Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Preview

Guess what?

It's here!

Share photos on twitter with Twitpic

And so is my costume. Last night was the trial run for Mrs. Peacock, whose feathers remained inside her head. As was expected, many a party goer didn't quite get the look (one man was fairly convinced I was an owl). What surprised me was that both myself and Ms. White were such a big hit with Little Red Riding Hoods. While I don't know what inspired so many Long Island ladies to dress as the woodsy tease, I was more than happy that of all the people who stared at my costume last night, the only two to immediately get it before any explanation or waving of my giant Party City hunting knife were dressed as so.

Anyway, today is more costuming and a Halloween wedding. Tomorrow is Chiller Theater, where I'm hoping to touch my first crush ever, Mr. Davy Jones. What the sprightly Monkee has to do with horror is beyond me but the very fact that I can see, in the flesh, a man whose poster once graced my seven-year-old bedroom wall is fine by me.

I was an odd kid.


Friday, October 30, 2009

Michael's Monster Mash

I bet you must think I love Halloween. 

You don't know me.

364 days of the year, I'm a normal guy. A little quiet. Kinda tall. But on the whole, not much different from your average former mental patient bearing a slight resemblance to William Shatner.

I’m cool with that. If I had wanted to be famous, I would’ve done a reality show, not gone head-to-head with Mickey Rourke to see which beefy thespian could sabotage his career with worse script choices. There’s a reason I didn’t do Halloween III: no way was I gonna share the stage with Tom Atkins. That dude elevates every performance around him and before you could’ve said silver shamrock, I’d be a red carpet fixture.

I don’t need that.\n\nYet here we are again. It’s October 30th, and like any supervillain with a franchise to his name, I gotta go to work. It's tiring. Mentally. Emotionally. Physically. Sure, it doesn't look like I run fast, but if you saw my frenemy Leslie' Vernon's self-indulgent documentary (more on that douche later), you'd know that it takes both physical agility and self-discipline to take such long strides while still looking like we're just strolling down the street with time to kill. I didn't even get to the blood stains, bullet wounds, or fact that I've never ever had the chance to just wind down with some leftover fun-sized Milky Ways and enjoy Charlie Brown's misadventures.\n\nIn a way, I totally know how Santa Clause feels. Except I’ve never tasted a butter cookie with green sprinkles.\n\nSo this year, I decided to do something different. It helped that I planned ahead and got my killing spree out of the way in August. Some may say it's not the same, but my mom seemed to approve. She even got me a pony, and that’s just super awesome to the extreme. Besides: my psychiatrist keeps bugging me about getting out of my shell or self-imposed blackness or whatever, so I wanted to show him that I'm not as unresponsive as he thinks. Then he died. For like, the eighth time. So now I have no ascot to prove anything to but guess what? I already sent out the invites.\n\nGruuuuuuuuuuunt. First of all, this might surprise you, but I don't...well...I don't have many friends. I go to bars and just sort of blend into the dark lighting, plus I’m straight edge which just adds pressure. I'm not into sports cause they're a little too competitive. I tried Craig's List "strictly platonic" ads but I didn't trust the purity of the posters and, well, a few complaints, lawsuits, and mangled bodies and now I'm banned from that entire site. I was on Facebook for a while but it just felt like everyone there was putting on a front. I was about to give up when this great new invention called Twitter came around. I like it cause I don't write good (as I always say, spell check is the greatest thing since sliced necks) and with just 140 letters (someone told me they were "characters" but I've never heard of that word before), it's hard to mess up too badly. \n\nI won’t lie: it’s pretty darn confusing. I'm not too computer savvy, so I just usually "follow" whoever "follows" me. This was really weird at first. I'm so used to doing the stalking, I didn’t quite realize what all the lingo meant. Stabbed a lot of girls named Brit.ney and learned a valuable lesson about how women never look as good as they do on the Internet. Also how women on the Internet are not usually women in real life. \n\nAnyway, once I realized that Twitter was a great forum to collect identities and send out news, I posted an invite for my Monster Mash Halloween Party. \n\nThis is really hard to say--and not just because I don’t usually use words--but I’m actually super nervous about tomorrow night. I can strangle any old class clown, but when it comes to social events, I’m about as smooth as Leatherface’s chainsaw. \n\nSpeaking of which...he’s totally coming. I know this not because he RSVP’d, but because every ten minutes since the e-vite left my outbox, he’s been calling me with a million questions. What’s the dress code? What’s the face code? Will there be chili? It’s like the dude’s never been to a party before. I mean, sure I’ve never been invited to a high school dance or parents-away kegger, but like any slasher, I’ve crashed enough to take some notes. \n\nSad thing is, he’s not even the worst one. I told Tiffany and Chucky Lee Ray it’s okay to bring their son, but apparently there’s all sorts of family drama there. I need to know if I should cancel the clown. According to his website, Pennywise doesn’t refund deposits the day of and I already have bad credit. \n\nJason won’t come if Freddy comes, Freddy won’t come if Jason comes, Norman’s waiting for permission from his mother, and Kang and Kodos are trying to get me to foot their galactic toll bills. I stupidly promised the Crypt Keeper that he could be in charge of the music, but Leslie’s totally convinced the old corpse is just trying to get control of the microphone to try out some of his comedy material. \n\nI can handle pressure okay, and I wouldn’t really be complaining about all of this if there wasn’t one guest that I’m actually excited to see. Now I know I shouldn’t jinx a good thing, but I really like her. She’s totally my type: skinny, shy, studious, virginal, non gender specific named, and best of all, she totally knows what it’s like to have superpowers that don’t match up with social skills. It’s a match made in heaven, except for the fact that she’s convinced she’s going to hell and well, to be honest, she might be out of my league. I know Jamie Lee was prom queen material, but that wasn’t until after I broke her in. Carrie’s a genuine princess and I’m just a lump in a jumpsuit. Worst of all, Leslie’s been eyeing her for months now and he’s way slicker than I could ever dream of being. Not that I dream. You have to sleep first.\n\nWell, I should stop dilly dallying and start decorating for the big night. Party City had a sale on those Halloween Christmas lights and I bullied some babysitters into carving pumpkins, so I think that on that front, I'll be in good shape. Or a good Shape. Ha! I am ON! \n\nAs for the party, you’ll have to come back next week to find out how it turned out. Any advice would be totally appreciated below. Like, for example, trick-or-treaters who don’t wear costumes. I’m supposed to kill them, right? \n\nHelp me out guys. I reallllllllly don’t want to embarrass myself in front of so many of my peers. They already have me slumming in 3-D next year. How much lower can I go?\n\n

