Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Hound of the Baskervilles (Morrissey 1978)

As Paul Morrissey’s 1978 comic adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles comes to a close, the pianist (Dudley Moore, Arthur) who opened the film and played the score throughout is booed off the stage and pelted with fruit. As Moore leaves the stage, a charming grin crosses his face that almost makes me want to be more positive towards the film. Almost.

On paper, The Hound of the Baskervilles sounds like a sure fire hit: a comic parody of arguably the most famous (and perhaps most filmed) Sherlock Holmes story with the great comic duo of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as Holmes and Dr. Watson respectively, backed by a cast of some of the best British character actors available. The actual film however is major miss fire which, while still providing a number of laughs, seems to have been written with little actual interest in parodying the supposed source material. What we end up with instead is a series of sketches loosely connected by the mystery of a seemingly supernatural dog that prowls the Baskerville estate.

The film begins promisingly enough with an pre-credits sequence involving Holmes and Watson being visited by three nuns desperately wishing to know the whereabouts of a missing relic. The sequence sets a crass tone with a tired, slightly degenerate Holmes and a bafflingly idiotic-yet-enthusiastic Watson displaying little of the class and sophistication of earlier interpretations. Everything is played broad, with Sherlock displaying simplistic logic and Watson no logic at all, but given that this is Peter Cook and Dudley Moore before the 1980s, it is to be expected. More importantly, the material is mostly funny, with Moore and Cook in fine form as they play off of one another.

Things continue to look upward as the main mystery is introduced with Dr. Mortimer (Terry-Thomas) requesting the help of Sherlock, only to be stuck with Watson. Once Watson arrives at the Baskerville estate though, the film begins to go off the rails as the central mystery takes a backseat to scenes that are closer to unfocused sketches, featuring increasing amounts of gross out humour. While Moore and Cook’s involvement was pretty much a guarantee that the film was never going to be aiming for the more sophisticated humour of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), endlessly urinating dogs go a bit too far in the opposite direction. The film bares more than a passing resemblance to the chaotic and scatological humour of Mike Meyer’s Austin Power sequels, and while some of the gags work, more often than not they fall flat.

The resemblance to the mixed bag sequels to Austin Powers is furthered by the film’s increasingly unfocused targets for comedy The film takes a surprisingly lengthy jab at The Exorcist that tries to hard, while a bizarre subplot involving mediums, Sherlock Holmes’ mother, and a Kentucky Fried Chicken joke only work to give the impression that no one involved with the film was particularly familiar with Doyle’s creation. Again, I will be the first to admit some of the jokes work, but in a parody of such rich material, the whole endeavour comes across like a waste. If Moore and Cook were interested in doing a series of gross out gags, why bother with “The Hound of the Baskervilles” at all? An original scenario would have invited less expectations on the part of the audience, and freed the film up to take as many pot shots at other works as Moore and Cook would have liked.

When the film does work however, it works marvellously. While the subplot of Holmes’ time alone in London eventually falls apart, the early sections involving Holmes attempting to relax at a brothel manages to generate a substantial number of laughs. Better yet are some of the film’s visual gags, including Holmes reading a book titled “Guilt Without Sex” and a scene involving the sending of a Morse Code signal. And while Moore’s portrayal of Watson as an idiot Welshman likely borders on being offensive, his interaction with Kenneth Williams’ equally idiotic (and borderline offensive) “young” Henry Baskerville often manages to overcome the obviousness of the material.

The best laugh tied to The Hound of the Baskervilles is not too be found in the film itself however, but in the film’s trailer. Playing off of the traditional trailer hyperbole for an actor’s performance and the manner in which the performers of John Watson historically tend to be ignored, the trailer’s narrator announces that “Peter Cook is unforgettable as Sherlock Holmes! Dudley Moore is forgettable as, um, what’s his name?” It is a gag that shows a keen understanding of the screen history of Holmes and Watson, an understanding that would have been nice in the film proper.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Future Of Horror: Where It Stands and How We Can Change It.

My plan had been too produce enough reviews to last all of October for Halloween, but between real life work needing more attention, and watching a number of non-horror related films, my headspace has been in another place altogether. I still have been enjoying plenty of horror films as of late, and there are three films that I feel I have something to say about, but I honestly feel I need to get my head elsewhere before tackling those reviews.

However, I don’t want to turn my back on horror films just yet, as there is one topic I feel compelled to write about for sure: the state of the modern horror film. It is almost needless to say, but the last decade has been abysmal for the horror genre, thanks to the endless remakes, sequels, and just plain watered-down fare that has been offered to audiences. Yes, a number of at ambitious, interesting and/or legitimately great films were produced between 2000 and 2009, but more often than not these films were buried with small theatrical releases, or simply sent straight to video where they were unlikely to find a wider audience outside of the horror hard-core. Meanwhile, mainstream junk such as the infamous Saw series, which began in 2004 and seems likely to run until doomsday, has been sucking up theatre screens and production funds from more deserving projects.

