Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Creepshow (1982) [31 Days of Gore]

I wanted to end this year's 31 Days of Gore with something special. The entire month I've been carefully considering which movie it should be. It turns out I can think of few movies more quintessential to my childhood than Creepshow. It was probably my introduction to King, Romero, and Savini, it sports an unbelievable soundtrack by John Harrington (which I listen to quite a bit), and possibly replicates the experience of reading an issue of EC horror more accurately than HBO's Tales from the Crypt. Never mind the fact it barely works as a horror film, it has a killer cast and every person in it knows exactly what kind of movie they're making, which is rare when you have so many different kinds of actors.

In the container story, an angry father (Tom Atkins) reprimands his son (Joe Hill) for the horror comic he finds in his bedroom. The comic looks suspiciously like Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear, right down to the style of the advertisements found inside. The father calls it sick filth and tosses it in the trash. Once the boy is alone, he wishes his father would rot in hell, at which point a ghoul appears at his window to tell him the stories from the comic book in person. Cue the opening credits, which are colorful and fun. (Seriously, why do so many modern movies skip the tone-setting credits?)

The first story features Carrie Nye, Ed Harris, and Viveca Lindfors, and it's probably the weakest of the group, but it has a great line ("I want my Father's Day cake!") and the hokey feel of a campfire story. I complain about stereotypical characters in horror movies all the time, but these characters are hyper-stereotypical and intentionally so. That's part of the reason the film is so successful at feeling like the material which inspired it: it revels in being pulp.

In the next story Stephen King plays Jordy Verrill, a country bumpkin who discovers a fallen meteorite. Much like that moment in The Blob, touching the meteorite is a very bad idea; it infects Verrill's hand with some sort of alien substance resembling chia grass. King might be the worst actor in the entire movie, delivering a performance which would make Jerry Lewis roll his eyes, but that's not a complaint. He's obviously having a blast and it's just as contagious as the stuff growing on his hand.

Following the conclusion of King's segment, Leslie Nelson gets the best lines of the entire movie in his portrayal of a rich maniac who goes to far-fetched lengths to punish his wife's lover (Ted Danson). Although he plays it straight, Nelson is doing something completely different than what he did in Airplane and Naked Gun; maybe he's not as funny here, but he's definitely the character who made me laugh the most. It might even be my favorite segment of the movie because he's so cartoonishly evil you can't help but root for him to do terrible things... so that you can root for terrible things to happen to him later.

It seems that the penultimate story, The Crate, is everybody's favorite. In it, Adrienne Barbeau (who also appeared in Romero's half of Two Evil Eyes) plays a loud-mouthed alcoholic whose husband (Hal Holbrook) fantasizes about killing her. Meanwhile, a friend of theirs discovers a mysterious crate beneath the stairs of the local university. I can certainly see why this is the fan-favorite, and it was probably mine, too, at one point or another, but I found this one was the biggest candidate for trimming some of the movie's two-hour runtime.

The final story the ghoul tells was probably my least favorite as a kid, but I've grown quite fond of it. This analysis is at least partly responsible, but I discovered creepy crawlies are much more effective to me now than I was a kid. My girlfriend, who I've never known to squirm during a movie (with the exception of Ichi the Killer) almost couldn't stand to watch it. In it, E.G. Marshall plays a rich and powerful hermit whose sterile home is infiltrated by cockroaches.

I don't know what, exactly, elevates Creepshow so high above its aspirations, but there are so few things that make me so gleeful. Creepshow 2 ain't a bad movie either, but the end of that film is where I part ways with the franchise. Don't ever expect me to feature Creepshow 3 and the internet-only Creepshow Raw... they really are that bad.

That's it for this year's 31 Days of Gore. It was the breeziest one yet.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Dark Half (1993) [31 Days of Gore]

It seems there was something in the zeitgeist which led to some superficially similar movies about duality coming out within a short period of time. Brian De Palma made Raising Cain less than a year before The Dark Half and not very long after David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, a spectacularly discomforting movie which somehow came out the same year as Twins. I'm not sure why I felt like revisiting The Dark Half more than the examples above, it just seemed to call to me last night the way the sparrows seem to call to Timothy Hutton's character... that and it was the only one of the bunch freely available on Amazon's VOD service.

I give many movies a hard time for not making a lot of sense, but The Dark Half doesn't make sense in an agreeable way... if that makes sense. There are details the movie takes its time to set up, but many of these details don't strengthen the core experience, which is this: a novelist's pseudonym has somehow embodied himself and now he's going on a killing spree. 

So, uh, what the hell does all this have to do with the tumor discovered in the main character's brain when he was a kid? Why is it important for us to get a pseudo-medical explanation (which somehow manages to explain nothing at all) when the character in question seems to be purely supernatural in origin? Why is there so much talk about schizophrenia when it's made perfectly clear, early on, that's not what's going on? And why write so many one-note characters when you have a cast as outstanding as Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Michael Rooker, and Royal Dano?

