, and Lost Highway sort of tries that with the noir elements. In this case, though, the wall-to-wall industrial soundtrack, as well as the industrial influence on the production design and costumes, make it much more recognizably of its time. This hurts the movie a little bit - it takes me out of the dreamlike atmosphere Lynch is working so hard to build when Marilyn Manson and Henry Rollins show up in cameo roles. While I don't doubt that Lynch is a fan of Manson, Nine Inch Nails and the other artists on the soundtrack, it sometimes feels like he's straining for relevance in a way that none of his other work does. It's a minor nitpick, though, as the movie is still fascinating and often very unsettling; let's just say that, while a David Lynch movie isn't improved by putting a Rammstein song on the soundtrack, being on the soundtrack of a David Lynch movie makes Rammstein a little more interesting.

Sidenote: If you haven't read this David Foster Wallace piece about Lynch, focusing on a visit to the set of Lost Highway, I can't recommend it highly enough.

*Lynch wanted to use this song as the soundtrack for Jeffrey and Sandy's dance scene in Blue Velvet; when he found out he couldn't, he wrote the lyrics to "Mysteries of Love" during a lunch break.

U.S. Release Date: February 19, 1997 (Also opening that day: The Empire Strikes Back (Special Edition), Rosewood, Blood and Wine)

What critics said at the time:

"In Eraserhead, there was a rapturous quality in even the most grisly images. Amid the terrible loneliness of human (and industrial) life were flecks of opalescent beauty, and of connection. In Lost Highway, the plugs have been pulled, and what's left is a misanthropic cackle that echoes in the void. It's distressing to think that Blue Velvet was the climax of Lynch's hopeful phase, that his view of humanity has been downhill from there. It's not that the vision here is so bleak, but that it's so reductive, and that it leads nowhere. Lost Highway is Eraserhead without the wonder, Eraserhead conceived by an angry man recycling stale genre movies and making them staler and more primitive yet." - David Edelstein, Slate
"Lynch has landed us in storytelling territory so weird and new that a more precise plot synopsis would probably be incoherent, like the handbook for the afterlife that the dead are required to read in Beetlejuice. Yet from beginning to end, Lynch keeps us anchored in a very plausible, slightly comical, hypnotically humdrum world where people drive cars, go to work, and haunt their own apartments. For all that these characters relentlessly transform, inside and out, their world is solid and constant--and from the get-go, this is a reassuring indicator that Lynch knows exactly what he is doing. We are never anywhere except where he and co-writer Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart) want us to be." - F.X. Feeney, Mr. Showbiz

Friday, October 17, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 16 - Bram Stoker's Dracula

#7 (Tie) - 7 Votes

The November 1992 issue of Fangoria - the cover of which refers to Bram Stoker's Dracula as "The Horror Event of the Decade!" - features an interview with director Francis Ford Coppola about his then-new film. Coppola talks at length about his attempt to make an experimental film out of Bram Stoker's novel, while the studio wanted a big, lavish A-list horror movie. At the end of the interview, he concludes:

 "The irony is that even though this film didn't turn out as experimental as I originally planned - I got maybe 40 percent of what I was going for - it's still not your conventional movie. Certain aspects of it got away from me, got bigger than I intended; I was looking at making a smaller, stranger, artier version, and what I got is a big, strange, artier version."

It's a familiar narrative turn of events in Coppola's career, the intention of making a small art film ballooning into something much larger. In this case, though, Dracula turned out to be the rare unqualified hit of Coppola's post-'70s career, largely thanks to a very effective marketing campaign - the movie's gorgeous poster was ubiquitous that fall, as were the many bits of cross-promotional ephemera (the VHS release featured ads for the soundtrack and the Sega Genesis game). The movie itself didn't prove to be the horror event of the decade, and it remains divisive among horror fans, but Coppola did succeed in making a uncommonly idiosyncratic blockbuster - with its opulent, romantic approach to horror, Dracula is very much of its time, but there hasn't been anything quite like it since.