While the obvious reason for the down spiral of horror films is the eternal quest to maximize box office revenues, less direct reasons have also been offered, from the all too real horror of September 11th, 2001 reducing the power of the horror film to scare an already terrified audience, to cultural shifts in which the monster has become seen as something to be rehabilitated rather than feared. Certainly, both of these arguments have merit, the latter being evidenced by the existence of the God awful Twilight Saga. More dubious arguments have been made for a desensitised audience, though the unsettling (and outright disgusting) premises of A Serbian Film and The Human Centipede do make it hard to dismiss such claims entirely.

If we were to stop here, the immediate future of the horror film would look fairly bleak, with fans trapped between middling fair and films that are little more than journeys into human degradation with little (or no) artistic merit. Frankly, I find either option too bleak for my tastes. While there is little doubt that current trends will likely continue for some time yet, I feel that there is hope on the horizon for our beloved genre, especially if we (both audience members and filmmakers) can galvanize our support behind certain trends and projects currently on the move.

One of horror’s main obstacles of the past few years has been that the genre has been too cheap to produce whilst also being too expensive. While that statement may sound like a contradiction, it really is not. Horror films have always been rather cheap to make, which has allowed a gluttony of horror films to be produced and flood the direct to video selves at your local video stores and big chain retailers. For every Paranormal Activity, there are several gimmicky slasher films that only exist to reinforce the idea that horror is a low aiming, money grabbing genre. One of the most disheartening things I witnessed this Halloween season were just how many recent straight to video slasher films dominated the Halloween bins. While vampires and zombies may be over exposed at the moment, the twisted-serial-killer-with-a-theme monster has gone well beyond being tired. Such films need to cease being supported at both the production and at consumer ends of the spectrum, and higher aiming efforts supported.

Meanwhile, high budget Hollywood productions are tossing way too much money at making the same low budget films into large, glossy productions, a sheen that harms a film more often than it helps. While the low budget equivalents may be purely exploitative and tacky, their low budgets can also often allow for a rough and tumble energy that the big budget films lack. Large CGI spectacles rarely ever scare, and when your casts look like a group of models with perfectly made up hair, many of us cease to believe in the horror universe being attempted. For example, last I checked high school students tend to look like rather awkward kids (which is exactly what they are), not 28 year old underwear models.

Speaking of teenagers, here is another little thing we might want to collectively consider: teenagers are rarely that interesting. Yes, I know most the audience these days is twenty and under, but frankly adults are far more interesting to follow because they have a little something called life experience. Just look at the more successful horror films of the past few years: Paranormal Activity focused on a young couple, while The Last Exorcism dealt with a middle aged man with a family. Both films focus on adults with compelling histories, with adult concerns, concerns which are all the more open for transformation into horror stories. On a more practical level, adult characters simply allow for more experienced actors to take center stage, rather than placing the weight of an entire film on the shoulders of an early twenty-something who is still developing a sense of their craft. Yes, great young actors exist, but be honest, when your cast of characters is mostly made up of teenage characters, it is unlikely that the entire cast is going to be made up of top notch, or even merely adequate, actors.

Lastly, and this one is for Hollywood executives in particular, do not be afraid of the large scale horror film. While I may have earlier called for lowering the spending on low aiming slasher films, there are plenty of horror films in need of a real budget and A-level talent, talent which is ready and waiting to work on such films. Right now, myself and many other horror geeks have our hopes set on Guillermo Del Toro’s adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness, a film that might just be the most ambitious horror film of the past twenty years. Del Toro has been fighting almost single-handedly to raise the bar for horror films, and a project such as this holds the possibility of opening up a whole new era of horror filmmaking if it hits. But it is going to require a level of support that are usually granted to big budget superhero films and other blockbusters.

And it will be up to us as horror fans to make sure that such a risk is justified. If we do not get out and support this kind of ambition, then we can kiss away a bright future for this genre. We need to be smart in what we choose to support, just as we ask studios to be smart with where we spend their money. I believe that we can do, and I hope that you join me in this effort.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

(Ultra) Quick Reviews

Man, Life doesn't always want to cooperate now, does it?

As such, I have to delay the next review AGAIN, but to fill the gap, here are some mini reviews to fill the time.

I Sell the Dead - It is a fun film, with some genre vets to help the proceedings, but the narrative is too predictable, and the structure too loose, allowing the film to drag even with its already short running time.

Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster - Its a giant monster film, and a fun one at that. If you love giant monsters, you'll dig it, if you don't, this won't change your mind.

Halloween II - the original one, not the sequel to the Rob Zombie remake. It is pretty bad, and doesn't make any sense, but there is some fun to be had with an over the top performance from Donald Pleasence.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Update on the Update

Sorry, but review has to be delayed till Tuesday due to real life reasons.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


New review will be up Monday, and one hopefully following on Tuesday if all works out.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Blob (Russell 1988)

Years ago, I watched the original 1958 version of The Blob (Yeaworth), which features Steve McQueen as a teenager in a town where a mysterious alien substance has landed is consuming townsfolk. The film was entertaining, but I did not remember much about it afterwards, a point which has not improved with time.