It probably sounds like I'm getting ahead of myself here, but that's kind of the way the movie operates: the cart before the horse, the chickens before the eggs. And it probably sounds like I disliked the movie, but I didn't. I liked it much more than I did before, I just have questions... lots and lots of questions.

Director George Romero, who made my favorite horror movie of all time (Dawn of the Dead), doesn't necessarily strike out here, but he makes some strange decisions. Fortunately, none of these decisions break the movie and it's not hard to look past them. When he adapted Stephen King's novel of the same name, I imagine he took the bits which interested him as a visual storyteller but failed to transplant some of the connecting tissue. 

The result is an uneven movie which manages to work in spite of its flaws. The horror has a nice upwards curve in terms of intensity, and the way the final conflict resolves is one of the most satisfying deaths ever filmed. I'm just not sure what the hell happened at the end or why it happened. Maybe it's just a little too metaphysical and/or metaphorical for my tastes.

Be sure to come back tomorrow... 31 Days of Gore concludes with yet another Romero picture.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Creep 2 (2017) [31 Days of Gore]

I thought Creep was good, but I never felt it needed a sequel. In fact, it never even occurred to me that it could have a sequel. It came pretty close to wearing out its welcome to be honest.

Two years later Mark Duplass returns as the creep, this time going by the name Aaron, which was the name of the victim in the previous film. His new target is Sara (Desiree Akhavan), a struggling YouTuber whose dreadfully artistic video series involves responding to the Craigslist ads of lonely people. When "Aaron" posts an ad for a videographer job, Sara decides to put her failing series on hold to make some money for a change. She meets Aaron at his house and the creepiness begins immediately as he directs her into making a documentary about his life.

Once again the creep has targeted someone who should know better than to stick around. At one point the creep confesses part of the fun is watching how his victims fail to heed the warning signs. Sara, too, has a scene in which she admits she should get the hell out of this situation as soon as possible, and her excuse for staying is a little more believable than it was the last time around.

The trailer I glimpsed prior to watching the movie led me to believe Duplass's character might have met his match this time. There's a little bit of that going on, which makes for some of the film's funniest moments, but it's apparent that the creep isn't just lying to Sara, he's lying to the audience as well—he's always got something up his sleeve and he's not to be trusted about anything, including the glimpses into his (possibly made-up) past.

I liked the first Creep and, against all odds, loved the second one. Superior sequels are rare in general, but even rarer in horror. It's absurd, it's funny, and the performers are absolutely fearless in where they're willing to go to make a creepy movie.

So am I left with a burning desire to see a Creep 3 someday? Not really, but if it turns up on Netflix, I'm probably gonna watch it.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Black Death (2010) [31 Days of Gore]

I didn't think The Black Death would qualify for 31 Days of Gore, I just felt like watching it. The fact that it's very much a movie that belongs here is a happy accident. At first I felt disappointed that it wasn't as grounded as, say, The Crucible nor as radical and exploitative as Mark of the Devil; movies that exist in the middle of these extremes are typically lifeless and mediocre. Fortunately, The Black Death finds a happy medium between reality and shock value.

The year is 1348 and the Black Death is ravishing England. The Theory of Everything's Eddie Redmayne plays a monk who breaks his vows of celibacy when he falls in love with a woman. As the plague reaches their region, he urges her to flee into the relative safety of the forest. She agrees, but only under the condition he leaves the monastery once and for all. She'll wait for him at a predetermined meeting place, but only for a week. If he doesn't make a decision by then he'll never see her again.

Torn between his vows and the woman he loves, the monk prays for some sort of guidance. He takes it as a divine sign when a knight named Ulric (Game of Thrones's Sean Bean) arrives at the monastery, seeking someone who can guide his party through the difficult lands. The monk jumps at the chance as no one else knows the area better and he's swept away on a miserable and bloody adventure.

It turns out Ulric has learned there's a remote village which has yet to be afflicted by the plague. Naturally, he and his ragtag group of soldiers suspect there's a sorcerer there who caused the plague in the first place. The monk is shocked to find that the men he's traveling with are master interrogators and one of their instruments is a torture device designed to split a human from asshole to chin. These aren't good men, even though they think they're doing the lord's work, but they may just be the closest thing to a hero you're gonna get from a movie like this one.

To say any more would spoil the horror. Much of the latter half verges on absurd, which would normally clash with the first half's tone, but it's a decent little flick. The unhampered violence, which stops just short of full-blown exploitation, will turn many away, but here's my problem with dismissing it as gratuitous: we live in a time when full grown adults believe the very same superstitions as the characters in The Black Death. It's much more important to show how horrific senseless violence was rather than downplay it.

