Monday, June 29, 2009

One, Two, Shakaal's Coming For You

When I recently learned of the existence of a Bollywood version of Nightmare on Elm Street, I rearranged my Netflix queue faster than you rank the Freddy films based on enjoyability (for the record, it's 3-1-2-4-7-6-5; yes, I'm a sucker for homoeroticism, puppetry, and Kafka) and actual film quality (7-3-1-4-5-2-6) . An international Freddy Krueger + aggressively choreographed dance numbers? Did I eat some poisoned Cheerios this morning and end up on the right side of heaven?

Like most things in life, Mahakaal is a fairly obvious disappointment. Not eerie enough for actual scares, yet not quite kitchy enough for true cult status, this 1993 film succeeds in some sectors, spends way too much time in a lot of others, and then...well...ends. But hey, it also has a mulleted villain with a wicked laugh akin to the fat carrot-topped clown in Clownhouse and a moment or two or genuine tension.

Quick Plot: A group of college students--who reallllllly like picnics--discover that a scarred, giggling, and knife-nailed demon named Shakaal and his collection of haunted house prop skeletons are terrorizing them in their dreams. A romantic couples getaway turns deadly for one promiscuous young lady, while her boyfriend can only watch in horror as she writhes around the floor covered by non-helping hands (Jennifer Connelly might venture to call them 'hurting'). Yes, this is supposed to sound familiar. I haven’t even arrived at the water bed death, guilty father responsible for the puddy-scarred fiend’s fiery execution, or any of the other obvious borrowed goods from Wes Craven’s soon-to-be-rebooted franchise.

Since I’ve never watched a Bollywood film in its entirety, I figured an ‘adaptation’ of one of my very well-liked horror series would be a prime starting point to ease into the genre. In that regard, it was passable. I don’t know that I could have really survived 2 1/2 hours of stock sound effects, random closeups, and a screaming female protagonist had it not been so gleefully torn out of Craven's script. Unfortunately, the Westernization of Mahakaal is also its partial downfall. The songs (yes, there are songs) aren’t particularly spectacular by Bollywood standards and the demon’s muted characterization won’t induce many nightmares.

High Points
The score played during some of the earlier nightmare sequences is quite effective...probably because it was clearly ripped straight out of Craven’s walkman

Anita’s first nightmare featuring a giggling, eyeless ghost, actually will make you thoroughly unsettled

Low Points
I don’t have a problem with musical numbers. Heck, I’d give my right vocal chord if all Hollywood films incorporate some form of song-and-dance sequence (I’m nowhere near a good enough writer to express what a classic Terminator Salvation would have been had John Connor sashayed with Arnold amid the apocalyptic scenery), but one song about a picnic, one about being in love, and zero--zero!!! sung by or regarding the actual monster does not endear a film to my melodic heart

The 2 1/2 running tie is, to put it mildly, a tad long. Maybe one less verse about the wonder of picnics, one less misogynist leer from the horny villain, and ten less extreme closeups of Shakaal's yellow eyes could have shaved off 90 minutes or so

Lessons Learned
In some cultures, attempting to rape a young woman is a sign of disrespect

Indian Michael Jackson impersonating- watiers are useful to have on your side in barroom brawls

Dream demons punch with the same amount of force as female college students, grumpy policemen, and just about everyone else that gets angry on camera

When being hunted by a black magic practicing demon, always try to end up in his well-stocked and fully functional torture chamber

Incredibly enough, hurling potted plants at a supernatural monster does not cause any serious physical damage

Winning Line
During an attempted gang rape: “Let’s get you wet first.”
Although naturally, this means the would-be rapist just wants to squirt a hose over the heroine’s dress

Curiousity has led me down many a bad rental choice, but there are worse things one can do than attempt to slog through a Bollywood Freddy Krueger film (thank you for lowering the bar to bluishly bland depths, Moscow Zero). I don’t see an incredible amount of rewatchability here, and so I can't begin to recommend a buy, but if you're as temptable as me when it comes to bizarre horror, you can't judge yourself for giving it a (most likely unrewarding) try. You almost have to see it for the right to say, "Yes, I've seen the Bollywood Nightmare On Elm Street." You may even become the hero of your friends and envy of your enemies. Plus, Michael Jackson devotees--who seem to be emerging from Neverlandian cocoons in numbers that should make pet monkeys and Paul McCartney tremble with fear--may also find Mahakaal worth a watch to check out one MJ's mean moves with a lunch tray.