As such, it is pretty much impossible to make any comparison between the original film and director Chuck Russell’s 1988 remake of The Blob, which was co-written by Russell (The Mask) with Frank Darabont (The Green Mile). I doubt any stronger familiarity would either help or hinder Russell’s film though, because the 1988 version is a straightforward update of the 1950s era B-movies, paying homage to the past with a slicker (and gorier) production typical of the 1980s. The end result is a vapid-but-fun affair that seeks to do nothing more than to find the most inventive ways to see the title substance wipe out town folk and government spooks alike.

As in the original, a mysterious substance lands in a small town, and proceeds to spread across the hand of a homeless man. This event is witness by a group of teenagers, including rebel Brian (Kevin Dillon) and cheerleader Meg (Shawnee Smith) who take the man to a hospital. When the blob starts to move about and graphically consume its victims, the teens are not believed at first by authorities, until a group of government scientists lead by Dr. Meddows (Joe Seneca) arrive to deal with the situation. Meddows knows more than he is telling, and when the truth comes out, it is up to Brian and Meg to save the day.

With a film like The Blob, the degree to which the film works is measurable only by the amount of energy an enthusiasm brought to the film by the filmmakers. Luckily for audiences, Russell and Darabont’s love for classic science fiction horror cinema is on full display in the film as they find a way to bridge the culture gap between the 1950s and 1980s. As with their contemporaries Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Russell and Darabont display a nostalgic love of 1950s America, yet go a step further by injecting a sense of post-Watergate paranoia and cynicism into the film, starting with the titular monster.


Unlike the original film, in which the mysterious substance came from space, the blob here is re-invented as an American biological weapon’s experiment gone wrong, with Dr. Meddows being more than willing to sacrifice the town in order to save their weapon. As such, the film becomes something of a mild commentary on the Cold War arms race, with the reaffirming of community values and commitment coming across as a longing for the mythic simplicity of America’s past, while understanding the need to remain vigilant for possible internal threats. Such longing is of course absurd, as the notion that life was ever simple is betrayed by history, but we are talking about a film with a giant purple substance eating people here. Besides, such political and ideological readings of the film give the impression that the film is more complex than it is.


While the monster may have changed since the 1950s, the reason the audience is watching any version of The Blob has not: the hope of being scared and dazzled by some hopefully solid special effects work. The film thankfully delivers on these fronts, with some clever jump scares and more than enough gory mayhem, from watching a would-be date rapist pay dearly, to a modern reinterpretation of the iconic theatre attack from the original film. The film is a practical effects fans dream, and acts as a reminder about why computer generated effects often lack the distinction and quality of something that can be shot for real.

Russell and Darabont do however remember to give attention to their characters at the same time thankfully. While the film is mostly populated by stock types, the characters are written and cast well enough that they are fleshed out more than is typical of this type of film, from a smarter than average sheriff (Jeffery DeMunn) to Kevin Dillon’s rebel who is more James Dean than Steve McQueen. Also, genre vets Paul McCrane (Robocop), Candy Clark (The Man Who Fell to Earth) and even Bill Moseley (TheTexas Chainsaw Massacre, Part 2) are on hand to give the film a bit of charm.

Of course, none of this changes the fact that The Blob is a completely disposable film, and a minor work for all involved. Moreover, for those seeking a little substance with their horror, the film will fall completely flat and likely leave them annoyed, as a more interesting concept for the never realized sequel is teased at the film’s conclusion. However, for those looking for a fun little horror film, The Blob is worth checking out, particularly given that you will likely find the film for around five dollars. There are worse ways to spend your money.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

House (Miner 1986)

Without question, Steve Miner’s House (1986) is nothing short of being pure fun. There is such a giddy joy to the film, that it is hard not to get sucked into it and have a blast as we watch Roger Cobb (William Katt) struggle with the insanity in his life.

The problem is, I’m not sure the film should really have been a horror comedy.

The premise of House concerns Cobb, a horror writer stuck in a slump, moving back into the possibly haunted house he grew up in after his aunt commits suicide. Cobb however has been having a rough time even outside his writing career: his young son has disappeared without a trace, his actress wife has divorced him in the fallout, and he feels compelled to write about his Vietnam War experience at a time when nobody wants to read about the war. Cobb returns to the house in order to get a productive solitude to work in, but finds that the neighbours are less than helpful in this regard. Well, the neighbours, and the presence that really is haunting the house. Can Cobb figure out why the house is being haunted, or will he be driven beyond madness first?

The story of the film could have made for an interesting and thoughtful horror film, and from the material available about the film’s production, this appears to have been what the original intention was on the part of Fred Dekker, who wrote the original story. For the first fifteen minutes of the film, the audience is lead to believe this is the direction the film is going, with slight moments of black comedy. The rest of the film which follows however heads into outright comedy territory, punctuated by monsters and ghoulish imagery.