So this is a period piece that's more likely to satisfy fans of horror than anyone looking for a historical drama. There's nothing wrong with that. It's a well-crafted piece of fantasy and it's a shame it's not better known. I will say the backside of the climax was a little silly (one character delivers a speech in the manner of a Bond villain), but I can think of several horror films far worse than this. It's perfect for a Saturday afternoon.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Scream series (1996—2011) [31 Days of Gore]

I never really had a lot of love for the Scream series, but I'm older now and a lot more mature (read: I no longer get defensive when mainstream audiences come poking around in the scrappy little genres I hold so dearly). I'm still not ready to delve into the other 90s slashers, because I Know What You Did Last Summer still looks mediocre to me, but I'm ready to revisit Woodsboro... I hope.

Scream (1996)

How do you know you're getting old? When a movie that's well over twenty years old still seems like one of those newfangled horror movies. If Scream really is old enough to drink alcohol, I don't even want to think about how old Nightmare on Elm Street must be.

Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is a high school student who's quiet, prude, and emotionally damaged by the recent death of her mother. One night a masked killer murders a student at her school (Drew Barrymore) and it's not long before he sets his sights on Sidney. My favorite thing about Scream is it remembers how boring high school is, and how exciting it'd be to watch horror movies with a bunch of dumb friends when all this crazy stuff is going on, curfews be damned.

One of the reasons the movie initially rubbed me the wrong way is the misconception it was the first self-aware horror movie. I would argue any horror movie which managed to subvert the usual tropes was self-aware, it just didn't have its characters pointing out how clever the filmmakers were for doing it. Another reason it rubbed me the wrong way: I heard too many people, who may have never seen a horror movie in their lives, proclaim Scream "the first smart horror movie."


But it is an effective gimmick and we haven't seen it done quite like this before. And that's not the film's only gimmick, either. Scream is a decent whodunnit, more so than most of the slasher films which went that route (come to think of it, most of them were whodunnits), and the kills are expertly paced. The meat-to-filler ratio is spot on.

What surprised me most about re-watching Scream was how iconic it feels now. The garage scene is unlikely as hell (even Scary Movie's parody of the scene opted for a larger garage door opener), but it really stuck out as something memorable—probably more so than anything else that happens in the series. For the first time in twenty years, Scream feels like a bonafide classic to me in the sense I finally see what all the hype was about.

My younger self was unduly hard on this movie. This is because kids are stupid. Today, I legitimately love this movie.

Scream 2 (1997)

It only makes sense for a satirical franchise to satirize itself when it realizes the original film didn't have a single black person in it. This is addressed immediately in the opening scene with Jada Pinkett and Omar Epps, playing a savvy young couple who are going to the premiere of Stab, the movie-within-a-movie based on the events of the original film. Never mind that the filmmakers kill them off immediately, it's a step in the right direction... I guess.

Sidney has moved on to college. Naturally, it's not long before she realizes "it's happening again," and there are some creative liberties taken in the interest of bringing back some of the other characters from the first film. I usually groan at the excuses screenwriters come up with for bringing back characters, but most of the reasons here are fairly sound.

The fact that this one was rushed into production doesn't show as much as you'd expect, but there's definitely more of a made-for-TV feel (just a little). What's worse is stereotypical college characters have been substituted for genuinely funny dialogue. I'm sorry, but the comedy becomes a little too blunt and simplistic in this one. The only aspect which feels like a definite improvement over the original is the budding romance between David Arquette's Officer Dewey and Courtney Cox's Gale Weathers. It's entirely unlikely I would like a subplot like this, which is exactly what makes it all the more special to me.

Sidney seems like she's actually carrying baggage from the first film, which you don't see much of in horror sequels, and they develop her character just the right amount: not too little, and not so much it hinders the action. Scream 2 isn't quite as oiled as the original, and the killer scenes don't feel as finely placed. The only sequence which even competes on the same level as the first one involves a crashed cop car.

And then there's the ending, which is just about the dumbest killer reveal of the series. In fact, everything beyond the aforementioned car scene is stupid. Really, really stupid.

Scream 3 (2000)

Here's the the only Scream movie I actually saw in theaters. It was probably the worst Scream movie you could possibly see in theaters. It handles the killer reveal a lot better than the previous movie, but that's the only improvement. Even the comedy has gotten dumber.

Sidney lives in seclusion now, having adopted a new name. She operates a hotline for abused women, which is actually a fitting job for her character (never mind how a job like that pays the mortgage on an idyllic country home). This is probably the smartest writing in the entire movie. The problem is Sidney kind of takes a backseat until the end. The characters they get to fill in for her are kind of a slap in the face.

If Scream 2 developed a bit of a "made-for-TV" feel, then this one's a full-on sitcom—in fact, a laugh track might actually improve the fuckin' thing. Shake your head in disbelief as Jay and Silent Bob wander into a scene for a cheap laugh. Roll your eyes at a Carrie Fischer cameo which grinds the plot to a halt. Marvel at how movies within movies always pay excruciating detail to their sets and somehow know exactly how the dialogue "in real life" went down despite the fact it was completely off the record.