Thursday, October 29, 2009

13 Sequels to Make You Swoon

If you've yet to visit the wonderful blog that is The Lightning Bug's Lair, then you are not worthy of having your soul switched into the body of homicidal plastic doll. But thankfully, most homicidal plastic dolls are pretty cool about second (and third, fourth, and fifth) chances, so head there today. Not only is there some super entertaining content, but this month, Mr. T.L. Bugg has been compiling a grand assortment of reviews for horror sequels. Even better, he's been enlisting the help of other bloggers to chime in with their own favorites. Today, the contributor is none other than yours truly.

Come here for my top 13 film sequels of all time.

Warning: There will be Ewoks, and thus I now prepare myself for much Endorian battle.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sweets To the Sequel

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to call Candyman one of the best horror films of the ‘90s. Admittedly, this was a rather unimpressive decade that lie in a hazy hibernation until the deserved success of Scream, but still: Bernard Rose’s 1992 thriller about an urban legend’s hold on the Chicago projects remains a genuine classic for its rich atmosphere, striking visuals, haunting score, and complex and immediately iconic villain. 
A few years back, I caught some bits of the laughable third entry into the Candyman franchise on cable and deemed it a series unworthy of my attention past its innovative debut. Only recently did I discover that the first sequel, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, was directed by Bill Condon, the impressive maestro behind Kinsey, Gods & Monsters, and the underrated (and not quite Doll’s House appropriate) Dreamgirls. Dude even produced this year's classy, Hugh Jackman toe-tapping Oscars ceremony. His name alone convinced me to give the ol’ rusty hook one more try.
Quick Plot: The legend of Candyman continues to be whispered by schoolchildren and utilized by criminals. The smug historian of the first film, Dr. Purcell (I don’t know that they ever call him Dr.; I just assume ‘cause I’m confident that way) has written a book about the Cabrini Green legend and is on quite the publicity tour,  hitting up bookstores in New Orleans with publicity stunts and pretentious ponytailed snobbery. 