Now, I love horror comedies, with Shaun of the Dead is one of my all time favourite films, and I love comedy that is pitch black. However, black comedy and horror comedy both require a particular approach and tone that needs to be carefully walked to work overall. In the case of Shaun of the Dead, as funny as the film is, it is grounded in a very real sense of emotional distress and pain, a distress and pain which gives both the horror and the comedy weight. The ‘Burbs, Joe Dante’s classic that House most closely resembles in tone, is a straight up assault and parody of suburban culture and paranoia. The ’Burbs never asks the viewer to invest in the characters so much as it asks us to recognize the underlining truths buried below the insanity of the characters and situations presented.

The problem with House is that the film never manages to settle on either approach to the material. The film begins by asking us as viewers to invest in the pain of Richard Cobb, pain that is pretty understandable. When we flashback to the disappearance of Cobb’s son, it is played straight and we are allowed to witness the suffering of both Cobb and his wife; when we see Cobb return home to his empty apartment and put up a sad display over the phone to convince his ex-wife he is alright, we feel sympathy, if not empathy, for the man. That Cobb is able to be as grounded and stable as he is given his experiences is astounding, and gives his character a quite sense of heroism that is appealing and perfectly sold by Katt’s performance.

After Cobb moves into the house however, the film increasingly moves away from any sense of emotional grounding. Instead, the film turns into a deranged sitcom, with episodic situations that have hints of horror below the comedy. How else can you describe a scene in which Cobb has baby sitting duties thrust upon him whilst fighting with the dismembered parts of a demon? It is funny and enjoyable, but at the same time, the reality of the earlier portion of the film is missed. By the time the film reaches its climax and the issues of Vietnam and Cobb’s missing child come together, all of the initial emotional investment made by the viewer is long gone, and the answers to Cobb’s problems come all too easy. The film is stuck somewhere between the polar extremes of what it could have been, and in attempting both, the film ends up a diluted and middling experience.

These problems clearly rest on the shoulders of director Miner, who never seems to be able to settle on a tone and style. The material to make the film work is clearly in the script, but Miner’s direction seems to be aping various directors with little rhyme or reason. At one moment, he is evocative of classic Spielberg; at another, Joe Dante, while later still he is suddenly attempting Sam Raimi. Blending different tones together into a unified whole is a tough trick to be pulled off, and while I give Miner credit for trying, it does not change the fact that he ultimately fails.


The element that is perhaps most indicative of Miner’s awkward direction is the miscasting of Richard Moll in the role of Big Ben, the demon and ex-Vietnam platoon member that is haunting Cobb. While Moll’s voice and stature are imposing, his performance here is so over the top that at no point does Ben seem like a credible threat. Even in the Vietnam flashbacks, Moll mugs his way through his scenes, never coming across as anything remotely close to human. As such, when Ben returns as a rotting corpse/spirit/whatever, we never are given a reason to doubt that Cobb will come through.


At the end of the day, I cannot wholeheartedly recommend seeing House, when there are so many more worthwhile horror films to check out. However, I cannot also recommend avoiding the film either, as it has elements that are certainly worth seeing. Consider the film a Saturday afternoon movie: it is not bad if there is nothing else on, but nothing worth staying home for if you have more important (or fun) things to do.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (Montgomery 2010)

(NOTE: this is just a small break from my Halloween Horror set of reviews. The latest review in that series is Bride of Re-Animator which was published yesterday)

For the first fifteen minutes, I thought that the filmmakers of the DC Universe Animated films had finally cracked the problems of their preceding efforts and were going to deliver an unqualified success in Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (Montgomery 2010). Those fifteen minutes are tense, atmospheric and present an interesting setup for a feature film, with the best design work and animation thus far in the series of films. Those fifteen minutes feel epic.

Then the rest of the damn film happens.

Ok, to be fair, the film is pretty epic throughout, the design and animation are the best the series has produced, and Lauren Montgomery’s direction is nothing short of fantastic. But after the first fifteen minutes, a series of massive missteps are made from which the film is unable to recover from, and the end result sets a whole new low for the DC Animated films.

I’m getting ahead of myself though. Superman/Batman: Apocalypse is a direct sequel to Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (Liu 2009), and begins with a meteor crash in Gotham City. Batman (Kevin Conroy) discovers a ship at the heart of the crash, containing Kara (Summer Glau), Superman’s (Tim Daley) cousin. As Kara is suffering from memory loss and lacks control of her powers, she finds herself at the heart of a disagreement between Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman (Susan Eisenberg) over how to best train and protect her. However, things become even more complicated as Darkseid (Adrian Braugher), ruler of the planet Apocalypse, sets his sights on Kara to as the new leader of his army, and proceeds to kidnap her. Will the combined might of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman be enough to rescue Kara, and even if it is, will Kara even wish to be rescued?