The violence has been neutered as well. This is probably the fault of the MPAA or studio interference, but Jenny McCarthy's death scene is so butchered, it appears she's killed by a gentle shove. (Yes, Jenny McCarthy is in this movie. Yes, horror movies really did suck this bad in the 2000s.) The flimsy excuse to concoct a cameo for Jamie Kennedy insulted the hell out of me the first time I saw it, but now I'm thinking it's probably one of the only times I perked up during this otherwise excruciating slog of a movie.

Dewey and Gale are on that outs. Again. Their relationship repeats exactly what it did the last time around. And I don't know why Hollywood thinks it's being so hilarious when it parodies itself so lazily. Parker Posey is much better than this. These jokes are terrible and the kills are downright nonexistent.

It's no wonder Scream 3 killed the franchise for a decade.

Scream 4 (2011)

Here it is: the first Scream sequel that's a worthy successor to the original. Few things are more insulting than a horror movie which opens with a movie-within-a-movie, but here's one which pokes fun at the tired ol' plot device: when it's revealed the opening scene is a movie-within-a-movie, the reveal takes place in another movie-within-a-movie... and so on. It's so absurd you can't help but laugh, which is a marked improvement on the "comedy" contained in the other sequels. It's also an upfront indication the franchise is going back to basics: loads of entertainment and buckets of blood. (There's a head-stabbing in this movie that tops everything in the last two movies combined.)

It turns out Sidney sued the producers of the Stab franchise, so instead of basing their stories on her life experiences, they now make everything up for the never-ending parade of sequels, even going so far as to making one that involves time travel. This allows Scream 4 to address the fact that horror trends have changed by 2011, including the so-called "torture porn" fad and the endless stream of reboots and remakes. And that's what makes Scream 4 so good: it would have been a lot safer to make a reboot infused with these current trends, but Wes Craven knew it was a lot more fun to give that kind of cynical filmmaking the middle finger.

So, Dewey and Gale are married. Dewey's the sheriff, Gale's a bored housewife with writer's block, and Sidney just happens to be in town on a book tour. It turns out she's sick of hiding from her past traumas and wrote a book to exorcise her demons. (Her publicist is played by Allison Brie, which is the kind of stereotypical character that made the previous sequels such a chore, so the less said about her the better.) Naturally, the day she returns to Woodsboro the killings begin all over again and Dewey informs her she's going to have to stay in town for a while, briefly and apologetically reminding her, "Everybody's a suspect."

Among the cast of supporting characters are the heads of the high school film class, who are just as educated in horror as the teens from the first film. No, I don't believe a mildly popular high school student would wear a webcam on his face for 24/7 streaming, certainly not with 2011 technology, but I'm willing to cut it some slack even if they don't do anything particularly exciting with it. (Were they trying to make some kind of statement about social media or...?)

It's a cliche to say "it's not as good as the first," but it's pretty damn close. If I ever marathon the series again, I'll skip the two in the middle. I just wish Wes Craven was still alive to give us another one in 2021; Scream is best when it's given a decade to mull over the genre.

As far as mainstream horror goes, this is as fun as it gets.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Blob (1988) [31 Days of Gore]

I try to do a melt movie every year. This one might be the most mainstream of 'em all.

Like John Carpenter's The Thing, 1988's version of The Blob is one of those rare remakes better than the original, which just goes to show screenwriter Frank Darabont had a genuine love for the monster movies he grew up watching (this, by the way, is one of the monster movies I grew up watching). It was obviously a stepping stone along the way to movies like The Mist, but I think this one's far more unsettling and its use of miniature effects are marvelous in the truest sense of the word. The first one is okay once you're done stripping away the cult following and the nostalgia, but this one's throwaway scenes are far more memorable than anything the original had to offer.

When I complain about the pacing in movies like Society, it's because there's pacing as good as this. Small town horror films are almost always fun (for reasons I can't quite put my finger on), but this one especially maintains the momentum. You've got the small town sheriff (Jeffrey DeMunn), the small town diner, the small town movie theater, the small town bad boy (Kevin Dillon), and the small town cheerleader (Shawnee Smith).

The cheerleader isn't an airhead or a damsel in distress, either. She genuinely and quite naturally kicks ass, which is always fun to see in older movies when it wasn't about making a political statement. Although I'm a sucker for Hollywood romances, it's interesting that there isn't really a spark between the male and the female leads. They grow to respect each other, but it's remarkably platonic for the era.

One day a UFO crashes in the woods and a bum pokes the wreckage with a stick. The gelatinous contents of the downed vessel climb the stick and adheres itself to the bum's hand. The main characters happen upon the man on a nearby road and rush him to the hospital. When no one's looking, the acidic blob feasts on its victim and grows several times larger. From there, it begins a feeding frenzy which culminates in the mysterious arrival of G-men in hazmat suits, led by Joe Seneca.