Upon summoning the slave-turned-slaughterer for his latest autograph-seeking audience, Purcell runs into Ethan Tarrant, a fiery redhead with dead daddy issues and lingering Candyman obsessions. A drunken argument ensues, driving Purcell into a public bathroom where he gets the first of three jump scares involving mirrors and black men that are not Candyman. Not surprisingly, his next mirror visitor is none other than Tony Todd himself, back with a fierce whisper and an entourage of bees.

We’re soon introduced to our main protagonist, Annie Tarrant (Kelly Rowan, now grown up after The Gate), middle school art teacher, sister of now wrongfully imprisoned Ethan, daughter of southern lush Veronica Cartwright (yes!), and wife to an obnoxiously cheerful husband. When her students start to fistfight over the existence of you-know-who, Annie teaches them a lesson by pulling the old say-his-name-five-times-in-a-mirror trick. Sighs of relief are breathed, backs are patted, and by nighttime, the dessert-making Mr. Annie is gutted to our extreme relief. 

Naturally, Candyman doesn’t stop with just one kill. Much like his flirtations with Virginia Madsen’s Helen, he keeps appearing to Annie in closed rooms to glide his hook over her chest, whisper empty promises, and reveal the intestines of any poor sap dumb enough to come too close to his latest obsession. Annie, meanwhile, learns that her family has a pretty fertile link to one Mr. Daniel Robitaille, which I’ll reveal following the mandatory spoiler alert:
Before he was the bloodthirsty, mirror-powered slicer, Candyman impregnated Caroline Sullivan, a plantation owner’s daughter who eventually gave birth to Annie & Ethan’s great grandmother, thus making our heroine the great great granddaughter of the titular murderer. Thus, he’s quite keen on having her die at his hands so they can be together in the underworld of milk and honey. Or something.

While I enjoyed Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh as a fairly decent if unimpressive sequel, my biggest problem was the basic fogginess of the actual plot. What, precisely, is Candyman planning on doing with Annie? Signing adoption papers in hell and raising a family? Calling her Line, the fetus Sinker, and starting a serial killer rock band to front next year’s Mardi Gras festivities? The film tries hard to ground Candyman’s tragic history in New Orleans folklore, but the actual purpose of his specialized hunting remains an idea rather than anything solid to hold onto.
High Points
The performances all around are quite solid, something that is incredibly vital for a mid-level horror film. Had Rowan, Todd, or even the scenery-chewing Cartwright phoned in their work, this would be a very different review

Although I find the slums of inner city Chicago a far more frightening and interesting setting, Condon does an excellent job establishing the many faces of his New Orleans location
Low Points
I guess when you have a score as powerful as Philip Glass’s unsettling chords, it pays to reuse the musical cues. At the same time, there are too many moments where the background sound overtakes the action, making us far more interested in closing our eyes to listen than keeping them open to watch
1995 was still the early days of CGI, but that doesn’t quite excuse the cartoonish swarm of bees that looks laughable in an already messy flashback sequence
Perhaps he works better as a mysterious character mostly hidden in the shadows, but Tony Todd feels rather wasted here. How many lines like “Let your fear nourish you?” can one man be forced to menacingly whisper?

Lessons Learned
The guy using the public bathroom stall beside you is not impressed by the fact that you wrote a book
Paper needs something on it because it has nothing on it
Forget ept: Candyman is a far more economical and far less icky solution for pregnancy detection

Just because your mother is a stereotypical aging southern belle does not imply that you will inherit any trace of a N’Orlans accent
Whining under your breath “C’mon guys,” will not prevent homeless gangs from looking at your car. Nor will wearing an earring

While this film comes nowhere near the horrific and surprising success of its predecessor, it’s a minor worthwhile viewing for any fan of the surprisingly small, not surprisingly soon-to-be-rebooted franchise. The DVD’s sole feature is a commentary by Bill Condon which could certainly be a solid investment, but unless you’re building a collection of before-they-were-truly-famous directorial features or the Tony Todd ouvre, I’d recommend a rental for a Sunday afternoon. 