So just how does the most promising of the DC films go wrong? As with the grand majority of films, it comes down to the script, provided here by Tab Murphy (Brother Bear, of all things), and the downfall specifically begins with a scene in Metropolis park. The scene in question involves Clark and Kara being attacked by a mysterious group we assume work for Darkseid. As we soon discover after a lengthy and destructive battle though, the attackers belong to Wonder Woman and Batman, who wish to take Kara to Paradise Island have her train amongst the Amazon Warriors.

Now, allow me to try and break down the levels of idiocy in the scene. First, as is clearly indicated in the film, Superman and Wonder Woman have known and worked with each other for years. Given this, one would assume that Wonder Woman would likely TALK TO CLARK about the issue of Kara’s lack of control over her powers, and offer to help Kara by providing training in a safe environment. Instead, we are asked to accept that Wonder Woman and Batman would jump Clark and his cousin, for the purposes of either A) kidnapping Kara or B) making a point of how out of control Kara is by forcing her to cause property damage after being overwhelmed by attackers. The reason I list two options is because the goal of the attack is never made terribly clear, but both options are idiotic and are completely out of character for both Wonder Woman and Batman. This problem is only compounded by the issue of the property damage caused in the attack, which is extensive, pointless, and comes soon after Batman complains about Kara destroying fifty thousand dollars worth of his equipment by accident. So, Batman does not care about any property that isn't his own? Oh, and don't forget that innocent people could have wandered into the park at any time during this fight, and have been injured/killed. Good work Batman and Wonder Woman.

What really makes this scene so unbelievably moronic however is that we discover shortly thereafter that the reason for Wonder Woman and Batman’s concern is that Lyla, a trusted woman on Themyscira, is having visions of what appears to be Kara’s death. So again, I ask this question: WHY ON EARTH DID WONDER WOMAN NOT SIMPLY GO TALK TO SUPERMAN ABOUT THIS? This is not a simple slip up in logic, but rather a completely idiotic scene that does much to damage the characters and the idea of them as heroic leaders amongst the rest of the DC Universe.

The rest of the film follows an equally aggravating pattern of jumping between excellent scenes and concepts to moments of mind numbing stupidity. Here is another wonderful example: after Kara is kidnapped from Themyscira, Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman decide to head to the extremely dangerous Apocalypse in order to confront Darkseid and get Kara back. Now, Wonder Woman is clearly shown to have an army of Amazon Warriors at her beck and call, so I ask, why did they not take at least a small platoon with them to Apocalypse? Given that they are warriors, and that Darkseid’s attack on the island left at least one resident dead, you would think that they would be up for the action, but apparently not. Our how about the likely crippling mental trauma caused by Darkseid’s programming of Kara? At no point does any character even address the possibility that Kara will need help recovering from her mental abuse (and yes, that is exactly what it is).

The film suffers from other writing problems as well, including haphazard and episodic plotting, fake out endings with cheap horror film jump shocks that fail to shock, and repetitious dialogue exchanges about choice and control over ones life. Hell, in the span of roughly seven minutes, we see Darkseid deliver a speech about what Kara’s life could have been with him twice. All I could think of by the time the film was over was how such a shoddy piece of writing made it through with Bruce Timm at the helm as producer. While some of the past films in the series have been below par, there is nothing remotely close to the lapses in basic storytelling logic present here. Even the problematic Superman/Batman: Public Enemies was more or less an issue of simplistic screenwriting rather than outright awful screenwriting.

What makes this all the more infuriating is that there are moments in this film that are so good that you almost want to will yourself to ignore the massive problems with the film as a whole. There are small moments of comedy that are just hysterical, including a scene in which Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman drop by a normal neighbourhood seeking a specific individual's help, and the stunned neighbours do their best to look in on the bizarre sight of the three heroes in a domestic setting. Funnier still is the reactions of Ma and Pa Kent to the state of their farm at the film’s conclusion. And the fight sequences are, hands down, the best ever done in a Bruce Timm produced work. All these bright moments however merely serve to highlight the bafflingly awful storytelling on display in the film.

Without question, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse is the worst film to be produced thus far in the series of DC Animated films, and is utterly discouraging for what we have to look forward to with the adaptations of the acclaimed stories Batman: Year One and All Star Superman. The only, and I do mean ONLY, reason to even consider purchasing the disc is for the DC Showcase: Green Lantern short, which is nothing short of excellent. However, seeing as there is a disc that will collect all the of the DC Showcase shorts soon, it is best to keep it in mind before making that the deciding factor in purchasing Superman/Batman: Apocalypse.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Bride of Re-Animator (Yuzna 1990)