What's great about this version of the blob is it's not just an oozing mass. Nowadays it forms tentacles and tendrils, which makes the horror moments really stick out. You'll see some absolutely terrifying stuff I wouldn't even dream of spoiling. I don't know why, but non-Newtonian substances really creep me out, and what director Chuck Russell concocts with some of his confined sets is the stuff of nightmares. The resolution is a cheat, but everything leading up to it is chock full of the reasons I watch horror movies.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Funhouse (1981) [31 Days of Gore]

A group of pot-smoking teens head out to the carnival one night when one of them has a dimwitted idea: instead of going home they'll get on the haunted house ride, depart the rail-guided vehicles halfway through, and spend the night having sex among the creepy skeletons and pneumatically fired jump-scares. That sounds like a dreadfully routine horror film, but The Funhouse is actually one of my favorites because it skims over the usual pitfalls. Director Tobe Hooper gives us exactly what we want without boring us with all the stuff we've seen a million times before.

As a bonus it's a time capsule of what appears to be a genuine carnival. You can't tell the difference between stock actors and real carnies, while some of the transients who wander into frame look as if they actually did. You might argue "nothing happens" for the first forty minutes or so, but I don't think that's fair. No, an unusual amount of world-building happens, which only heightens everything that follows. During this extended setup, a seemingly banal visit to a (possibly real) freak attraction actually answers a question we'll have later on.

Why is this movie so compelling to me? Because these aren't your typical movie teens. They're teens, period, and they're remarkably well cast. Do you know how long it's been since I feared for a character's life? How long it's been since I muttered "oh shit" while watching a movie like this? Everything about Funhouse feels real even though it's far from it. I couldn't give two shits about realism, I just want a movie that suspends my disbelief.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of all is the way the film looks: lens flares are everywhere and there's been no attempt to touch up the grain and some of the imperfections now that it's on HD. It's not quite as gritty or handheld as the movie that put Hooper on the map, but the look lends itself to the horror every bit as much as that one did. It's one of those films that prove that pretty much all horror movies should be shot on film and viewed in a resolution no less than that provided by Blu-Ray.

So yeah, you could say it's "just" Texas Chainsaw Massacre in a fun house, but that's not really a complaint, is it? I might actually prefer this movie to Massacre. I haven't even mentioned the antagonists—not because they're weak, but because the less you know about them the better. The Leatherface analog conceals his face with a Frankenstein mask, which makes it easy to see the influence classics like that had on Hooper and his contemporaries; Leatherface and the "bad guy" in Funhouse both have strong roots in cinema's most memorable and empathetic monster.

When Funhouse's antagonist takes his mask off... it's just one of those moments I live for. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Gerald's Game (2017) [31 Days of Gore]

Jessie and Gerald (Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood) attempt to rejuvenate their love life by planning a weekend retreat in their isolated vacation home. Once there, Gerald suggests spicing things up in the bedroom with handcuffs. Jessie is uneasy about it and for good reason: these aren't the novelty cuffs found in adult stores, but the real deal. When Jessie panics and demands Gerald release her, he has a heart attack and busts his head open on the floor.

Now Jessie is chained to a bed and has to survive until someone checks on her... which they probably won't for several days. Unfortunately, Gerald left the front door open and a stray dog wanders in to feast on his body. Jessie knows the dog is going to want fresher meat sooner or later and by then she may not have the energy to kick it away. The Netflix Original isn't quite as good as Hulu's 11.22.63 (I don't think anything that came out that year was as good), but it isn't by any means bad. Just unusual.

What's unusual about it is the way the filmmakers figured out how to film Stephen King's supposedly "unfilmmable novel." So much of the story takes place inside the heroine's head that the filmmakers have to concoct imaginary characters for her to talk to, each representing conflicting aspects of her psyche. One of these characters is a fictional version of her dead husband and the other is a more confident version of herself. The film is quite literally "psychological horror."

A friend of mine complained that when he watched the trailer, he felt like he had seen the whole movie. I watched the trailer after seeing the movie and I agree that it gives too much away, but it manages to save the most visceral and terrifying moments. There's an entire subplot, which is quintessential King, that's not even hinted at in the trailer I saw.

The gore in Gerald's Game doesn't paint the walls, but it's there. There are at least two moments which are damn hard to look at, one of which doesn't spill a drop of blood. The other moment, which is bloody, is perhaps the grossest thing I've seen all month... next to that phlegm scene in House IV, anyway.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Tales from the Hood (1995) [31 Days of Gore]

Tales from the Hood's promotional material spoiled so much of the movie it was a little harder to appreciate at the time of its release. Now, twenty years later, I've had enough time to forget the key moments and shocking reveals, of which there are plenty. Today I think it's one of the best movies I've ever featured on 31 Days of Gore. The title makes it sound fun and hokey, along the lines of Leprechaun in the Hood, but this Spike Lee production is dead serious and infectiously angry.