Friday, June 26, 2009

I Believe The Children Are the Future (so stop trying to kill them)

If the Brothers Grimm taught us anything, (aside from to beware of strangers or step-families) it’s that kids can generally handle macabre humor and violent justice. Cinderella’s stepsisters had it a lot worse in the 19th century, when their snotty dishonesty cost one foot arch and four eyeballs. Walt Disney’s 9 Old Men toned down the crow pecking finale, but anyone well-versed in the Disney canon can probably remember gasping at Pinnocchio’s donkey dance or the zombie-like horde of marching broomsticks hungry for Fantasia era Mickey Mouse brains (that is what they wanted, right?).

Here are a few more moments, characters, and movies made specifically for a younger audience that will leave even the most seasoned horror veteran shaking behind their Teddy Ruxbans and Good Guy dolls.

The Witches

Gene Wilder’s madcap take on Willy Wonka gets the Tim Burton remake and hipster t-shirts, but it’s this 1990 adaptation of another Roald Dahl novel that truly captures kiddie horror. Angelica Huston brings Oscar cred to one of the best screen villainess of the 90s as The Grand High Witch, a Sam Raimi-like crone and possible long-lost sister of the Crypt Keeper. Smaller moments--like seeing a little girl live out a haunted life inside a faded oil painting hung on her parents’ wall-come straight out of a gothic ghost tale, while witchy face transformations give Rick Baker werewolves some fierce competitions. And I can’t think of a single moment in any of the Friday the 13th films more suspenseful than watching a plucky 10 year old orphan morph into a mouse--only to then be chased by a mass of bald British women pent on the genocide of the juvenile population.

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure

Speaking of Tim Burton, one of modern cinema’s most innovative (and frustrating) directors has specialized in ‘family’ films with underlying (and overt) creepiness. See Beetlejuice, The Corpse Bride, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and just about any other entry from his resume for further proof. I choose to discuss Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure for very personal reasons. Sure, one eccentric man-child set loose on roadside America unsettles a few moviegoers, but Burton does a funny dance to get us on Pee-Wee’s side: he terrorizes the poor guy with a series of creepy encounters far weirder than Jombi’s smiles or Billy Bologna’s beady eyes. A few examples: a neon dinosaur park, Twilight Zone-ish road to nowhere, and, worst of all, the most terrifying dream sequence to ever appear in a PG-rated film, featuring cruel and gleefully sinister clowns who hate bicycles. Sure, it all ends well enough, but Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is not a film for the weak-kneed. If you haven’t seen it since your last bowl of Mr. T cereal, then I recommend at visit to your local video store. Just be sure to tell ‘em Large Marge sent ya! (and then scream and hitchhike for your life).

The Wizard of/Return to Oz

It’s hard to find a living or recently dead person who has never seen Judy Garland skip down the Yellow Brick Road and of that nearly 98% of the human population, I would bet some ruby slippers that the vast majority will admit to having been scared green by Margaret Hamilton’s portrayal of The Wicked Witch of the West. That sharp cackle, emerald skin, and allergic reaction to what every other living creature requires to live is, to put it mildly, disturbing. What could be more frightening?

Oh, I don’t about an equally evil witch who collects the heads of pretty young women and displays them in a museum hall? Or her army of gangly-limbed goons dressed like punk jesters yet suited up for roller derby? Yup, 1985’s Return to Oz replaced catchy dance numbers with spooky eyed Fairuza Balk fleeing electro-shock treatment requested by  Carrie’s mother. Incredibly enough, it didn’t break any box office records upon its release. That being said, Return to Oz offers an engrossing story, strong performances, and an incredible visual design. Think of it as a stopover bridge between Labyrinth and Pan’s Labyrinth.

Sesame Street

Personally, I’ve never had a negative experience with anything created by Jim Henson (although the The Jim Henson Hour does still send some chills down my spine) but I felt that I owed America’s most beloved destination a mention for some of its more colorful (and perhaps questionable) residents. While I spent my childhood hiding from the invisible Chucky I was sure was constantly hunting me, my older brother’s boogyman was none other than public television’s most cuddly vampire, The Count. Cookie Monster has more than likely devoured a small child or two in a sugar-fueled bender and I once babysat a little girl who suffered from reoccurring nightmares starring the unibrowed Bert. So I guess there’s some people would prefer to not to get, get to Sesame Street.

and a show that inexplicably does NOT scare children, but should

In 50 years, the world will undoubtedly be a very different, much less pleasant place. We can certainly point a few foreboding fingers dim-witted world leaders and irresponsible energy resourcing, but I reserve the brunt of blame for a far more diabolical enemy that has been hard at work in manipulating, corrupting, and possibly possessing the future of mankind.