If there is one set of themes that tends to recur in horror films above all others, its sex and sexual orientation. In classic horror films, it often appeared as subtext; in more recent horror, it has often become rather blatant. Just this month, I reviewed Dracula’s Daughter (Hillyer 1936), in which the vampirism of the title character has more than a hint of homoerotic overtones, and I am sure before this month is over I will come upon a few more films in which sex and sexuality will be addressed, be it through metaphor, allegory, and/or direct discussion.
Of course, when it comes to the presence of sexual orientation issues in horror films, more often than not the films tend to be regressive and conservative in their presentations and explorations. Yes, there are plenty of films that are more progressive in discussing (an exploiting) sexuality, and the complex processes of viewer reception and identification provide a multitude of readings of even the most regressive of these films. I still believe however that it is more than fair to say that many horror films tend to try and reinforce the simplistic and wrongheaded notion of “homosexuality bad, heterosexuality good…and normal!” So thank God for the flawed-but-compelling Bride of Re-Animator (1990), Brian Yuzna’s straight to video sequel to Stuart Gordon’s 1985 classic Re-Animator. As the title indicates, Bride of Re-Animator riffs on the themes and concepts of the playful and complex Bride of Frankenstein (Whale 1935), a film which itself expanded and subverted the themes and concepts presented in its famed predecessor. In Bride of Re-Animator, Yuzna has crafted a film in which presents almost all forms of sexuality as confused, dangerous, and destructive, with the “salvation“ from these destructive relationships and impulsive coming from an unlikely source. Oh, and the film is a darkly funny and fun blast as well.
Bride of Re-Animator picks up months after the events of the original film, with Dr. Herbert West (Jeffery Combs) and Dr. Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) making the most out of the dead bodies piling up in a Peruvian civil war. Forced back the city of Arkham in the United States as the war becomes too dangerous for them, they resume acting as Doctors at the Miskatonic University. West’s obsession with reanimating dead tissue takes on a new dimension when he decides that he can make a new life out of separate body parts, and to ensure Cain’s assistance in this new endeavour, West proposes a particular project for them to work on: creating a woman out of the heart of Dean’s lost love Meg. Things become tricky for West and Cain however as a police Lieutenant (Claude Earl Jones) intrudes in on their lives, a friend from Peru, Francesca (Fabiana Udenio, of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery [1997] fame) shows up to romance Cain, and Dr. Graves (Mel Stewart) discovers a jar of the regenerate fluid, as well as the head of Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale).
The key to the film’s exploration of sexuality is the character of Dan Cain, whose romantic desires are, to say the least, confused. Dan in this film is defined by three key relationships, first and foremost among them his lost love Meg, who died in the previous film. For Dan, his love of Meg is an obsession with death itself, and when the notion of creating a woman out of the parts of others arises, his obsession takes on a further dimension of necrophilia. Heterosexual relationships thus become tied with death, and it is no coincidence that it is Dan’s desires that lead to most of the death and destruction in the film. This destructive side of heterosexuality is further supported in the “relationship” between Lt. Chapham and his re-animated wife, who spend most of the film attempting to kill one another (Chapham had already killed his wife in events preceding the film). This rebuilding of Meg thus becomes the crux of the relationship between Cain and West, and the attempt to create new life in the absence of women gives this relationship shades of a homosexuality (I say shades, because West has a distinctly asexual streak to him as well, though I shall get into that further on). When Dan early on tries to break off his work with West and leave their home, the scene is shot and performed in a manner evocative of quarrelling lovers, raging at each other one moment and speaking tenderly another about creating a new life. Granted, its new life being built out of dead body parts, but the point stands. Even their living arraignment, a home for the two of them out in the cemetery away from the rest of civilization, carries a hint of romantic domesticity about it.
Chief among these overtones of a coded homosexual relationship between the duo is West’s reactions to Dan’s third key relationship, that with Francesca, the most clearly romantic and explicitly sexual. From the start of the film till its conclusion, West is alternatively dismissive of Francesca and threatened by the risk she posses towards his relationship with Dan, a feeling that is mutual on Francesca’s part. The rivalry between the two is some of the film’s strongest material, allowing West to get in more than a few excellent deadpan one-liners (“Think with the big head Dan, not the little one.”), as well as underscoring the homoerotic subtext of West and Cain‘s relationship. While the narrative structure of the film is typical of the genre and somewhat predictable, the film plays with the audience’s expectations as to what the cause of the horror, and our salvation from said horror, lies. In turn, the film’s examination of sexuality becomes increasingly surprising and sophisticated. While the film is structured around Dan’s need to resolve his conflicting desires, this confusion becomes the instigator of the film’s horror. In turn, Dr. West becomes the source of security and stability in the face of this horror. Yes, West is obsessive, his work dangerous, and he engages in more than a little manipulation to achieve his ends, but that does not change the fact that he is the most rational and proactive character in the film. Consider: Dan is an emotional mess in the film, and it is his confusion and selfish obsession with reversing Meg’s death which places Francesca in danger. Similarly, when a cancer patient similar physically to Meg dies, Dan is too busy explaining how he see’s Meg in this woman to notice she is dieing, and makes the situation worse when he botches cutting into her chest in order to try and save her life. Chapham furthers this point as we at first meant to feel some sympathy for him given his wife’s state as a re-animated corpse, until West points out that Chapham himself killed his wife through physical abuse (leading to perhaps my favourite line of the entire film: “Dan, he’s a wife beater! Use the gun!”). As such, Dan’s claims that West is more interested in seeking out fresh meat for his experiments rather than helping patients ring hollow, particularly when we are shown evidence that directly contradicts Dan’s beliefs. When a soldier dies at the film’s beginning, West actually shows frustration at the man’s death when Dan is clearly not looking, before he decides to test his regeneration fluid on the man. Not too long after, West risks his own wellbeing to save Dan’s life, and later on still, West continues to work on saving a patient’s life after Dan’s crippled emotional state leads to her death. The worst thing that can be said of West is that he is a cold pragmatist after the fact. Given this, West and his clinical views about life and death are less horrific than the alternatives presented in the film, and from here, the film can be read as a subversive attack upon supposedly normative heterosexual relationships by revealing, in a coded manner, the destructive side of heterosexuality. However, I’m not certain that this is entirely the case, as the idea of West as being a coded homosexual does not entirely hold up. To begin with, while Dan supposedly is working with West to further the work, we are most often presented with West working alone while Dan is off doing just about everything and anything else. When the Bride of the title comes to life, and looks at Dan as its creator, West repeatedly rejects the notion of anyone else save himself as the creator, a point that is hard to argue given what we witness onscreen. If West can be read as anything, it is as asexual, with asexuality as being upheld as an ideal and infinitely less destructive form of reproduction, free of the emotional trappings of any other form of sexuality. Of course, you have probably just read everything and are asking one question, and one question alone: is the film any good? To that, I give a resounding yes, though the film does suffer from some flaws. The film is an energetic piece that occasionally oversteps its available resources as a low budget sequel, but shows great confidence in its quest to entertain. Brian Yuzna provides a solid hand as director this time out, perfectly balancing the tone of the film as a whole and giving his actors room to take center stage. Stylistically, Yuzna too often attempts to imitate his predecessor Gordon rather than attempting to imprint his own stamp on the proceedings, though this attempt at consistency with the first film is appreciated.
Given that it is a Re-Animator film, questions inevitably turn to the effects, and I am pleased to say that they work for the most part, offering some inventive stop motion work and all the gore expected of the film. Occasionally, the low budget roots do show through, from the awful flying head effect for Dr. Hill at the film’s conclusion, to the inability to even show an onscreen shooting, with a sound effect substituting for the absent practical effect. Given the low budget of the film and how much is achieved onscreen for such little money though, it is hard to fault the filmmakers for such minor flaws. The film’s greatest strength though, as it was in the first film, is Jeffery Combs as Herbert West, as he walks the fine line between deadpan seriousness and melodrama. Given the meatiest material to work with, Combs gives this role nothing less than his all, and continues to make West not only one of the most beloved horror cinema icons, but the best mad scientist character of the past thirty years. Even as other components of the film occasional failing to work as they should, Combs is always on hand to deliver another magnificently over-the-top speech or contemptuous smack down on those around him. The rest of casts’ work ranges in quality. Bruce Abbott is fine as Dan Cain, though his shifts between Dan’s different mental states are occasionally clunky and reveal his limitations as an actor, while the returning David Gale is wasted in the film, as Carl Hill really has little to do overall until the final third of the film. Fabiana Udenio is honestly given nothing to do except be shocked at what happens around her and provide gratuitous nudity, and Mel Stewart does the best he can as a plot device. Still, Bride of Re-Animator is a more than worthy sequel to the classic original, offering more than enough fun, horror and intellectual meat for film lovers despite its flaws. Will the third film, Beyond Re-Animator (Yuzna 2003) carry on this level of quality? We shall soon see.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Tempest Trailer