Personally, I've always been a fan of the movie, which I wanted to see as badly as most of my peers wanted to see Home Alone 2: Lost in New York that fall. I had to wait until the following summer to see it on video; admittedly, my attention flagged a bit in the last half-hour, by which point everyone in the cast is yelling all of their dialogue, but I liked the movie for the reason many critics didn't, the way it aspired to elevate Dracula to the level of high art while still indulging in gratuitous T&A and as much onscreen bloodletting as the average splatter movie. Seeing it on the big screen several years later, I was able to fully admire Coppola's attempt to tell this story in purely visual terms, as though it were a silent film; the movie's over-the-top visual spectacle may not always be dramatically coherent, but between the lavish production design, the extraordinary costumes by Eiko Ishioka (who deservedly won an Oscar for her work on the film), frequent Fassbender collaborator Michael Ballhaus' cinematography, and the stunning visual effects (supervised by Coppola's son Roman), which were mostly achieved in-camera, the movie's accomplishments are unique and ambitious enough to forgive its occasional missteps. It's playfully inventive and proudly disreputable in a way that Coppola's films wouldn't be again until his most recent, Twixt.

The first thing people are apt to remember about Dracula, of course, is Keanu Reeves' performance as Harker, particularly his oft-parodied British accent. Ever since I read an interview with Coppola where he mentioned that he wanted Johnny Depp for the part (the studio didn't think he was a big enough star at the time), I can't help imagining an alternate universe Dracula that, with that one change, is celebrated as a classic. Beyond that, I'm the fan of all the performances - yes, everyone is chewing the scenery, especially Anthony Hopkins, but naturalistic performances would have been drowned out by the scale of the production. It's the kind of movie where a curly-mustached Cary Elwes can burst into a room and bellow "What the devil is going on hee-ah?" and it just feels right. Other standouts in the cast include Tom Waits playing Renfield as a bug-eating Tom Waits, and Sadie Frost, who takes the typically thankless role of the best friend who Dracula seduces first and makes something special out of it - she's sexy in a way that made me uncomfortable as a kid and probably more so as an adult (the whole movie is luridly sexual - it's probably unnecessary, but I'm not complaining). And while the character of Mina doesn't require as much from Ryder as her much more interesting performances in movies like Heathers and The Age of Innocence, this might not matter if, like me, Winona circa 1989-1994 was one of the earliest and most influential crushes of your formative years.

It's Gary Oldman, though, who steals the movie; he's my favorite screen Dracula after Christopher Lee, and his chameleon-like talents are perfect for Dracula as conceived here. Managing to convincingly act through the several complex makeup designs created by Greg Cannom (also a deserving Oscar winner for his work here), Oldman is equally convincing as a decrepit elderly Dracula, a young heartthrob Dracula, or a six-foot-tall bat. His romantic scenes with Ryder are straight out of a Harlequin novel, but he's persuasive enough that when he bares his bleeding chest for Mina to drink from, you can see how she might be into it. Dracula was one of the first in a wave of movies, like The Crow and Interview with the Vampire, that took a Gothic, romantic approach to dark subject matter that appealed to young audiences, particularly teenage girls. Years later, it's easy to trace a line from these films to the Twilight series, though fans of Dracula would likely sneer at the comparison. The truth is, they tap into the same fantasies, though, compared to Stephanie Meyer's chaste sexuality, Coppola's film is practically pornographic, and delightfully so - I can't believe I've reached my conclusion without discussing the blood-drinking orgy scene. Ah well, another time, perhaps.

U.S. Release Date: November 13, 1992 (Also released that day: Traces of Red, Love Potion no. 9, Tous les Matins du Monde)

What critics said at the time:

"For one thing, the 130-minute drama goes on forever. For another, it feels like neither a success nor a failure, living in its own world of maddening oppositions: It's enthralling in many places, dull in others. It's as wondrous as it is overextended. You can't tell if this is a flawed masterpiece or an intricately designed bag of wind." - Desson Howe, Washington Post

"Boring? Empty? These adjectives accurately describe most Hollywood pictures I see week after week, all of which have easily definable heroes, plots, conflicts, and resolutions, and as few ideas of any kind as possible--visual, thematic, stylistic, or otherwise. If anything, Bram Stoker's Dracula suffers from a surfeit of such ideas, not to mention a surfeit of characters and action. If you require your entertainments to be easy to follow and to synopsize or review afterward, you'd be better off heading for Aladdin." - Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Readers

Thursday, October 16, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 15 - Ravenous

#8 (Tie) - 6 Votes

I skipped Ravenous when it was dumped in theaters in the spring of 1999, received mixed-to-negative reviews (though Roger Ebert and a handful of others were fans) and quickly disappeared. A few years later, I caught it on cable and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The movie has built up a small cult following over the years; as is often the case with black comedies, Ravenous was difficult to market (check out the pretty terrible trailer below) and eventually found an audience appreciative of its peculiar charms through word of mouth. Mixing horror and comedy is always a delicate balance, and Ravenous has the added challenge of working as a period piece, but it works as well as it does because the setting, characters and performances remain credible even as the action grows increasingly loony.