How else can one possibly explain the fact that kids born in the late 90s seem to have no fear of brightly colored, tv-bellied aliens living a Memento-like existence of short-term memory loss surrounded by bunnies? My theory--and I can’t possibly be alone in this--is that the messiah overlord/sungod baby is communicating--via the antenna connections atop the fat-four’s heads--a master plan detailing world domination. I never thought I’d say this, but Barney’s message of peace and love suddenly feels like must-see viewing for the youth of the world. 

I can’t imagine how many films, shows, and toys I’m leaving out, so please share a few of your own below. 

Monday, June 22, 2009

Summer Rental

A 1970s haunted house thriller sounds rather familiar and unappealing, but Dan Curtis's Burnt Offerings is a surprisingly well-aged, star-studded creeper that skillfully unites gothic horror with suburban despair.

Quick Plot: The happy enough Rolf family composed of B-movie queen Karen Black, Tommy’s singing stepfather Oliver Reed, and a not terrible child actor rent a secluded country home for the summer from the incredibly so-kind-they-must-be-evil brother sister superteam of Burgess Meredith (Twilight Zone’s most tortured bookworm) and the unsettling Eileen Heckert as the Allarydices. The only catch? Mrs. Rolf must prepare three square meals for the hermit-like Mrs. Allardyce, an unseen elderly matriarch who presumably wiles her day away polishing photographs and enjoying the pool view.

Oh yeah. And tagging along for the Rolf’s dream summer is none other than Baby Jane herself, Bette Davis, playing Reed’s peppy Aunt Elizabeth.

As you may imagine, something ain’t right inside the antique home. Flowers die and parents start to lose some gentility, beginning with a truly terrifying pool sequence of horseplay gone wrong and a few snippy scoldings from a growingly materialistic mom. Much like the soon-to-be-written The Shining, Burnt Offerings is as much about a family’s fragility as it is about haunted houses and creepy imagery. Reed and Black do an excellent job of creating 13 year old marriage with a few frays around the edge, and their growing alienation is far more disturbing than the overdramatic shots of the world's most macabrely cheerful funeral chauffeur.

High Points
The aforementioned pool scene--the first genuine sign that the house is digging into the family--creates such a horrific mood by beginning as a normal, sunny summer moment that quickly degrades into a nightmare

A haunting music box theme is used well throughout the film

I didn't notice this until Karen Black pointed it out on the commentary, but for a product of 1976, Burnt Offerings is very carefully not dated; From Black's velvety bathrobe to the house's collection of dusty antiques, this film has a gently gothic atmosphere with undated modernism mixed in by the standard family characters


The fact that it’s the near death of her child rather than the fatal diagnosis of her husband’s condition that finally snaps Mrs. Rolf out of her possession is powerful in showing where a parent’s deepest love truly lies

Once the finale gets going, it crescendos and leaves a very wrong feeling behind in the viewer

Low Points
Her mere presence is powerful and intriguing, but I feel like if you’re going to use Lady Bette Davis, she just deserves more meat in her role

The two hour running time takes a tad too long to kick into gear

Lessons Learned
When a tower of bricks begins to tumble, it’s best to run away rather than watch directly underneath

Evil old women with possessing powers may bear a striking physical resemblance to David Cronenberg

Wave pools are all good fun until someone gets hurt

Fun Fact
If IMDB is to be believed, the villainous house later came out of retirement to play the funeral home in Phantasm

A film like Burnt Offerings could have easily become a relic of mid 70s horror, but this one really is worth your attention for at least a viewing. The DVD includes a jovial and informative commentary with director Dan Curtis and the chatty Karen Black, who sheds some thespianly insight on how she approached her character being seduced by the pretty things inside the home. If you enjoy slower paced horror films that creep with care, then Burnt Offerings is probably worthy of a well-priced purchase. It gets richer with multiple viewings because once you stop waiting for something ghostly to happen, it's easier to pay more attention to the subtle changes slowly reshaping Mr. and Mrs. Rolf. This isn't a film for everyone, but you--like me--may find yourself pleasantly (by which I mean uncomfortably and a little frightened) surprised.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Maybe Rumplestiltskin Ate'th Your Baby

It was only a matter of time before a horror filmmaker decided to jump on one of Western civilization’s most gruesome fairy tales. For those who find the cannibalism and parental negligence of Hansel & Gretel too PG, the original Rumplestiltskin highlights fatherly irresponsibility and what may possibly be the very first black market (and black magic) baby ring. If that’s not enough, the story ends with a character literally being split in two and sucked underground for eternity.