This. Looks. Awesome.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Burke and Hare trailer

Yeah, I am looking forward to this.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Graveyard Shift (Singleton 1990)

Before I embarked on this review of the film The Graveyard Shift (Singleton 1990), I decided to go back and reread the Stephen King short story upon which the film is based. The story of the same name is featured in King’s compilation of short stories titled Night Shift, and was originally published by itself in 1970, long before King hit the big time and became not just a famous writer, but a brand of horror.

The short story is not one of King’s better works, though considered in the context of the early years of his career, it does offer insight into how he has developed as a writer. The story is focused on the tension between a drifter named Hall and the foreman at a textile mill where Hall is currently employed. Over the course of a few days working the graveyard shift as part of a clean up crew, the tensions build into a murderous rage which explodes in a mysterious subbasement where rats have not only been breeding, but have mutated into hideous, man-eating monsters.

The story is slight in plot, character, and thematic complexity, but King’s distinctive voice is in full force in the story, as he blends Edgar Allen Poe style horror with the pulpier fare of the classic EC comics. As such, “The Graveyard Shift” might have worked as a short film, and would have been right at home as part of a Creepshow sequel. As the basis for a feature film however, it is hard to see what could be done to stretch the material beyond the twenty minute mark. That Ralph S. Singleton’s film works at all is a miracle, but is doesn’t change the fact that the finished film is a failure overall, never finding an strong enough approach to adapt the material for feature length.