Which isn't to say it isn't fun. Bad people get exactly what they deserve, true to its roots in EC horror, but my goodness. The bad people in this movie are really bad. Maybe that's why the vengeance scenes are so delicious.

My problem with Society was it lost its bite when it gave us the Hollywood ending. I had the same problem with Minority Report, an otherwise perfect movie which turned yellow at the end. When you take issues as serious as these and tack on a happy ending, you've diluted your message. The endings for each of the stories in this anthology are anything but safe, which is exactly the way horror ought to be. 

In the container story, three gang members meet with a mortician (Clarence Williams III) in South Central, lured by the promise of a big drug score. But first, the mortician wants to tell them four stories about police brutality, domestic abuse, racist politicians, and black-on-black crime. With most anthology films, you're lucky if you get one great story, let alone two, but Tales from the Hood starts strong and finishes strong.

In the first story the mortician tells, the police are the monsters. In the second story, a mother's abusive boyfriend (David Alan Grier) is the monster; a little boy actually sees him as a demonic presence who creeps into his room at night, drunk and angry. In the third story, Corbin Bernsen plays a monstrous politician with ties to the KKK; the former plantation he lives on is haunted by voodoo dolls. The final story told by the mortician is reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange; Rosalind Cash plays a scientist who uses behavioral modification in an attempt to reform a nasty gang member.

There are so many great moments in all of the stories: David Alan Grier is truly terrifying; the politician clinging to (and literally hiding behind) the American flag; the unflinching look at gang violence set to gangsta rap... it's a movie that just keeps building momentum as it moves along, crucifying (sometimes literally) whoever it damn well pleases. The conclusion of the container story is probably the weakest aspect of the movie, if only because it resorts to terrible looking CGI. Otherwise, it's a perfect ending in the sense it's not a happy one.

This isn't just a great horror movie, it's a great piece of fantasy. 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Maximum Overdrive (1986) [31 Days of Gore]

Maximum Overdrive is one of the most gloriously dumb movies I've ever seen. In the beginning an ATM tells Stephen King, playing a touristy bystander, to go fuck himself. Minutes later a drawbridge opens prematurely, tossing cars and trucks into one another like toys. The filmmaking here is so incompetent through its overuse of slow motion and slapstick, it's like something out of a bad screwball comedy. Thankfully, the bar is set so low at the get-go the movie really can't go anywhere but up.

And man, does it ever go up... up and up and right through the stratosphere of good taste and logic. Children and dogs are killed with reckless abandon. Stunt dummies, when struck by vehicles, explode as if rigged with Tannerite. It's great to see such a tasteless movie made by a guy who's been overwhelmingly accepted by the mainstream.

The year is 1986 and Earth has drifted into the tail of a comet. That's about the closest we get to an explanation for machinery turning psycho on humankind. Soda machines spit out cans at the speed of bullets while steam rollers lie in ambush behind little league scoreboards. For a handful of days, big rigs will rule the planet. This is apparently a global phenomenon, but King focuses on a small band of survivors holed up in a truck stop.

I believe King has been critical of his own movie in the years since its release. It seems obvious cocaine played a big part in many of the directorial decisions here, which is a shame, but I can't help but love this movie. It's one of the most entertaining movies I've ever seen and, at times, it can be oddly brilliant. There's a scene in which the machines need something and concoct a way to force the humans into giving it to 'em... I don't want to spoil it, but I genuinely love that the movie went there. Even better, it spends an appropriate amount of time with the development before speeding back into the inexplicable madness.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about the movie is the child actor is better than his adult counterparts, which include Emilio Estevez, Laura Harrington, Pat Hingle, and Lisa Simpson's voice actress, Yeardley Smith. At one point the kid is casually strolling through his neighborhood on a bicycle, surveying the victims of the unexplained phenomenon. Some of the murder weapons include: remote control cars, Walkmans, and lawnmowers. It was during this scene when I got hit with the hardest case of the giggles I've had all month.

Here's a movie in which automobiles and guns have become sentient, yet characters still insist on driving cars and carrying guns. Look, you can't poke holes in the logic of a movie which has none. That's probably one of the greatest defenses for brain candy like this—the kind of movie in which a truck stop is packed to the brim with machine guns and explosive weaponry.

This is the stuff drive-ins were made for. I'd kill to see it with a midnight audience. What a fun, unadulterated piece of madness.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Shocker (1989) [31 Days of Gore]

There comes a time when I get burnt out watching all these horror movies in a single month. That time is now. I just... this was a hard one to get through. I really hoped I would like it this time around, but it was even worse than I remembered.

I've heard Shocker described as a cult classic, but that can't be right. It's about a serial killer who gets transformed into pure energy after he's fried in the electric chair. The problem is the movie's so slow, the execution scene doesn't take place until almost fifty minutes in; better movies would have knocked out the setup in five to ten minutes. For all the time it spends setting things up, there's very little payoff and even fewer explanations.