Monday, October 26, 2009

Have a Yabba Dabba Doo Death

Stephen King may be the mainstream go-to for horror literature, but when it comes to fiction that digs into your soul and chips away at your sense of what’s right in the world, pick up a Jack Ketchum book. From vividly gruesome novels riddled with torn limbs to stories that break your heart in less than ten pages without a drop of spilled blood, his work never fails to make me reach for reliable reassurance with a hug from my cat or cuddle with the old Pound Puppy. 
In theory, much of his work comes ready-made for film adaptations. Early novels like Off Season leap off the page with visceral violence screaming for some handy makeup effects, while The Lost could easily be a good actor’s dream role along the lines of De Niro’s Travis Bickle. 2009‘s Offspring marks the fourth attempt to bring Ketchum’s words to the screen, and like The Girl Next Door and The Lost (I can’t speak for Red as it’s still making its way up my queue), it works on some levels while failing to capture the true horror of its source material. 

Quick Plot:
The ominously named Dead River, Maine, is about to be revisited by a clan of savage cave cannibals who made their mark eleven years earlier (for reference, read Off Season, Ketchum’s 1980 debut novel which for rights reasons, couldn’t be filmed) by snatching a few babies and devouring a lot of adults. After a gooey prologue introduces the hungry clan, we meet The Brood’s Art Hindle as a weathered policeman coming out of retirement to lend a hand to the helpless police force. Meanwhile, our civilian protagonists are introduced as genuine nice people. The omnivores include Amy and David Halbard, a nerdily sweet young couple with a cute newborn, their visiting friend Claire Carey, and her resourceful son Luke. The latter two are in the midst of dealing with financial woes caused by Stephen Carey, an alcoholic, abusive, and tax-evading father who abandoned them months earlier but is now en route to do even more damage. 
What makes Offspring work--both on page and screen--is the attention given to developing its characters. In most cannibals-hunting-normal-people films, humans exist as mere meat just waiting to be served. Here, the Halbards, Careys, and, to a lesser extent, Hindle’s George Peters are actual people well-deserving of our sympathies. This makes the first attack incredibly effective. Watching feral children gut innocent suburbanites is always going to stir up some emotions in its audience, but when we actually like said victims, it’s truly horrifying. 
One of the most disturbing elements of Offspring, however, is its civilized villain, Stephen. Actor Erick Kastel gives this yuppie sadist a nice sense of misogyny that toes a line between forced evil and true psychopathy. Like in the novel, one of the strongest scenes has nothing to do with hunting knives or hatchets. Stephen picks up a perky hitchhiker, only to quickly unnerve her with nastiness. It’s a nice early twist that further infuses Offspring with a sense of wrongness, much in the way The Girl Next Door features a creepy ant war that works to unsettle the audience before digging into the main action. 

The sense of savagery inside Offspring is at times aided by its low budget and lack of studio rating. Children are shot, babies are tossed, and many a stomach is torn apart in a manner that would most likely have had the MPAA seething. The biggest complaint a lot of viewers will mostly likely have is the low quality camera work that feels nearly homemade. Occasionally, this works for artistic reasons (such as Stephen’s first meeting with the demolition-happy cannibals as he storms away in his Porsche) but unfortunately, some of the actual editing stunts the action by lingering in all the wrong spots. Director Andrew van den Houten doesn’t seem to have any real eye for shooting scenes or building suspense. It’s possible to defend some of the visuals and lack of build-up as modern exploitation, but as you watch Offspring, it feels much more along the lines of sloppy filmmaking.
But as far as the horror goes, Offspring works at grounding itself in one awful night of slaughter. Ketchum himself penned the script and it’s obvious he retained most of his own character work in shaping the victims. The clan, on the other hand, is a mixed bag of effectiveness: evil and athletic children are sufficiently rotten, and  schoolteacher Ed Nelson’s performance as Cow (the crazed and imprisoned sex toy of the group) is quite creepy. Pollyanna McIntosh comes off best as the leading matriarch, but the entire look of these horrific man-eaters feels...well...costume store sponsored. I was more impressed by the fact that Second Stolen’s metal rock wig stayed on when she tossed her hair than I was by her self flagellation. I understand that a limited budget wouldn’t quite capture the nipple belt so well described on the page, but it’s a shame to see these potentially nightmare-inducing creations end up looking like a family dressing up like the Flintstones for Halloween, but forgetting to take their costumes off come Thanksgiving.
High Points
All the gore--and there is a lot--is quite well done, always grossing you out and never inspiring you to pass the ketchup

You can’t underestimate the importance in fleshing out (no pun intended; I need to stop this Crypt Keeper business before I corn myself to death) the characters. With a few gaps here and there, the lead performances are all very solid in creating actual people, thus making their brutal attacks as sad as they are frightening
Low Points
So much about the technical filmmaking misses the mark. For one, the coloring never seems to make up its mind. The hellish cave is too orange, creating a campfire feel rather than a disgustingly bone-filled home base of killer cannibals
Even though I read Offspring less than a year ago, the motivations of the clan were hazy at best. I only remembered the fact that the older children were named “First Stolen” and “Second Stolen” because of the IMDB listing. Knowing that these horrid creatures were once kidnapped babies is a huge part of the novel that adds weight to the newly kidnapped children, but in the film, none of this disturbing backstory comes across. 