Set in 1847, Ravenous stars Guy Pearce as Captain John Boyd, who is transferred to a remote outpost in the Sierra Nevadas as punishment for an act of cowardice during a battle. Soon after Boyd's arrival, a settler named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) appears at the camp, near death and telling the terrifying story of his party being lost in the mountains and having to resort to cannibalism. The soldiers assemble a rescue party to search for survivors around the camp; I'll stop describing the plot here, because it's a pleasure to see the unexpected turns the story takes. Screenwriter Ted Griffin does a fine job of repeatedly raising the stakes throughout; every time we think the situation can't get worse for Boyd and his fellow soldiers, Griffin turns the screws a little tighter, all while maintaining a cheerful sense of gallows humor.

The production of Ravenous was famously troubled, with Antonia Bird taking over three weeks into production after the original director, Milcho Manchevski, was fired. So while the movie nods in the direction of playing as satire of American exceptionalism, it's probably best not to read too much of a personal signature into what was clearly a for-hire job. That said, aside from the anticlimactic final scenes, the movie doesn't feel like the product of a troubled production at all. Bird gets the tricky tone the material needs to work without losing sight of the sense of verisimilitude needed to keep it from veering into camp territory - it's a very funny movie, but moments like Jeffrey Jones' final scene are legitimately unsettling. Bird also gets strong performances from her ensemble cast - both leads are strong, and the ensembles cast, which includes Jones, Jeremy Davies and Neal McDonough, offers strong support, which is crucial in a horror movie that relies on an isolated setting. Anthony Richmond's gorgeous widescreen cinematography makes the most of the movie's locations (Slovakia makes a surprisingly good double for the Sierras). And, last but not least, the score by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn is one of the all-time great horror soundtracks; not since Deliverance has a banjo sounded so threatening.

U.S. Release Date: March 19, 1999 (Also opening that day: Forces of Nature, True Crime, The King and I, I Stand Alone, The Book of Life, Sparkler)

What critics said at the time:

"The film is one of those accursed self-styled 'outrageous' comedies that play the horrific for broad laughs, with a comically inflated style of dialogue that's so hip one doubts it could have been conceived before 1997, much less 1847. It's 'Eating Raoul' in buckskins. But the movie is also coarse and bloody (blood seeping, splattering, gurgling, gushing or blackening into aspic in the sun, is the visual motif) and uses far too many horror movie tricks, like the shock of the mutilated body or the unexpected plasma squirt." - Stephen Hunter, Washington Post

"The screenplay, by Ted Griffin, provides nice, small moments of color for the characters (I liked the way Jeffrey Jones' C.O. seemed reasonable in the most appalling ways), and short, spare lines of dialogue that do their work ('He was licking me!'). I also liked the way characters unexpectedly reappeared and how the movie savors Boyd's inability to get anyone to believe him. And I admired the visceral music, by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn, which calls attention to itself (common) but deserves to (rare). 'Ravenous' is clever in the way it avoids most of the cliches of the vampire movie by using cannibalism, and most of the cliches of the cannibal movie by using vampirism. It serves both dishes with new sauces." Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 14 - The Faculty

#8 (Tie) - 6 Votes

The Faculty was released near the end of the post-Scream wave of self-referential, self-consciously hip teen horror movies that dominated the second half of the decade. Written by Scream's Kevin Williamson - whose other credits, in the two years between Scream and The Faculty, were I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scream 2, Dawson's Creek and uncredited rewrites on Halloween: H20 - it's a calculated mix of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Breakfast Club. When an alien parasite starts taking over the minds of the teachers at an average suburban high school, a group of very different students - including a brain, a jock, a popular girl, a bullied Goth girl and a misunderstood delinquent - have to work together to stop it from taking over the school and, presumably, the world. In the process, they have lots of feelings and learn that they're not as different as they thought. It's a blatant mash-up of elements from popular movies, and I'm not sure if the fact that the movie acknowledges that it's stealing (Elijah Wood and Clea DuVall's characters actually discuss Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Heinlen's The Puppet Masters in one scene) makes it more or less cynical than if it played dumb. And when characters spoke in Williamson's trademark hyperarticulate dialogue, I honestly couldn't remember if it was an accurate reflection of how teens talked back then or if they started talking that way because they saw Scream and Dawson's Creek, and I was one of those teens.