The plot itself is enough to give kids of any time period nightmares, but sadly, Mark Jones’ 1995 interpretation doesn’t quite capture any of the horror inherent in fighting a greasy troll for your child’s life. One part Leprechaun, twenty percent reaction shots of babies, and oozing in bargain priced medieval puns, Rumplestiltskin is the type of cheese you eat once in its entirety and again only when starving or inebriated.

Quick Plot: Somewhere in Europe in the 1400s (I’m not being lazy; that’s what the title card said), an angry mob chases down the baby-swiping, inexplicably Bronx-accented title character to save the very clean tot he's been toting after granting a young mother's wish. Luckily, there's a fairly talented gypsy in the bunch. A few tosses of glitter and Rumplestiltskin is sent to carry out his next thousand years inside a jade sculpture.

Five hundred and ninety five years later, we learn that gypsies can’t do math or just have really bad curse warranties.

It’s “The Present Day” in LA, where the police are such sunny stereotypes that one jokes about donuts and his partner calls his pretty and pregnant wife Shelly (later Ivy from NBC’s Passions!). The terribly slow- motioned carjacking of a young mother widows our heroine, but a quick trip to an antique shop lifts her spirits with the purchase of a familiar statue that--through tears and a rhetorical wish--unleashes the nose-ring wearing Rumplestiltskin on Shelly, baby Johnny, and eventually, an Andrew Dice Clay-ish comedian with dreadful Zack Morris style and remarkable skill at driving a go-cart.

High Points
While nothing quite tops the terribly brilliant punning of Leprechaun(“This old Lep/He played one/ He played pogo on his lung” is a personal favorite), Rumplestiltskin’s brilliant addition of “‘th” to any verb does make me want to develop a potty mouth, if only for the opportunity to use “Fuck’th me" from here on in

Low Points
When you heavily feature a character as obnoxious as the goofy female best friend, you owe the audience a bigger death scene than a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it neck break

On paper, the 87 minute running time sounds like a good idea, but when 20 of those final minutes are devoted to an extended chase with absolutely no tension or creativity, breaking the hour mark is just wrong

Lessons Learned
If the only thing that will curse you is another person saying your name out loud, it’s probably not a good idea to constantly refer to yourself in the third person

It doesn’t take long to master truck driving, even if your feet barely reach the pedals

Confirmed Lesson Learned From Sunnydale
When unable to identify a supernatural culprit in a public crime, authority figures will undoubtedly put the blame on PCP

Winning Line
Gypsy Antiques Dealer: It’s supposed to grant wishes.
Shelly: Oh, so you make wishes and they come true?

Stray Observation
Medieval Europe looked an awful lot like the historical reenactment about witch trials shown on the New York jury duty video

This may shock you, but Rumplestiltskin is a pretty ridiculous film. If you have any doubts, consider the following: upon commandeering a motorcycle, Rumplestiltskin proudly notes, “Made in America. My kind of chariot.” How, for example, does the 15th century Rumpy have any idea what America is if, according to the song I memorized in the 4th grade, Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue in Fourteen Hundred and Ninety Two? And when did he learn the offensiveness of giving the finger? If you think you will be bothered by such a question, avoid this movie. If you were far from amused by the Leprechaun’s third outing to Las Vegas, avoid this movie. If the temptation of a Duel-like road chase between a misogynist driving a go cart and a 600 year old troll driving a mack truck and spouting one-liners like “Let’s play’th tag,” then get the point. This is a poor man’s Leprechaun made from imitation cheddar. It’s not good for you, but for the first few bites, it’s kind of hard to stop eating. Then you stop and hate yourself. Then you get hungry again Bad movies are a dangerous cycle.

Oh. And just in case it wasn't clear, did I mention this film is like:

Right down to the near identical poster art.

Friday, June 19, 2009


A recent viewing of 1995’s Rumplestilskin gave me 90 minutes of awful fairy tale jokes, muted kills, and a medieval troll with a Bronx accent battling out a future heroine on NBC’s Passions. How surprised would you be if I told you the filmmakers were also responsible for another early 90s little person horror, the one and only pogo stick stabbing Leprechaun?  And how disappointed am I that Warwick Davis’ feisty Irishman does not even stop by for a Hitchcockian cameo? 

I don’t doubt that the director of Rumpelestilskin had that sleeper of a Jennifer Anniston hit on his mind the entire filming process and banked on a multi-film franchise wherein the baby-eating Rumpy and the shoe cleaning redhead team up for a wacky road adventure where hijinks ensue and puns are abused. More likely, there’s a script somewhere buried in a studio basement chronicling a Freddy Vs. Jason-like battle set in the petite section of a department store. For good reason, this didn’t happen, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t inspire me to imagine a few more notable showdowns of horror I’d like to see. 