Peter Berg plays a high school jock who bonks his head on the field goal. Shortly after the concussion he has visions of the killer's crimes, which ultimately lead to his arrest and conviction. That's not all: Berg's girlfriend is a helpful ghost and there's even less of an explanation for why he can see her. As for how the killer gained his powers in the first place, there was an inexplicable ritual involving candles, a television, and jumper cables. I don't need every little thing explained to enjoy a movie, but not a lick of this makes any sense.

Venturing into spoiler territory: Peter Berg chases the killer into a television set for the film's climax, passing through its screen magically. Much like the scene in Waxwork II, the rivals fist fight from one famous piece of footage to the next. It's the kind of wackiness I usually appreciate in horror movies, but although it looks pretty convincing it simply isn't exciting. This is partly because the rules governing the whole affair are incomprehensible... saying any more would spoil the end, but I guarantee you'll be scratching your head, too.

Wes Craven, who I generally like, was obviously trying to create another Freddy Kruger. Freddy was effective because he got you in your sleep, something you can't hope to escape. Here, the killer gets you through technology, which is just as inescapable as sleep, but the transparent attempt at striking oil twice is too much to ignore. I will say Mitch Pileggi, who plays the villain, is pretty damn good.

It's just a mediocre movie, which I find far more offensive than a flat-out bad one. The effects are quite good, though, and I'm giving Craven the benefit of a doubt. It looks like a good movie ruined by things out of his control.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Critters series (1988-1992) [31 Days of Gore]

A note about the screenshots in this post: I forgot to take them from the movies when I had a chance so I pulled them from Movie Timelines' excellent YouTube channel. This guy may not have the best audio and video quality, but he offers a fun way to revisit movie franchises. (I'm going to throw a shout-out to Screaming Soup as well, for no other reason than I feel like promoting YouTube channels today... I'll drop two more recommendations in the Critters 2 review.)

Oh, how I used to love Critters. No, I wasn't too stupid to realize it was a Gremlins cash-in, but a lot of the movies I like are cash-ins. Thankfully, there's a distinction to be made between good cash-ins (such as Lucio Fulci's Zombie) and lazy ones (such as Critters 4).

Critters (1986)

I'm not saying Critters is a great movie, but when there's fifteen hundred movies about vampires and werewolves, don't we have room for a handful of movie series about pet-sized monsters? Yes, the Gremlins series is better (and surprisingly darker than Critters despite its relative lack of blood), but that's like going out of your way to say a fine restaurant is better than McDonald's: sometimes you just want a Quarter Pounder with cheese and a lot of the time it's much more satisfying. You've also got all the other fast food chains to choose from: Ghoulies, Hobgoblins, Munchies, Elves, the little monsters from The Gate, Cat's Eye, and, one of my favorites, Trilogy of Terror. 

That's a lot to choose from, but the situation is far from saturated. I'm just saying: more tiny monsters, please. And in the meantime, Critters is one of the better examples of the sub-genre.

The Brown family are the wholesome types, living on a farm in the countryside. Dee Wallace and Billy Green Bush are the parents while M. Emmet Walsh plays the sheriff. (Lin Shaye and Billy Zane are in this, too.) Then there's the town drunk, named Charlie, a gap-toothed buffoon who becomes the unlikely but likable hero of the series. Unbeknownst to these earth-born characters, a couple of intelligent aliens known as krites have hijacked an extraterrestrial spaceship and hightailed it to our planet in order to feast on humans.

Then a couple of alien bounty hunters come to Earth to exterminate the krites. These guys are face-shifters who can look like anyone they want. One assumes the face of a popular rockstar while the other tries on the style of just about everyone he meets. He eventually chooses to look like Charlie, which really doesn't have anything to do with the plot... I'm not sure what they were going for here.

A couple things to admire about movies in the 80s: they still had slow-burn beginnings and didn't require a bazillion dollars to entertain us. But let's point out a couple of bogus things, too: the movie straight-up rips off a scene in E.T. in which Elliot artificially warms his thermometer in order to play hooky (funny that both movies should feature Dee Wallace). Then, it rips off a scene in Gremlins which references E.T.... not once, but twice.

Enough nitpicking. Here's what great about the mischievous krites: they talk. When one of them is blown away by a shotgun, the other exclaims in an alien language: "Fuck!" No, their antics aren't quite as hilarious as the gremlins', but they're a load of fun and The Chiodo Brothers' simplistic effects are far better and effective than they have any right to be.

Critters 2 (1988)

I clearly remember the day Critters 2 showed up at the local video store because I just about crapped my pants. I've said before that I admire its director, Mick Garris, and you can do worse than spending an afternoon on his official YouTube channel. What I like most about Garris is he's a genuine horror nut. He took part in Joe Dante's Trailers From Hell, unabashedly describing this, his maiden film, as "a low-budget sequel to a rip-off of Gremlins."