While I have tried to avoid reducing my write-ups to click bait-y "Remember this? Does this make you feel old?" stuff, I must say that The Faculty might be the quintessential '90s horror movie. Just the sight of the Dimension logo lighting up, with The Offspring on the soundtrack, had a Proustian impact. If anyone were to make a parody of late-'90s teen horror movies, it would look a lot like The Faculty. The characters are introduced with freeze-frames and title cards showing their names - I'm bad with font names, but it was that paint splatter-looking one, kind of like the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas font, but more '90s and extreme (I'm sure it was an option on Microsoft Word at the time). Usher, Wiley Wiggins and Danny Masterson show up in small roles, and Harry Knowles has a cameo as a teacher. Jon Stewart shows up, just before he took over The Daily Show, rocking a sweet goatee (the scene where he gets stabbed in the eye was a go-to punchline on The Daily Show for years). The soundtrack even features an ultra-'90s supergroup - Layne Staley on vocals, Tom Morello on lead guitar, Stephen Perkins on drums and Martyn LeNoble on bass - that was assembled specifically for this movie to provide a shitty cover of "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)." If you added a Jesse Camp cameo, a character who is really into rap metal and a reference to the Taco Bell chihuahua, this would be the perfect 1998 time capsule.

Probably the most of-its-time element of the movie is that Josh Hartnett's sensitive badass character is a drug dealer who sells an unspecified powder. The character is clearly modeled after Judd Nelson's character from The Breakfast Club, but Bender just had a bag of weed in his locker. In The Faculty, Hartnett selling homemade amphetamines to his classmates is both supposed to make him charmingly roguish and demonstrate that he's a smart kid who needs to apply himself. I didn't think anything of it as a teenager who knew almost nothing about drugs, but as a 30-year-old, I was mortified. There's also the suggestion of a romantic attraction between Hartnett and a teacher played by Famke Janssen, a weird recurring theme in Willliamson's work. So there was a brief moment in popular culture where a movie could confuse Jesse Pinkman for John Bender and have us rooting for him to have sex with his teacher. The '90s were weird.

I was surprised how well The Faculty did in this poll; I'm guessing that, if I'd been a little younger when I saw it, I'd have more affection for it. It's not bad, though, and it's especially fun when it gets to let loose with its The Thing-influenced creature effects by KNB. Director Robert Rodriguez does a fine job of aping Wes Craven's work on Scream, though his work here was the first hint that he'd be less of an auteur than Tarantino or his other contemporaries and more of a..."hack" is a strong word, so we'll say a commercially-minded journeyman. The casting of the teachers is inspired, with Robert Patrick and Piper Laurie, in particular, riffing on their most famous genre roles. And it was fun to spot a ton of familiar faces near the beginning of their careers, especially Clea DuVall as Ally Sheedy.

U.S. Release Date: December 25, 1998 (Also released that day: Patch Adams, Stepmom, Mighty Joe Young, The Thin Red Line, Hurlyburly, A Civil Action, The Swindle, The Theory of Flight)

What critics said at the time: 

"A sci-fi/horror thriller so derivative that it thoughtfully acknowledges its principal influences in the dialogue, screenwriter Kevin Williamson and director Robert Rodriguez's wise-to-its-audience shocker is nevertheless exactly the kind of sporadically clever, button-pushing fright-fest that keeps genre fans hanging on until something more fulfilling comes along." - Matland McDonagh, TV Guide

"Amid the traditional year-end deluge of prestige pictures, a smart, lively and unpretentious exploitation picture is always a welcome treat. And that's exactly the pleasure of seeing 'The Faculty,' a rip-roaring collaboration between director Robert Rodriguez and writer Kevin Williamson. It's a consistently funny and clever teen horror flick that in the Williamson 'Scream' tradition of hip references to old films also offers nods to 'The Thing,' 'Forbidden Planet' and 'The Puppet Masters." - Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 13 - Dellamorte Dellamore (aka Cemetery Man)