Place your bets and sound the bells:

1.Let the Right One In‘s Eli vs. Anne Rice’s Claudia
My team: Eli
Vegas favorite: Claudia

Kirsten Dunst’s curly haired bloodsucker may seem a little too prissy to best Sweden’s latest vampire queen, but the future Mary Jane Watson had plenty of bite when it came to attacks. The fascinating Eli, on the other hand, has a slightly larger conscience that could potentially lead to some weaknesses in hand-to-hand combat. Plus, she doesn’t seem to enjoy the kill, shifting the work to her handler whenever possible, whereas the eternally young and better-dressed Claudia hunts everyone from little boys to chubby samaritans with equal relish. Should the fight become a tag-team match, however, Eli may squeak by with the help of the devoted and slightly sociopathic Oskar. Claudia is saddled with two pretty boys who are far too easily distracted by a smoldering Antonio Banderas and/or ruffled sleeves. Know the setup before putting down your cash.

2. Norman Bates vs. Leatherface vs. Buffalo Bill
My team: Leatherface
Vegas favorite: Leatherface

Ed Gein did some truly terrible things in his life, including inspiring Hannibal, the Renee Zellwegger/Matthew McConaughey starring TCM installment, and Gus Van Sant’s Psycho . We’ll overlook a few reprehensible sequels and get to the meat of a few classic villains, then throw them all in a mud pit and aim a tranquilizer gun at the winner...who is undoubtedly from Texas. Buffalo Bill has the best style and Norman Bates gets the sentimental vote, but really, how can a poodle-petting tailor and a mild-mannered mama’s boy even come close to competing with the best (and best equipped) butcher in the south?

3.Leslie Vernon vs. Man Bites Dog’s Benoit
My team: Leslie Vernon
Vegas favorite: Leslie Vernon

When these two murdering media whores butt heads, the results could easily be the best reality show of all time. But unless we’re talking Survivor All Stars , there can only be one winner. Benoit is a bit more of a utility serial killer, with methods ranging from full body gutting to inspiring fatal heart attacks in the elderly. Vernon edges out the Belgian sociopath with overall endurance and athletic ability, plus years of intense training that should hold up in any fight with a cigarette smoking pianist. At the same time, Benoit does have one major advantage over the charismatic Vernon: a revolver and good aim. Then again, when was the last time a gunshot put (and kept) a good slasher down? 

4. Ragers of 28 Days Later vs. Romero’s Traditional Undead
My team: Shamblers
Vegas favorite: Shamblers

Sure, those steroid-high sprinters would take an early lead in establishing world domination, but like Leslie Vernon, Shamblers don’t die easily. As Danny Boyle taught us and countless horror nerds have preached, infected humans are ultimately mere mortals restricted to the same biological life limitations as you or me. Give them a few months and they will starve. True zombies, however, are the cockroaches of the apocalyptic future. I’m not going to get into the biology of what happens if a Rager spits blood in a Shambler’s eye or if a slow-moving ghoul takes a bite out of an angry plague victim because it doesn’t matter. Somewhere in the world I don’t ever want to live in (okay, not true at all), there is a locked car or jammed closet door housing a Savini made corpse with one thing on its mind. And when the last of those infected breath their last rabid breath, the dead will shamble on. To eat them.

5.The Firefly Clan vs. Spider Baby ’s Merrye Family
My team: Merryes
Vegas favorite: Fireflies

I'm actually not unsure that Jack Hill’s Merrye clan--which included a young, rabid, and and skinny Sid Haig without hair--aren’t ancestral relations to Rob Zombie’s psychotic Devil’s Rejects--which, whatdya know, includes an older, rabid-ish, and not skinny Sid Haig...still without hair. The Merryes are twisted and murderous, but also entertaining and a total blast to hang out with. The Fireflies are sadistic and annoying, although they do know how to party. Sadly I don’t see beloved little Virginia, Ralph, and Elizabeth successfully fighting off the knife-and-gun wielding Baby and Otis, although Lon Chaney’s adoptive patriarch could probably take a nice bite out of Haig’s fatherly clown. 

6. Death, Final Destination, vs. Death, The Seventh Seal
My team: FFD
Vegas favorite: SSD

Though we never actually meet him or her, Final Destination’s embodiment of Death (herein known as Fred) comes off an awful lot like a Bond villain. It has a very important job in disposing of a few attractive characters, but Fred seems to find the task impossible to do without pomp and circumstance (I’m expecting a shark tank to make an appearance in the upcoming installment). In contrast, Igmar Bergman’s personification of the big D (let’s call him Sal) set the standard for fifty plus years of pop culture references (the high point being William Sadler’s take in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey) by making a tall goth dude with an uncanny skill at chess. I couldn’t really hazard a guess as to Fred’s ability with pawns, but I’m sure he could think up a neat and painful way to use that pointy little cross atop the bishop piece. Of course, by the time’s he’s done that, Sal has already taken the queen and cornered the king. Checkmate.