Lessons Learned
If you need to escape from an entire town’s police force, simply trot into the woods while they watch you waving their fists
Everybody in New England carries a full flask
Kicking a corpse will not bring it back to life
Don’t expect the 16 year old babysitter to successfully defend your newborn against a feral clan of baby-eating cannibals
Knives are very noisy when pulled out of stomachs

Word of mouth has been pretty turgid for Offspring, but I found it to be an entertaining little slice of 90 minutes. In no way does it fully capture the horrific nature of the novel, but it does offer more than a few moments to unsettle jaded DVD renters. I can see many a cynical horror fan picking more bones with the look and general feel of this film, but I guess those who want to like it will find more than enough to enjoy in a sitting. Whereas The Girl Next Door remains a chilling and troubling film with each subsequent viewing, Offspring’s power lays more in its action, making it most likely a one-watch for the majority of horror fans. The loaded DVD includes a detailed behind-the-scenes featurette, commentary, and a few more little goodies worth checking out. I’m partial to the making-of documentary, where we get to watch the final kid-on-kid battle in a split screen with the child actors’ parents looking on with pride, horror, and gum snaps.  

Sunday, October 25, 2009

It's Alive, Unfortunately

If I was hard on Grace for not quite living up to its hype, I’m sorry. If I complained about the second half of Rob Zombie’s Halloween, I apologize. Hell, if I insulted--and I did insult--Halloween 2, I kneel on the crunchy fallen leaves of autumn in atonement. Even the unbearable Black Christmas can get a pass for I have seen what may indeed be Hollywood’s most failed attempt at a horror remake.

The competition is still stiff. The Stepford Wives remains a painful embarrassment for all involved (most notably, the audience) and the rotting stench of The Hitcher was so awful, I had to burn the very clothes I wore the day I screened it. While I love a good dose of Nicolas Cage beating up women while dressed like a bear, I’ll never forgive Neil LaBute for the cinematic sacrilege that is The Wicker Man. But you know, Josef Rusnak’s 2008 remake of the classic 1974 Larry Cohen chiller is kind of horrible in a way that defies any and all kinds of logic.
Quick Plot/Low Points: Grad student Bijou Philips--


No, seriously--

leaves the world’s most spacious college dorm room to have her boyfriend’s baby, seemingly marrying and changing her name to Lenore Davis en route to the hospital. A muddled delivery six months into the pregnancy leaves a few doctors and nurses slaughtered in the OR and Lenore holding a monstrous, then gigantic (perhaps? it also seems to change shape and face, so who really knows) baby boy. The pretty couple brings little Daniel home to meet the rest of the secluded household: uncle Chris, a wheelchair bound 12 year old, and an ill-fated, underloved, and easily forgotten pet cat. Stuff seems to happen. I’ll attempt to list it now:
-Lenore drops out of school because she plans to spend the rest of her life breast feeding and cooing 

-Lenore’s roommate, Marnie, understandably becomes worried and keeps trying to call her. We get riveting scenes of the young woman leaving voicemail. It’s thrilling.
-Chris makes friends with a girl at school. This is important enough to warrant a five minute scene of dialogue. And then we never see her again.
-Police are mildly concerned about the fact that a woman gave birth as six people were brutally murdered around her. But really, who needs to investigate that thoroughly when the new mother seems so well adjusted? Especially when the actors cast as authority figures seem to speak in dubbed looping

-Baby Daniel starts to kill people with awful CGI magic
As a loyal fan of all things Larry Cohen, I didn’t expect to be overly pleased with It’s Alive. Still, I do believe it has a solid base story that could easily be retold in an interesting way for a 21st century audience. But it’s not.
About five minutes into It’s Alive, the seams were beginning to pop. It’s pretty clear that this was either a hastily made rush job or something that had gone through massive recuts during the editing process. I can imagine the director getting tired and looking around for the nearest body to take over. One scene may have indeed been shot by a kitten. It was later edited by that kitten’s hairball. And the script seems to have been written by a dyslexic sloth. 