#8 (Tie) - 6 Votes

The first time I saw Dellamorte Dellamore (released in the U.S. as Cemetery Man), it was very late at night, and the next morning, I wasn't sure if I was remembering the movie accurately or if it had inspired some very strange dreams as I drifted in and out of sleep. Later on, a second viewing confirmed that Michele Soavi's film was exactly as strange as I remembered. Based on a novel Tiziano Sclavi (who also created the cult comic Dylan Dog, whose hero is modeled after Dellamorte Dellamore star Rupert Everett), Cemetery Man starts as a deadpan horror comedy only to make several jarring tonal shifts, becoming erotic, violent and surreal before ending on an inexplicable existential question mark. It shouldn't work, and it didn't work for a lot of critics, but Soavi - who worked as an assistant director for Dario Argento and Terry Gilliam, citing both as influences on his work - completely commits to the story's morbid take on love and death, and even as you're repeatedly asking "Wait, what just happened?", in the end it's true to its own (arguably batshit insane) logic.

Everett stars as Francesco Dellamorte, a cemetery caretaker in a small Italian town who, as of late, has had to deal with the problem of dead people escaping from their graves. While the movie's roving cameras remind not only of Gilliam but also Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, Soavi's approach to horror comedy is comparatively low key - the joke here is that, for Dellamorte, shooting zombies in the head becomes just another mundane aspect of his job. This changes when Dellamorte, whose only companion is his mentally challenged assistant Gnaghi (François Hadji-Lazaro), falls for a newly widowed young woman (Anna Falchi). Sadly, the woman is bitten by a zombie after she and Francesco have sex atop a grave, but after he dispatches of her, she reappears to him as various other characters (Gnaghi also has a romance with a severed head). As Francesco starts to wonder if he's going insane, he's visited by a very Gilliam-esque Death, who encourages him to start killing the living, which is where things get really strange.

Dellamorte Dellamore isn't a particularly scary film, as the zombie outbreak proves to be the least of Dellamorte's worries, and Soavi is more interested in gross-out than suspense; everyday human activities like eating and sex are given a sickly quality, reminders of our mortality. The movie grows more unnerving as Dellamorte turns his gun on the living, and we're uncreasingly uncertain if what we're seeing is a dream, a hallucination or something else altogether. The movie's ending, which I won't spoil, is one of the strangest of any movie, horror or otherwise. It's a seemingly out-of-nowhere philosophical question mark, and while, after having seen it a few times, I'm not sure if it fits the movie, but I admire Soavi for swinging for the fences. Soavi left the film industry for a long time after Dellamorte Dellamore for personal reasons; there are two more recent movies listed on his Wikipedia page, but there's very little information about either, and they don't appear to have gotten U.S. releases. It's a shame, as Dellamorte Dellamore is one of the most unique horror movies of the decade, and horror movies could use Soavi's offbeat sensibility today.

U.S. Release Date: April 26, 1996 (Also released that day: The Quest, The Truth About Cats & Dogs, Sunset Park, Mulholland Falls)

What critics said at the time: 

"The worst thing that can be said for 'Cemetery Man,' which opens today in the Bay Area, is that it's out of control. It's as if the film makers were following random impulses, tossing anything on screen and then repenting by flailing in all directions for a meaning to it all. Some patches are dull, others are irritating and puerile. In the end, 'Cemetery Man' seems to be a pointless exercise" - Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

"The visual effects are a hoot, with camera angles from inside underground coffins, and a severed head that follows Gnaghi adoringly around the graveyard. Soavi offers a skewed comic world where a dead lover is as good as a live one - maybe better, since the dead always return. With Hollywood grinding out a raft of coming big-budget, heavy-artillery, live-action versions of comic books such as `Barb Wire,' `X-Men,' `Men in Black' and `Wonder Woman,' this sweet-spirited Italian import recalls another era with its naughtiness, creative verve and endearing lack of pretension." - Amy Dawes, Los Angeles Daily News


Monday, October 13, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 12 - Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