As in the short story the film is based on, the film focuses on a drifter named Hall (David Andrews, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines [2003]), who arrives in a town where the only work to be found is at the local textile mill owned by Warwick (Stephen Macht, whose credits mostly seem to be from television), a greedy and corrupt man who has no problems with extorting labour and other favours out of his employees. While Hall strikes up a romance with his co-worker Jane (Kelly Wolf, Less Than Zero [1987]) and makes enemies with other locals, Warwick is faced with the threat of his mill being shut down due to various building and health code violations. Bribing his way into getting extra time to clean the place up, Warwick drafts Hall and Jane into the graveyard shift clean up crew. As tensions heighten amongst the crew, people start to disappear and a mysterious subbasement is discovered. Does the subbasement have anything to do with the mill’s massive rat population? Only a trip down holds the answers.

While the film takes the general premise of the short story, it abandons the short story’s focus upon the mental state of Hill and his murderous rage against Warwick. The relationship between the two this time out is more clean cut: Hill is decent average-Joe here, while Warwick has been transformed from an inept boss who likes to lord his limited power over people into a cartoon-ish villain, openly and knowingly playing God with people’s lives through running the town's only source of employment. In place of this missing psychological thrust, the film instead chooses to reflect on the recession era America it was produced in (which does allow the film to feel oddly timely with the current recession), with the presence of the rats scourging for scraps mirroring the desperation of the town folk in need of work, and their willingness to do whatever it takes to even just get a scrap.

It is this sense of working class desperation and impoverishment that the film captures perfectly, at least in the production design and photography. The town in this film is a decaying rural hell, mixing dilapidated industrial structures with just enough gothic elements without going overboard. The film is successful enough in creating its impoverished world that by the time the monster bats and rats come out to play, their existence seems almost natural.

Unfortunately, the production design and photography is about all that works in the film. With our characters reduced to stock types of hero/villain/hero’s girlfriend/etc., it is natural to assume the filmmakers would be to amp up the man vs. monster rat action. The film though is structured like a slow burn horror film, focused on character and punctuated with moments of jump scares. The problem is that there is nothing to burn here: we know the direction the film is heading from the moment it begins, and in the absence of well rounded characters, the film feels padded as it delays the inevitable (or, more precisely, the predictable), with repetitive scenes and odd tangents that go nowhere.

Take the character of Tucker Cleveland, the exterminator who we see working on the rat problem in the mill. As played by sci-fi and horror genre veteran actor Brad Dourif (Dune [1984]; Heaven’s Gate [1980]), the character is bizarre creation with no basis in King’s story, rambling on about Vietnam and the pleasures of his job. The character is one of the most entertaining elements in the film, but at the same time, one that is indicative of the film’s problems: he does not really have much of a place in the film. He adds nothing to the narrative, and if his scenes were deleted, they would have no impact upon the finished film. I love a good tangent, and as it stands, I am happy that these scenes are in the film,as Dourif is always a joy to watch, but the character is a clear indicator for the amount of padding included in the finished film.

The film’s best weapon in combating boredom however is Stephen Macht, who in his villainous role decides to chew as much scenery as possible. As noted, the character isn’t even remotely close to being anything more than a caricature of an evil boss, but Macht clearly enjoys every sleazy moment he is given to play, especially when his character (SPOILERS) is allowed to go completely crazy at the film’s conclusion. (END SPOILERS) Part of this enjoyment comes simply from the fact that Hall by contrast is such a blank slate of a lead character, which is in no way the fault of actor David Andrews, who gives a fine performance. The material Andrews is given is simply limited, and it is hard to imagine any actor being able to make anything out of the character. Fairing even worse is Kelly Wolf, who has absolutely nothing to do throughout the whole film.

Most disappointing however is the film’s climax in the subbasement, as the characters start to behave irrationally, and the final confrontation with our monstrous bat/rat thing is given the short end of the stick after an entire film’s builds up. The direction is haphazard and the sequence is poorly edited, undermining any possible tension and ending the film on a somewhat sour note. I understand trying to keep a monster in the shadows, but when your film is about a giant mutant bat/rat, then the expectation is that the audience will see it head on at least once. As it stands, the limited presence of the monster seems to be motivated by a lack of adequate special effects rather than any artistic reason.

While Graveyard Shift is a disappointment and should not be at the top of anyone’s Halloween viewing list, the film does hold a small amount of charm and some treats for horror film fans, including an early performance from Andrew Divoff of Wishmaster (1997) fame. Furthermore, it can at least be said that it is not the worst film ever produced based on a Stephen King work, and for those who make it to the end of the film, the closing credit’s music is cool and catchy. If you are holding a marathon of films based on the works of Stephen King, you could do worse than slapping Graveyard Shift in the middle of the pack. Just don't kick off or end the marathon with the film.