I’m sorry. That’s insulting to sloths. And dyslexia.
The point it, everything about this film is just not good. The most egregious error comes in the very nature of the Davis baby. We first get a glimpse of him on his way from the home, a little large for a 6 month delivery but normal enough. Then we’re not allowed to to see his face for 80 minutes. Fine enough for suspense, but are we also to believe that neither the kid’s father nor uncle noticed that Daniel had evolved into an infected vampire zombie from I Am Legend? There’s nothing wrong with suspending disbelief for a piece of work, but it’s a whole different story when a film fails to ground its characters in any sense of reality. 
High Points
I like to believe the actual greenlighting of this film yielded a well-deserved royalty check for Larry Cohen. I also like to believe that the innovative filmmaker used said check to make a special order to Elite Hunting and when he arrived in Slovakia, he had a great time with everyone associated with this film.
Lessons Learned
Every mother truly does think he baby is the cutest, even when the infant resembles a cross between a lump of yogurt and a piranha

Doorbells run on battery power
When taking experimental Plan B tablets, it’s probably best to not to wash it down with a glass of Merlot

If you’re going to use a body double to display heaving pregnant breasts, it’s probably a good idea to not cast a naked woman with a DD bra cup and immediately cut to the lead actress covering her more-than-modest assets with a bony arm

Unless you’re a movie masochist or auditioning for a gig on MST3K, do not, under any circumstances, waste 90 minutes on this movie. It’s rare that I get so negative on a film, but It’s Alive is like the first draft of what would eventually become a C- paper. Granted, this may have earned a tad less of my hatred had it not been a remake of another film I cherish, but it remains something that should not have been released in its current form. Maybe I’m just getting grumpy, but I feel insulted as an audience member if this is what studios believe to be passable entertainment. 

Friday, October 23, 2009

Hate On Me, Not Horror

We horror fans are a surly bunch.

Opinionated. Angry. Easily disappointed and even more easily disheartened. When we’re subjected to hack job remakes and speedily rushed sequels at a rate that defies the speed of a cheetah, it’s no surprise that we tend to bash any movie that dares to appeal to our well-honed tastes. What I wonder now, as Saw VI prepares to land its bloody feet on our ticket stubs, is if we were always such cinematic snobs.

Perhaps it’s the extreme nature at the very heart of most horror films that breeds such intense negativity. I guarantee that just as many people disliked the last tepid romantic comedy as those who greeted Halloween 2 with sneers (I was among the latter group), but you won’t see IMDBers drawing petitions to remove Diane Lane from Must Love Dogs with quite the same levels of ire as those itching to go all Godfather on Sheri Moon-Zombie and her fine white horse

Hating bad horror films is nothing to be ashamed of, especially if the films in question are made and marketed with little heart or respect to what its fans actually want. My problem with the oft-irked horror crowd is our habit of cracking the bad jokes before we actually sit down in the theater. I can’t count how many like-minded film lovers whose opinions I respect have issued death warrants to Jennifer’s Body based on its trailer, cast, and one-credit writer who has somehow amassed mass hatred by penning a single successful indie screenplay. Oh yeah, and of those who have cracked smug grins at the mention of its failed box office, take a guess how many actually confirmed their judgment by seeing the film. 

“Things were so much better in the ‘80s,” we grumble to our babysitting charges while taking a gulp from a rusty can of New Coke. Right, cinema was more innovative when a burly mute was silently slaughtering topless bimbos whose only method of survival was virginity and whininess. What have we come to when the most successful face of horror is a wrinkled old man with actual dialogue about the nature of mankind?

I won’t--and can’t--argue that the Saw series is composed of quality filmmaking, but every Halloween, I never fail to take a deep sigh before issuing a defense of the 5 and counting blockbuster(ish) films. Yes, the gore is gratuitous and the soundtrack grating, but how can someone who forked over $50 for the Friday the 13th boxed set still huff and puff about how torture porn is ruining the horror industry when Jason brought the bar down so low, the only escape was outer space? My idea of date night doesn’t usually include watching Brandon Walsh’s sociology professor get her rib cage torn apart, but at least Dina Meyer’s ill-fated detective was a literate and developed character. 

