Monday, November 25, 2013

The Invention of Caller ID

When a Stranger Calls is one of those mild genre classics that has somehow eluded my 31 years on this planet. Despite my mother's constant quoting of "The call is coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE!" at several opportune moments in my life, I just never got around to Fred Walton’s 1979‘s's thriller.

Quick Plot: Everybody's favorite sugar-voiced dame Carol Kane plays Jill, a young babysitter whose charges are fast asleep when she reports for duty and supposed to stay that way all night. Before you can say Jamie Lee, Jill is stuck fielding creepy phone calls asking, very simply, "Have you checked the children?"

Now most responsible babysitters would take the deep breather's words to heart, but since Jill was told that the kids should not be disturbed, we'll give her the benefit of the doubt, especially after a police officer on the line assures her that since the door is locked, everything will be fine.

Ahhhh, the 70s.

When a Stranger Calls is probably most well-known for its opening, and it's easy to see why. Director Fred Walton sets a simple, incredibly tense tone as Jill sits in dim lighting, a villainous telephone never too far from her shaky reach. From those first twenty minutes, When a Stranger Calls earns its place as one of the decade’s most memorable thrillers.

It’s a shame that the rest of the film can’t sustain that energy. Charles Durning (not to be confused with Charles S. Dutton, unless you’re me and can’t EVER remember which is which) takes over as John Clifford, the policeman who collared the phone killer, an insane Brit named Curt Duncan. Seven years later, Duncan has escaped and John is on the case as a private detective to track him down. The film rotates between John’s investigation and Duncan’s hobo-like existence as the latter spends his days hitting on Colleen Dewhurst and getting into bar fights.

This isn’t uninteresting. Played by then-ailing actor Tony Beckley, Duncan is not your typical horror slasher. He’s scrawny and weak-looking, the kind of character you might smell from two cars down on the subway and walk a little closer to the street to avoid on the sidewalk. On one hand, he’s far less intimidating in nature than the kind of mad man we usually meet in these kinds of films. Made just one year after Halloween changed the film industry, When a Stranger Calls isn’t yet a slave to the formula that would come to define the genre. While Duncan is somewhat easily knockdownable, he’s also unsettlingly real.

The downside of not working with an established formula is that sometimes, you just don’t know where to go. The film starts out as a taut thriller, transitions into grizzled detective yarn, flirts with psychological drama, and finally ends on a note akin to Lifetime horror. 

High Points
Enough can’t be said about this film’s opening, which was incredibly tense even if I knew what the final punchline was going to be. I could only imagine how effective the reveal would have been for fresh eyes in 1979

Low Points
Focusing on three different characters--Durning’s detective, Duncan the killer, and Kane’s Jill--could certainly work, but the film spreads out the coverage so oddly that it’s hard to ever latch onto whose story this is

Lessons Learned
It's nice to offer your babysitter free reign of the fridge, but emphasizing that it includes low-FAT yogurt might be taken the wrong way

The best thing about having Charles Durning pursue you on foot is that even if you haven’t eaten in a few days, you’ll probably be able to outrun him pretty easily

When someone keeps asking you if you’ve checked the children, maybe it’s time to, oh I don’t know, CHECK the children

When a Stranger Calls isn’t necessarily a genre classic, but it’s well worth a visit if you’ve never seen it. Though the opening sets a tone that the rest can’t come close to living up to, the film features strong, interesting performances from the type of cast you just won’t normally find in this type of story. Director Fred Walton (who went on to work primarily in television movies with the affectionate exception of April Fool’s Day) knows how to build suspense, and while it’s not maintained in a typical way, When a Stranger Calls still manages to make for some tense and worthwhile viewing.

Monday, November 18, 2013

I'm a Manhattan Baby

There’s something about the title “Manhattan Baby” that just SCREAMS Big Broadway Musical. Once you learn that this actually applies to a typical gooey piece of slightly surreal, slightly just messy Lucio Fulci horror, it positively BEGS for the deluxe Andrew Lloyd Webber treatment.

Quick Plot: While on work vacation in Egypt, the Hacker family experiences a few unhappy events that probably won’t make the annual slideshow recap. Father George, an archaeologist, explores a pyramid only to be blinded by lasers (it’s just like when the airport loses your luggage, only you’re blinded by lasers) while daughter Susie is gifted with a sparkly, eeeeeeeeviiiiiiiiiiil amulet by a blind old woman.

Back home in New York, Susie quickly shows symptoms of demonic possession by an ancient Egyptian evil. Or, more precisely , signs that she’s in a movie helmed by Lucio Fulci.