7. Inside‘sLa Femme vs. Pamela Voorhees
My team: La Femme
Vegas favorite: Mama V

I’m calling this fight on sheer numbers. Yes, Beatrice Dalle’s baby-craving home invader is hardcore and creative, but Mrs. Voorhees axed into an entire summer camp staff AND managed to inspire a 12 film and growing franchise that defined (for better and much much worse) the 1980s. With that kind of cred, I can’t imagine Betsy Palmer losing her head over a former model wielding home scissors.

8.High Tension’s Marie vs. Martyrs’s Lucie
My team: Lucie
Vegas favorite: Marie

I declare such a matchup immediately forfeit, as Marie’s very character defies any logic. Sure, I could say that the pixie-cut Frenchwoman has proven herself a worthy successor to a camp-hating hockey fan and a William Shatner faced Illinoisian, but that would mean accepting that everything that happens in High Tension makes any sense. Which it doesn’t. So. Call the fight before it starts and give poor Lucie something to smile about. After all, the poor dear’s been through quite a lot.

9. Damien vs. the entire underage population of Village of the Damned vs. Pet Semetary’s Gage vs. Rhoda Penmark vs. The Brood vs. the triple threat of Bloody Birthday , and any other juvenile horror villain:

Toss ‘em all in a deep deep ball pit and let them sort it out. The results may be too chaotic to call, but I imagine the last two standing to be Bloody Birthday’s villainess and the overachieving Bad Seed herself. And if that fight doesn’t scare you from ever having--or looking at--children, then you, my fierce friend, are the toughest competitor of all.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Kids Today and Their Darn Dead Cheerleaders

For the last six months or so, I’ve been living a happy existence free of talking baby ads and Law & Order reruns. LIfe without cable has its downsides--live baseball and awards ceremonies chief among them--but I had successfully convinced myself that Hulu, Netflix, and the good old fashioned salt-of-the-earth books are worth well over a $60 cable bill plus hidden fees and the evil trolls that bicker on the morning news.

That all changed two weeks ago when, unable to hack into insecure wireless networks in my new apartment, the fine people of Cablevision made me a non-contracted offer I couldn’t refuse. Well, thought I, I’ll keep it for baseball season and do my damnest to avoid watching stupidly written sitcoms, whinily acted melodramas, and madmen-inspiring Signals currently and potentially poisoning the digital airwaves.

Fourteen days after C-Day, I stand before you with a review of a TV movie-of-the-week about a dead cheerleader and starring the former princess of TV movies-if-the-week, Kellie Martin called Death of a Cheerleader. Thank you Lifetime.

Quick Plot: High school sophomore Angela (Martin) is dowdily cute and brainy. While this will eventually land her a sweet little NBC contract and an ill-fated screen romance with Noah Wylie, being a good writer and nice girl doesn’t quite cut it at the age of 16--particularly when your principal (Terry O’Quinn, John Locke and The Stepfather himself!) preaches intense competitiveness and a stop-at-nothing attitude to BE THE BEST!

Since this is high school in the mid 90s, “the best” means nothing less than cheerleader, yearbook editor (what?), and Lark (a sort of minor league sorority). Standing in her way is none other than the, according to O’Quinn’s creepily inappropriate authority figure, “the prettiest girl in school,” Stacie Lockwood. Deep into virgin-era Donna Martin, Tori Spelling milks all the hairspray she can out of the snotty and blond Queen Bee. And then, if you didn’t guess, she dies.

See, Angela REALLY wants Stacie to be her friend. After an ill-fated invitation to crash an “older crowd” party, Stacie implies that Angela--already stressed from not making the squad OR the yearbook staff--is no better than the angry goth girl that storms the hallways with a constant scowl. Naturally, a bloodless and awkwardly slo-mo’d stabbing has to occur. How else can Angela get Stacie’s boyfriend and treasurer position with the Larks?

Why am I still talking about this movie? I. Don’t. Know. Maybe it’s because I felt that I needed to stay current. Maybe I wanted to try something different. Or maybe, just maybe, I was too lazy to channel surf or find a DVD but motivated enough to write a review.

High Points
Despite being pretty typical of the TV movie style I can’t really fault any of the performances. Martin is embarrassingly on target as the disturbingly needy Angela and as the lone sympathetic popular girls, a young Marley Shelton stands out.