There’s something charming about ‘80s slasher cinema and daringly dark in the grindhouse days and cannibal genre of the ensuing years. Then again, there’s also more forgettable slashers than a Sesame Street vampire could count before sunrise.  And hey, it took a lot of cruelly killed wildlife in painfully unwatchable movies before Cannibal Holocaust cruelly killed wildlife to make a statement about such painfully wrought cinema. Maybe Martyrs’ twisted analysis of torture is the evolution of “gorenography”; just like we needed eight ho hum Halloween sequels before we could get a Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, so each sub-genre needs to work itself out before it can achieve greatness. In the meantime, we as audiences watch what we like and judge what we actually see.

I can’t claim that we’re currently in a golden age of horror, as thus far, this decade has produced one masterpiece (Let the Right One In) and a few memorable gems that succeed mainly by honoring the old with a smart twist of new (Shaun of the Dead, The Descent, 28 Days Later). Still, there are plenty of modern films to make us celebrate the cinematic time we’re living in. Roll your eyes at Repo! The Genetic Opera for its headache-making chords, but don’t put it in punchlines and turn around with a ready-made rant about how filmmakers are currently devoid of creativity just because the few sparks of newness don’t appeal to your personal tastes. Most of all, bash nothing until you’ve actually basked in its badness. 

Rants and rusty sharp device heavy games are welcome below. Are we a glass of blood is half-empty kinda crowd, or has horror truly taken a dip into disappointing hell? Share your thoughts, preferably after downing a bag of sugar-coated happy thoughts.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Candy is Dandy But Killing is More Thrilling

Spoiled Candy Alert:

99% of horror anthology films rely on a twist ending. Trick ‘r Treat is no exception, as two of its four tales feature a major surprise and the other two finish with, well, less surprising surprises. Still, in discussing such a film, it’s a challenge to go into any real detail without spilling or slightly splashing the secrets or worse, tiptoeing around plot turns with less grace than an elephant in high heels. Or me in high heels (I'm not an elephant; just incredibly clumsy.) Despite all good intentions, you end up revealing far too much to those who haven’t seen the movie in question, while those who have get a reading experience that’s coyer than the president of the school celibacy club.
Hence, in respect to my limited secretive writing skills, this review is reserved for those who have seen this film. All others are encouraged to rent it (SPOILER ALERT! I just revealed the ending of my own review. I’m so meta) and come back later. Think of it as half priced candy corn purchased in November, but without the cavity inducing stickiness.


Quick Plot:
It’s Halloween in North America’s coolest town, a suburban paradise that seems to mandate every house carve a jack-o-lantern and attractive person attend an outdoor kegger. After a ho-hum prologue about a tired couple low in holiday spirit, the action kicks in with four stories loosely connected by place, character, and candy.

Our first tale stars the secret thespian weapon that is Dylan Baker as a suit-wearing Ned Flandersish citizen who doesn’t approve of fat kids stealing chocolate. Director Michael Dougherty builds a wickedly macabre tone that toes a licorice-thin line between black comedy and mean-spirited horror. Especially effective is the slow reveal of Baker’s character. We know as soon as he approaches the tubby pumpkin smasher that he means bad news, but it’s jarring to hear him called “Principal” and even more frightening to discover his moppet son. Wilkins, however, proves himself a fine father by not only spending quality time bonding over arts & crafts, but also insisting the little redhead get his fill of It’s the It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! It’s a promising start that ends with a perfectly played bang.

Meanwhile, a round of townspeople and tourists are introduced throughout and in between each tale, later to pop up as major characters in their own stories. It’s an innovative method to plot an anthology and wisely helps Trick R Treat avoid the inevitable one-story-drags-the-rest-down formula of most others in the genre. Most importantly, it confines the action to one specific location with what I assume must be competing with Sunnydale for lowest real estate rates in the Western world.
Story 2 follows a group of trouble raising trick-or-treaters who plan to prank the local idiot savant/pumpkin Picasso by digging up an urban (or suburban) legend in an abandoned rock quarry. The setup is brilliant and it’s in the story-within-a-story that Trick R Treat shines. Everything from the costume choices to the actual theme of parents discarding their deformed children was truly upsetting. Unfortunately, the surrounding tale simply doesn’t live up to its interior potential...especially since the nighttime lack of lighting lets us barely see the return of the school bus victims.