Observe the following touchstones:

-a blind woman with no pupils

-the very hard-working electronic score


-a character named Emily

-a plot that kinda makes sense, but also really doesn’t

-portals to netherworlds

Far less beloved than The Beyond or City of the Living Dead, Manhattan Baby sees Fulci coasting on his landmarks but still having some fun. Take, for whatever reason, a supporting character who just happens to insist upon playing with goofy magician props in every one of his few scenes. Perhaps it’s necessary since his disappearance gives us such lines as “He’s a frivolous guy but this is serious!”

Lucio Fulci is rarely considered a master of the genre. While I will go to my grave arguing the merits of his underrated giallo Don’t Torture a Duckling, his films are generally riddled with laziness, be it stories that don’t add up, blatantly homemade special effects, and dialogue written and spoken by a first level ESL student. That being said, there’s also a whole lot of entertainment to usually be had. Yes, crunchy pipe cleaner tarantulas are funnier than they are scary, but I’ll take them over slow dragging cinema any day. 

High Points
You can never fault Fulci for featuring dull deaths. Reanimating taxidermied vultures for a true birdemic with visible wires? Yes please

Low Points
Perhaps it’s that Manhattan Baby has a more straightforward plot than something like The Beyond, but there’s something about the story that just drags in a way that screams for more shots of venomous snakes alternated with shots of an actress screaming even though it’s clear they’re never in the same room

Lessons Learned
Don’t ever forget that the scorpion is a symbol of death

If you’re an actress playing a babysitter and your name is Jamie Lee, you will be okay. If you’re a character babysitting NAMED Jamie Lee, you should find new employment or make a thorough will

When filming, even with a low budget, it’s important to notice the little things, like when a large piece of hair is stuck to the center of your camera and therefore visible in several key scenes

Manhattan Baby is a "Long Wait" on Netflix, so it's worth putting toward the top of your queue just to ensure you get it before it becomes unavailable (trust me: I've been burned before). That being said, you're far better off watching Fulci's more famous melty movies, so this one should be reserved for true enthusiasts. Yes, there are lasers and zombified birds pecking out eyeballs, but there’s also a lot of muddled exposition in between. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Devils & Mullets, Oh My!

If your ears are on the hearing hunt for a little apocalyptic conversation, allow me to point you towards the latest episode of The Feminine Critique. It's here where you'll get Christine and I discussing the delightful 1967 Peter Cook/Dudley Moore buddy/devil comedy Bedazzled, as well as the just a tad more serious religious comedy The Rapture.

Well actually, Michael Tolkin's 1991 examination of faith and the Old Testament might not necessarily be the fun-for-all the world expected. But it does have James LeGros without a shirt and David Duchovny WITH a mullet, so it's a guaranteed good time nonetheless.

Check it out on iTunes or whatever listening technology the cool kids are using.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Wooly Willies

I don't know about you, but I make a habit of bumping any "Long Wait" Netflix DVD to the top of my queue, knowing that there's a good chance the out-of-print films will end up in "Unavailable" purgatory. Sometimes, you get the added bonus of seeing a rare film that's actually good.

And sometimes you end up with The Willies.

Quick Plot: A pair of brothers and their cousin (Samwise himself, Sean Astin) sit around a campfire sharing urban legends and local scary story lore. 

After the token tales we've all heard on the playground (nuked puppies and fast food rats, natch), the boys detail two longer narratives set in Greeley Elementary:

Story 1 concerns a bullied kid named Danny, whose only respite from his classmates and sour teacher (the great Kathleen Freeman) is his school's friendly janitor. When he discovers an ugly demon hanging out in the little boys' room, things get very gooey.

In the next tale, we meet Gordy Belcher, a chubby outcast who prefers the company of dead flies to his understandably grossed out classmates. While other kids play handball and watch porn, Gordy spends his afternoons creating admittedly impressive dioramas (including medieval castles and '50s diners) and populating them with fly carcasses. 

Comeuppances abound, booger jokes delight, and when all is said and de-limbed, you take a shower.

The only film to be written and directed by actor Brian Peck, The Willies is a movie with a very limited, but perhaps enthusiastic audience. I've read it being described as Tales From the Crypt for 6th graders, which is about as fitting a tagline as one can make considering the amount of gross-outs, karma, and special guest stars.

The problem, unfortunately, is that The Willies is one of the worst paced movies I've seen in some time. It starts out with quickfire urban legend gags before teetering out into the longer first story, then dragging itself like a mound of molasses through the second. There's no clear direction guiding us to a climax. Just gross-out after dragged out gross-out after realllllllly dragged-out gross-out.

But hey, the flies posed on church pews are sort of cute.

High Points
Well, when you can snag a pre-Crazy Banana Loving Kirk Cameron as Mike Seever and Tracey Gold as his nerdy kid sis in for a cameo, why not?