A Blossum hat is worn with typically awkward sass

Low Points
Just because it’s about teenagers does not mean a film requires a babysitting montage

Lessons Learned
To be a cheerleader in 1994, all you really needed was enough memory to nail four simple arm/leg movements. It makes Marsha Brady look like vintage Paula Abdul

Never impress teenage girls with shoulder length hair and Novas

The girl that constantly shouts “I”m gonna kill you, bitch!” is usually not the girl that killed the bitch

There is absolutely no reason the world we currently live in to watch this movie. Okay, maybe if you have a teenage daughter whose newfound obsession with being a cheerleader is getting a little unnerving, or if your cheerleading daughter has a friend that seems to be harboring an unnerving obsession, or if you just really dig Lifetime movies.

Friends, followers, readers, and robots: I promise this week or weekend to put an actual horror film--not one merely about the hell of high school--on the site. Currently on loan from Netflix is Rumplestilskin, which can’t NOT be good, and Burnt Offerings, whose Bette Davis/Karen Black/Oliver Reed/Burgess Meredith cast makes me happier than Donna Martin graduating.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Teenage Wasteland

Like many a diehard horror fan, I tend to let out a snooty scoff when a darkly lit trailer ends with the ominously voiced narrator slowing down to deliver a PG13 rating. I haven’t been 13 for some time, and even when I was, you could usually bet a few plastic rings and JNCO jeans that my allowance was funding films like Now and Then while my screams were hurled at Scream. Buy-and-switch sneak-ins were simply the norm, especially during the mid-90s, before studio heads discovered the market for young teenage thrillers.  

A few Screams and R.L. Stine novels later, producers wised up. Today, one can usually count on finding some form of horror  on the big screen and more often than not, it’s trimmed down to lure 14 year-old boys whose mothers have better things to do than escort them to an R-rated movie. It’s hard to imagine an AMC theater without mildly risque comedies and blue-hued remakes of Asian cinema, but the American PG13 rating is barely legal itself, having only been instituted in 1984 following the intense PG violence of films like Gremlins and Temple of Doom. (Parents, take note: just because Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things is rated PG does not mean it was the inspiration for Toy Story). Tobe Hooper famously tried for a PG with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre which seems laughable amid the rampant meathooks and cannibalism. In actuality, there’s little blood and no nudity, much like the inappropriately haunting PG rated classic Tourist Trap and today, both would most likely earn a PG13.

I bring this up in part as a response to the surprisingly lackluster opening weekend of Drag Me to Hell, the rare horror film that earned an incredible 86% positive critical rating (courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes) but garnered a mere $15.8 million at the box office. Were audiences were turned off the the unRaimi-like teenage-baiting rating?

Drag Me to Hell is not a masterpiece, but in my opinion, it should serve as a template for the potential of PG13 horror. Raimi doesn’t need the R because the film works with carefully orchestrated scares, subtle black humor, and perfectly timed cuts. You know, the way a traditional little horror movie is supposed to be.

Since the success of The Ring and the juggernaut that is Saw, American studio horror has, in a sense, been divided into hardcore Rs (Hostel, Halloween  ) and glossier PG13 (Prom NightThe Fog). While there are plenty of nonformulaic gems nestled into the PG13 category, I confess to having a genuine bias towards films that seemed marketed and made for the mall crowd.

But as Drag Me to Hell reminds me, PG13 doesn’t have to mean neutered. Older classics like Jaws and The Haunting hold up because the scares aren’t dependent on the spillage of human innards (not that there’s anything wrong with that, as anything by Romero and its timeliness today proves). The Others and The Sixth Sense are prime examples of how ghost films do fine with showing less, while the bubblegum goofiness of Eight Legged Freaks gives you Starship Troopers violence without the boob and blood. Meanwhile, a piece of dreck like Captivity tried to capitalize on filmgoers tiring of CW network pretty boys and girls getting mildly injured by inserting over-the-top gore scenes that would make Jigsaw blush.

Personally, I’ll always heart an R-rated film that uses its freedom wisely. I admire the recent home invasion flick The Strangers for accepting an R despite limited violence that could easily have been edited down and I’ll cry the day Final Destination or the Chucky series starts to let 8th graders inside. But in the wake of such cinematic puke like Black Christmas 06, sometimes, a tamer, more disciplined PG13 like The Uninvited doesn’t look so deplorable. I’m the first to rail against something like a Hannah Montana headlined Battle Royale remake, but  ultimately, in the right hands, a good film can always be made.