So the Browns have moved since the original film, but the son (now a teenager) has returned to town in order to visit his grandmother. (This is really just a nice way of saying most of the other actors passed on the sequel; interestingly, M. Emmet Walsh's character is now played by Barry Corbin, which has gotta be one of the least distracting actor replacements of all time.) It turns out the eggs we saw at the previous cliffhanger have an incubation period of two years, which makes you wonder how the two critters in the first film turned into roughly a dozen in a matter of minutes.

Charlie the drunk has cleaned up his act since the first movie. Although we clearly saw the bounty hunters leave Earth without him, it's established early on that he's actually been going on space adventures with them. As expected, when the eggs inevitably hatch, the trio of bounty hunters return to Earth and start shooting the town up. Ug, who assumed the appearance of an earth-based musician, is still rocking the same face but radically different hair. His partner Lee changes his/her face numerous times throughout the picture without rhyme or reason. Again, I'm not even sure what the writers were going for with this face-changing stuff, but whatever.

The film takes place over Easter weekend and, due to a series of unlikely events, krite eggs are hidden for the little children to scavenge. Sounds like an awesome premise, but the movie never really does anything with it. (There's actually quite a few of these anti-payoffs, particularly toward the end... there things happen only to be rendered pointless seconds later.) The cute little bastards hatch, wreak havoc, and the Easter egg hunt is never mentioned again.

Here's the level of character stupidity we're dealing with here: in one scene, the sheriff is attacked by krites, who managed to get inside his Easter Bunny costume, and thrown through the window of a church. Someone suggests it was a farm accident. Yeah.

Although this one doesn't outright copy Gremlins like the original did, it certainly feels a lot more like Gremlins in the way the krites go about their shenanigans. Once again, the absolute limit of the PG-13 rating is pushed as Garris gets away with full-on breasts and a surprising amount of gore. I like the look of the original film better, mostly because I prefer night scenes, but the creature effects are just as good if not better.

Critters 3 (1991)

Yep, that's Leonardo DiCaprio in his first feature. (How he didn't win the Oscar here, I'll never know.) He plays the son of a vicious landlord who's evicting all the tenants from his rundown apartment building. What they don't know is a fresh batch of krites have just moved in and they're about to feast on the remaining dwellers... slowly and boringly.

I remember catching this on TV one weekend. I eventually got bored and decided to play Nintendo instead. I wouldn't say straight-to-video sequels are the bane of my existence—I liked at least one of the Universal Soldier followups and didn't completely hate Hellraiser: Deader—but it's usually a safe bet they're going to suck.

Critters 3 isn't an exception, although it has its moments. As usual with the franchise, the best part is the critters themselves. The creature designs look creepier than ever (the red eyes have never been as vibrant), but there's a slight reduction in the puppetry itself, probably because the filmmakers didn't have the budget or the schedule they had on previous movies.

The second best part of these movies is Charlie, but in this one he only appears in the beginning and at the end. I appreciate they were trying to do something different, but it was the wrong decision nonetheless. The final product is neither good nor bad enough to entertain, but I was less offended by its mediocrity than most unnecessary sequels.

There really isn't any more to say about this one.

Critters 4 (1992)

Hey, look! They shortened the wait between movies! That must mean this one is especially great!

At the end of the previous film, Charlie was contacted by Ug, via space telephone, and told he couldn't destroy the final two krite eggs because it's against intergalactic law to extinguish an endangered species. Charlie's orders: wait for an autonomous pod to arrive and store the eggs for safe keeping. Critters 4 picks up immediately after this cliffhanger and you'd expect it to retain some of the momentum—what little was left—but it drops the ball immediately.

When he climbs in to store the eggs, the cryogenic pod malfunctions, freezes Charlie, and takes off for deep space. For reasons not explained (or maybe I was sleeping during the explanatory dialogue) the pod never makes its way to its intended destination. Instead, it's coincidentally picked up by a far-future group of space travelers, including Brad Dourif and Angela Basset.

I didn't pick at the earlier films, not because they were without flaws, but because they were fun. I'm going to pick at this one because I hated every second of it. For one, these people have no idea how mindbogglingly big space is. Two, they have perfected cryogenic freezing biological organisms, yet the entire crew remains awake for a space trip which takes years?

Here's my dilemma: I enjoy three of the performers in this film, so I can't blame it on them. I'm a big fan of co-writer David J. Schow, so I can't blame it on him, either. I know next to nothing about the one-time director, but I'd hate to place the blame solely at his feet either. Let's just pretend it never happened.

My mind was so bored I began to long for the previous films, which actually had a bit of worldbuilding in the background. You got the feeling Ug and company were going on crazy adventures every week, that there were worlds much more interesting than earth, that there were critters out there far wilder than the krites. It all could have been spun off and woven into a rich, expanded universe—comics, books, TV shows—but instead the series ends with a painful whimper.

In fact, I'd rather see something new in the Critters universe than an unneccessary Han Solo spin-off. But it seems the owners of the Critters IP were so tired of it, they were intent on killing it forever.