Next, we move to the big bash to focus on a few deceptively dense Halloween sluts, the kind who manage to annually piss me off by putting whorish spins on random costumes not meant for sexiness (seriously: who wants to fantasize about female Freddy Krueger? Guys who dig female child molesters in fedoras?). Virginal Anna Paquin pops her cherry with a bloody bite of Baker’s principal, revealing herself and her sisters to be hot werewolves. The twist was juicy enough to justify the tale, but I personally was a tad underwhelmed, proving once again that I’m insanely immune to lycanthropy. Still, the segment works to balance out Trick 'r Treat by including a perfect dose of sensuality and surprise. It's fun in a Tales From the Darkside spirit, which is pretty perfect for the overall tone of the film.

Finally, we follow the sack masked little boy who had been slipping in and out of the earlier three stories. Sam, as he’s known outside the film, is a wonderfully haunting creature that will deservedly find himself on t-shirts and action figures. He couldn't ask for a worthier a foe than the original Hannibal Lector himself, Brian Cox. There's something about the interior chase that goes on a tad too long to completely deliver on its early suspense, but the payoff is rewarding, even if the second turn is hardly a surprise.

So, which camp of Trick 'r Treat viewers do I fall into, those who have dubbed it the next coming of fear or the ones who found it as innovative as dressing like a witch on Halloween? Well, I liked the movie. Normally, if I’m planning on reviewing a film, I’ll keep my computer on and jot down stray thoughts. That never happened this time because I was totally involved in the onscreen action for the full runtime. There was no so-bad-I-have-to-remember these lines moments and anything I liked was strong enought that I knew it wouldn’t be forgotten by the time I sat down to write out my thoughts. It’s possibly the tightest anthology I’ve ever seen.
But is it great, wonderful, amzaing, the best horror film in years? I’d say not. It has its moments--bus crash, Sam's strolls--it has its power tools--Baker, Cox--and it’s tied together both by impressive scripting and a polished horror look. Had I seen this film a month before it was dipped in gold by the genre community, I’d be signing its praise to anone with a wallet and DVD player. After the early October reviews, however, I can’t help but feel a tad underwhelmed or rather, just not overwhelmed. It’s not to say I didn’t genuinely enjoy Trick'r Treat and won’t watch it again. I did and I will. But I’m just quite ready to make babies with the DVD case.

High Points
The dynamic score can be a tad overbearing at times, but ultimately pays off for every moment that it's needed

While I'm not always a big fan of comic book place panels onscreen, the opening credits are a great mood setter, especially since they bring me back to my own days of trick-or-treating long enough to receive the occasional religious booklet that read like an E.C. Comics take on the rapture

You have to admire the tightness of the intertwined action. It never feels forced, nor does it call attention to itself. Maybe you'd notice that the clown trick-or-treaters scared by Cox's bull terrier were the same kids who ran away at the sight of Emma's undercover slashing. Maybe you wouldn't. It doesn't take anything away, but catching the little connections certainly does add a nice layer of frosting to a nice cupcake of a film

Low Points
The aforementioned physical darkness of some of the segments blurs the action here and there, leaving someone sans Blu Ray or an HD TV squinting to catch all the action

As much as I love the bus massacre scene, it left one glaring question that took something away from the tale: what was the bus driver going to do with the bus and its children? I imagine he was set to crash it and hop out in time, and essentially, that happened. So what actually went wrong with the plan?
Lessons Learned
All pumpkin abusers will be slaughtered
A lollipop is not a toy... unless your playtime involves murder, at which point it's both useful and tasty

Suggesting your girlfriend dress like a boxy robot will make her feel inadequate and bitchy
Werewolf turn-ons include fake vampire teeth and elf ears

Considering the surprising lack of Halloween-themed films, Trick 'r Treat is probably a solid investment for an annual pumpkin fix. Unfortunately, all the extras seem to have been reserved exclusively for the Blu Ray edition. My Netflix DVD’s sole special feature was the wonderful animated short that inspired the film’s full length flesh out. This isn’t the best film you’ll see all year, but it’s a damn fine ride (perhaps even more fun than a hay ride, and certainly less itchy) by a director worth watching. If we’re lucky, we’ll get a similarly spirited sequel that retains its style but finds an even fresher approach to the stories it tells.