Share your thoughts (or rants) below. I’m especially curious to hear about secretly good PG13, irresponsibly tagged PG film memories of the past, and your verdict on Snakes On a Plane’s R rating concession. 

Thursday, June 11, 2009

I'm a Dummy

Not literally, of course, because then I would be 1) made of wood 2) not having of opposable thumbs and 3) incredibly creepy. Since I don't fancy the idea of being scared of myself, let me just explain that I'm sometimes a tad daft.

Left my notes for this Friday's Pop Syndicate column on my quite cluttered work desk. Somewhere mixed in with badly translated refrigeration manuals and catalogues of washing machines, my Pulitzer-worthy essay on PG-13 and horror is hiding. And waiting patiently for this fine Friday evening. Check back tomorrow.

But you don't have to scream about it.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Never Mumble To Strangers

As film debuts and studio produced horror goes, Bryan Bertino's The Strangers is a fairly impressive little foray into the much overused home invasion genre. When compared to foreign cinema with similar setups, it's decent.

Quick Plot: A painfully unnecessary and dumbly ambiguous prologue recycled from TCM and The Blair Witch Project opens the film to inform us that a lot of brutal crimes happen in America. In case you can't handle not knowing what kind of film you're about to see, the kindly narrator lets us know that something really bad happened to two people we’re about to meet.

Get it? It's a horror movie. Clear? Let's move on:

Cut to a hauntingly bloody kitchen rotting in the morning sun before heading back to the events of the previous evening. A young couple returns to a lonely country house carrying more melancholy weight than Sarah McLaclahn at a mass puppy funeral. He proposed. She said no. That would spoil most people's nights, but it gets a whole lot worse when a trio of masked psychos decides to break in and spend the next few hours hunting the pretty leads with sharp knives, heavy axes, and a whole lot of stealth.

If all this sounds a bit familiar, then yes, you've seen it before in films like Vacancy, Straw Dogs, Funny Games, Inside, and almost directly, Ils. The Strangers never pretends to tread new territory, which is both its biggest strength and weakness. There are some excellent moments of creepy imagery, slightly unsettling actions, and perfectly timed jump scares early in the film before the masked maniacs are totally unleashed. Where I found that Ils (aka Them) took a little too much time establishing its tense atmosphere before finding its stride, The Strangers succeeds best at creating and building a haunting setup. Unfortunately, once the chase takes center stage, Bertino’s uniquely built tension slips more than Liv Tyler in an overgrown forrest of horror cliches. It's suspenseful enough, but eventually, Bertino runs out of ideas in staging stalking.

High Points
Excellent music choices played on a scratchy LP create an early mood of old-fashioned weirdness

Burlap sacks as masks are naturally scary. Any person willing to subject his or her cheeks to such itchiness must be a true badass

What probably separated The Strangers from a lot of direct-to-DVD horror was Liv Tyler's name, and while she's no Meryl Streep, her and Scott Speedman do make a sympathetic and realistically imperfect couple. The natural awkwardness of their failing romance gives The Strangers an extra layer of character that makes, at least the early scenes before the reveal of what's actually happening, a little more tense

Low Points
I guess James Earl Jones and John Laroquette were too expensive. Hence, the filmmaker grabbed someone with a clear speaking voice, handed him Macauly Culkin's Talkboy purchased on ebay from the set of Home Alone 2, then slowed the speed to create an unimpressively deep and artificial bass to voice the opening

While Tyler and Speedman do a fine job, I can’t imagine whose idea it was to cast two actors known primarily for their quiet and rather inaudible enunciating vocal performances

Like High Tension, I found the opening teaser scene to be unnecessary and unfair. I imagine the filmmaker wanted to compensate for the lack of early bloodshed by hinting at what’s to come, but it takes a lot away from a suspenseful 90 minute 2 character hunt to reveal the final result in the first two minutes

Lessons Learned
Cigarettes will indeed kill you

Wearing masks does little to lower the range of one’s peripheral vision

When proposing, always have a backup plan in the event your intended declines your ring. Otherwise, you not only risk spending a very awkward night drinking champagne for the wrong reasons; you may very well become the prey of mask-wearing quiet people

This is definitely worth one viewing with the lights off, but I don't see it gaining any sort of classic status. There's a lot to admire in Bertino's tense staging and depressingly dark atmosphere, but the effect starts to wear off as the chase scenes physically intensify. A quietly moved cell phone and unseen shadowy figure lurking behind our oblivious heroine is far scarier than the gory sendoff of a minor character. There's not a lot to say about The Strangers, but that's not necessarily a terrible thing. Sometimes, a tight, somewhat predictable but cleanly made little horror is all you really need to keep your DVD player warm and filmic appetite sated.