#8 (Tie) - 6 Votes

While I don't want to devote a lot of space to the question of whether or not Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is a horror movie, David Lynch is unparalleled in making movies that defy easy genre classification with their ability to make us feel multiple conflicting emotions at once. Eraserhead, for instance, is a movie that many consider horror, but as unsettling as it can be, I've always found it hilarious. One of the many ways that Twin Peaks was a radical departure for network TV was the way it juggled so many different genres and moods in a way that, at the show's best, seemed effortless. A single episode could include goofy comedy, eroticism (by network standards), soap-y melodrama, suspense, surrealism, poetry and genuine pathos, all within the parameters of a mystery procedural. While the show's many tonal shifts weren't always smooth, they were unified by a very real emotional center - the way that the grief over Laura Palmer's death touches every resident of the town and, once the identity of Laura's killer was revealed, the all too real horror of a seemingly happy family hiding unspeakable abuse.

There are long stretches of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lynch's follow-up to the series, that can't really be classified as "horror." The opening half hour, following FBI agent Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) as he investigates a murder that took place a year before Laura's, is a self-contained deadpan comedy featuring exact opposites of many of the main characters from Twin Peaks. It's as if Lynch was deliberately trying to frustrate fans' expectations. There's also a brief interlude with David Bowie as a FBI agent returning from the world where Bob and "the man from another place" reside that is equal parts compelling and baffling. Also, given that it's a prequel (and because Kyle McLachlan asked to have a smaller part), Agent Cooper's mostly passive role knocks the movie off-balance as it descends into the underworld of Twin Peaks without its goodhearted, pie-loving Virgil.

But once the movie returns to Twin Peaks and the story of the last days of Laura Palmer's life, it's nightmarish in ways that go far beyond what a TV show at the time would allow. We watch Laura's psychological torment in what feels like slow motion, and it's almost too painful to witness; while Lynch has specialized in abstracting real life evils in Twin Peaks and throughout his work, he deserves a lot of credit for dealing with the literal evil of incest literally and unflinchingly. Though Bob remains frightening in the film, the sickening reveal of Laura finally seeing his real face - her father's - is more terrifying than any supernatural being. Lynch's leads deserve a great deal of credit too - Sheryl Lee gives the rare performance that deserves to be described as brave, throwing herself completely and without vanity into Laura's descent, and Ray Wise is just as brave in finding the broken humanity in a character that is at once monstrous and pitiful. Throughout, the movie has a genuine, heartbreaking sense of compassion for victims of sexual abuse; Lee has remarked that survivors of rape and incest have thanked her for helping them work through their own experiences.

While the letters sections of Wrapped in Plastic indicate that the movie had passionate fans from the beginning, it was mostly rejected by audiences hoping that it would answer some of the show's unresolved questions. Instead, they got an incredibly downbeat character study, minus the show's offbeat humor, that raised more questions than it answered. Since then, it's found a loyal audience, including many who insist it's Lynch's masterpiece; at the very least, it's one of his most technically accomplished (the sound design alone is astounding), and a remarkably uncompromising, difficult film. The news of a new season of Twin Peaks, to be directed by Lynch and written by Lynch and series co-creator Mark Frost, has been greeted by some (including me) with the same kind of anticipation others feel for the new Star Wars trilogy, with a lot of speculation about what shape the story might take. My guess is that a fair amount of people will be disappointed; if there's one thing Fire Walk With Me proves, it's that Lynch follows his own muse, audience expectations be damned. But if Showtime is smart enough to let him do his thing, having Lynch back in the director's chair, returning to the medium he helped reshape, is cause for celebration. I, for one, can't wait to be surprised.

U.S. Release Date: August 28, 1992 (Also released that day: Honeymoon in Vegas, Pet Sematary II, Freddie as F.R.O.7., Storyville)

What critics said at the time:

"Everything about David Lynch's "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me" is a deception. It's not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be. Its 134 minutes induce a state of simulated brain death, an effect as easily attained in half the time by staring at the blinking lights on a Christmas tree." - Vincent Canby, New York Times

"The film's many moments of horror- an excursion into a drab room in a picture given Laura by a spectral old woman and which turns out to be one of the entrances to the Lodge,' Laura's hysterical and numbed laughter as Bobby is shocked by the murder he has committed: the alternations of the glowering Leland with the insanely evil Bob - demonstrate just how tidy, conventional and domesticated the generic horror movie of the 80s and 90s has become." - Kim Newman, Sight & Sound