Low Points
It just...kept....going

Look! It's...
Patrika Darbo, aka Nancy "I'm a Big Woman & Still a Soap Opera Star Damnit!" from Days of Our Lives, plus every other television show ever made

Lessons Learned
Microwaving a miniature poodle is suitable for 2 minutes and 59 seconds, but as soon as you hit the 3 minute mark, you can expect an explosion of baked beans

Always befriend the janitor

There is indeed something grosser than ten dead puppies in a barrel

I could certainly have been happy living the rest of my life without ever having seen The Willies. It's icky and worse, poorly paced. That being said, fans of '80s anthologies will certainly be curious to check this one out, if only for its Ghostbusters references and random name checking (Clu Galager AND James Karen) so important for the era.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Second Time's the Charm Collection

Like many horror fans, I considered 2009's The Collector a mediocre Saw cash-in, better than some (oh hai Captive) but still fairly unspectacular or worth another moment's thought. Mostly, I was just annoyed that anytime I spoke about William Wyler's outstanding adaptation of John Fowles' novel, I'd have to first preface it with "the 1965 kidnapping film, not the torture porny one." Think of all that wasted breath! It's enough to make a gal never even consider seeing what seemed like an extremely unnecessary sequel.

Yet here we are. Funny how that works...

Quick Plot: Following the events of The Collector, news of that film's brutal (and handy) serial kidnapper/killer has spread throughout town, rendering overprotective parents even more justifiably overprotective now that the world's smartest psychopath is a known fugitive. Poor Arkin (Josh Stewart), last seen being re-abducted, has finally escaped the clutches of Jigsaw--er, The Collector. Unfortunately for the locksmith-turned-would-be-jewel-theif, there's a price to pay.

Arkin, you see, is the only living witness to The Collector's latest game: slaughtering the entire patronage of a happening club via an insanely cool opening scene that involves a ceiling lawn mower and man-crushing elevator.

It's seriously kickass.

The only other survivor is a young rich girl named Elena, who escaped a few killer gadgets only to end up inside The Collector's House of Leaves-esque funhouse. While there, she just might encounter the following:


-iron maidens
-human test tube displays a la The Cell


-a zombified army of fellow kidnappees who have been drugged and tortured into 28 Days Later-ish states of pure psychotic fury

-lots of character actors who were on HBO dramas.

All of these things, as you might guess, are insanely amazing.

Elena's father recruits a team of bait--er, mercenaries-- to follow the trail of the elusive killer and retrieve his pixie cut little girl. Following the usual plot logic of sequels like The Descent 2, we accept the fairly ridiculous fact that Arkin would agree to join them in order to avoid a prison sentence (because rich dads can buy pardons, didn't you know?) and simply sit back to watch the highly trained elite team die terrible horrible no good very bad deaths.
Written and directed by returning filmmaker (and a Saw IV-3D writer) Marcus Dunstan, The Collection wastes none of its brief running time. We get a batch of characters put in mortal danger, and a few spunkier ones with a fighting chance to survive. The film slows down briefly to drop hints about what else entertains its masked killer (including a creepy girl-woman who somehow avoids torture by being creepy) but simply refuses to bog itself down in exposition or backstory. As a result, we're treated to a quick, scary, creative and occasionally, very funny improvement upon its standard first installment.

High Points
Between the bomb-detonated necklaces, bone-crushing elevator, security system tarantulas and pseudo-zombie army, The Collection's batch of menaces seems to come out of a bottomless Santa Claus sack filled with magic horror movie tricks

Low Points
Chekhov’s Law of Hearing Aids is tragically ignored, as despite one scene of minor tension, the fact that the film's lead is indebted to a very fragile piece of technology is never really utilized

The Jury's Out
Less than 90 minutes long, I have to assume The Collection's credits sequence--in which all the speaking roles get a highlighted screencap freezing on their bloody and gruesome deaths--was inserted to pad the running time. It's a bizarre choice that takes the film's last few beats into pure comedy territory (observe one actor's credit displayed over a splat of body parts and blood). I can't tell if it's silly or brilliant.

Lessons Learned
Don't go clubbing. Ever.

In a pinch, it's possible to unlock a rusty suitcase hinge using a bra

Split up. Seriously, if you want to DIE a BRUTAL AND HORRIBLE DEATH, just split up

Having a rich dad might not prevent your boyfriend from cheating on you, but it sure comes in handy when you're kidnapped by a supergenius psychopath

There's no question that horror fans should check out The Collection. Perhaps the more complicated issue involves whether one should first see The Collector (not the Terence Stamp one; one should ALWAYS see the Terence Stamp one). Much like the Saw series, the second film does indeed depend on the story and characters from the first. While I found the first entry to be too mean-spirited and mediocre, it apparently has a strong  enough fanbase. So who knows, you might like it. Regardless, I'd find it pretty hard to believe you wouldn't enjoy The Collection.