29 September 2013

Classic 80s Horrors!

Classic 80s Scares!
By Kristin Battestella

From bloody action and slashers to creatures, ghosts, and creepy crawlies, here’s a list of some classic, eighties, scary fair we love!


House – I like this 1986 haunted house story starring William Katt (Carrie) and George Wendt (Cheers). Though cliché, the inheriting an old house from the recently deceased and staying there to get some writing done start is quite creepy – as is the sweet, sweet, tense Victorian house itself. The eighties nostalgia, fashions, classic music, and some scary sarcasm work wonderfully as well. Unfortunately, the turn towards comedic attempts and playing the fat zombies in lipstick and pearls and the undead soldiers for the camp misses more than it hits. The Vietnam flashbacks should be far more sinister and traumatizing, but the jungle scenes just look poorly done and are played too hammy. Add divorce and child loss into the stress and instability and the comedy comes off as not just inappropriate, but a waste compared to the opening makings of a truly scary tale. Why go with the evil, quipping monsters before the unexplained house history anyway? One must let go of what this film could have been in order to enjoy it, for the finale is, well, inexplicable. Does our demon fighting horror author get a dang book out of his ordeal or what? It’s definitely flawed, but some charming fun and scares keep this one memorable. Besides, I’d live in that house, beasties and all! 

Predator – Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Terminator), Carl Weathers (Rocky), Jessie Ventura (Demolition Man), and Bill Duke (Commando) lead this 1987 multi genre gunfire and scare fest from director John McTiernan (Die Hard). The plot maybe standard, sure – guerillas and post-Vietnam badasses shooting up an equally badass alien in the jungle – and some of the effects shots might not look good to fancy CGI viewers today. The dialogue will be wooden and the quips hammy to some audiences as well, yet this is still a darn entertaining, intense action thriller. Most of the titular effects and infrared designs by Stan Winston (more on him in a moment!) are dang impressive and more than effective in Kevin Peter Hall’s (Harry and the Hendersons) scary reveals and shock scenes. The Mexican jungle locations look wet, hot, and dangerous, and the multi cultural cast has the build, chemistry, and Spanish speaking flair needed. This one may start out as a straightforward action, sarcasm, and divided team with lots of firepower tale, but one by one, the plot turns into procedural horror action with a fun, mano y mano finale. Yes, the Predator legacy is a little tainted by the stinky sequels and crossovers, but this original remains solid for a rip roaring boys night. Besides, where else can you see two Governors in one movie?

Pumpkinhead – Lance Henriksen (Near Dark) stars in this delightful 1988 backwoods tale full of deepening vengeance and deadly mayhem.  Late Oscar winning creature master Stan Winston (Terminator 2, Jurassic Park) directs this taut, sorrowful thriller beautifully while fellow effects designer and performer Tom Woodruff handles the gruesome titular monster. Understandably, this does make the monster look slightly Alien in stature, but the mystical resurrection and freaky pursuits remain solid thanks to the familial revenge and action torment from Henriksen. Awesome as his design work is, why didn’t Winston direct more? Sweet a character cult favorite as he is, why wasn’t Henriksen a leading man more? His predicament is instantly relatable for parents – how far would you go? Pumpkinhead does what the vengeful aren’t capable of doing, but his deeds consume them nonetheless. Perhaps the shocks, thrills, or gore here aren’t super scary, but these ends justifying the means questions are scary concepts in themselves. Yes, there’s no law enforcement, some redneck dialogue is frustrating, and the middle of nowhere witchery may be too much for viewers wanting more polish. Fortunately, there’s atmospheric red lighting and nighttime photography, and the largely outdoor happenings are perfectly dirty, dusty, and desperate – matching the very effective personal scares, dementedness, and questions on right and wrong perfectly.

Sleepaway Camp – The woefully laughable acting in this 1983 coming of age slasher is so bad it’s good, and intentional or not, the nostalgic delights keep on coming – from short shorts and cropped shirts, homoerotic innuendos, and camp abuses to twisted point of view killings, foul-mouthed humor, and the expected youth shenanigans. Yes, there may be too little blood and gore. Without subtitles, it’s often tough to tell who is who amid the capture the flag competitions and mean girls bitchiness beyond the bad acted front and center folks. A sharper script would have clarified the back-story and not left the plot hanging on the twists and kickers, too – for the history, trauma, and catalysts will definitely be at best confusing or at worst unexplained to modern, spoon-fed viewers. Franchise creator Robert Hiltzik perhaps wears too many hats in directing a serious slice and dice picture mixed with near parody humor writing, and potential statements on mind, body, society, and possibly homophobia are hampered by the quick but no less shocking finale.  Which of the traumas actually puts the killer over the top? The severity and escalation scale of the crimes is also uneven – a potential molester is badly burned while a water bomb thrower is stung to death. Fortunately, the bad scene chewing keeps these sexual topics, dirty old men implications, nasty cooks, and unseen suggestions surprisingly light. We don’t blame the killer for doing in this lot, and it is fun to spot the clues and avoid the red herrings in solving the murder mystery. Both wise audiences and retro fans can enjoy the thinking person’s movie potential and bemusing eighties shockers here.

And One Skipper

Ghoulies – We knew nothing of this 1985 camp meets occult 80 minutes upon our initial viewing, and we barely finished this so called horror comedy replete with bad acting college coeds such as the debuting Mariska Hargitay (Law and Order: Special Victims Unit). The viewer is erroneously built up with scary ambiance, ancestral demon resurrecting, and a nostalgic mood and atmosphere, but somehow, one too many fire and brimstone scenes after another turn into a Gremlins meets the lizard baby from V with little people and nonsensical rituals. We’re not laughing with the titular, snarling, slimy puppetry, we’re laughing at them.  Proper comedy horror films make the audience feel comfortable in the sarcasm, quirky normalcy, and sprinkles of humor and then spring the whiff of scary, mood, and fears, ala The ‘burbs or Beetlejuice. Here, when it’s the other way around, the audience feels confused, cheapened, and can’t wait for it to end. Some may desire this ‘stoned to enjoy’ viewing, but the PG-13 rating, whimsical music, and ridiculously slow pace just falls totally flat. What was wrong with doing a straight dark descend into invocation and incantation? In the end, they pull out the evil chicks with deadly tongues standard scares anyway. I don’t get what they were trying to do here at all, and I can’t believe they made more of these films. Sorry!

24 September 2013

Night of Dark Shadows

Lost Footage Hurts the Otherwise Pleasant Night of Dark Shadows
By Kristin Battestella

This 1971 second film follow up to Dan Curtis’s 66-71 gothic soap opera Dark Shadows mixed the series’ later day storylines for the big screen with plenty of mood and gothic panache. Unscrupulous studio enforced editing, however, leaves confusion and a lack of polish to hamper Night of Dark Shadows.

Artist Quentin Collins (David Selby) and his new wife Tracy (Kate Jackson) arrive at his family estate Collinwood, where soon Quentin begins having dreams and visions of his ancestor Charles Collins. Charles was having an affair with his brother Gabriel’s (Christopher Pennock) wife Angelique (Lara Parker), who was tried as a witch about 150 years before Quentin’s time. Housekeeper Carlotta (Grayson Hall) and handyman Gerard Stiles (James Storm) know more about this history than they are saying, but neighbors Alex (John Karlen) and Claire (Nancy Barrett) Jenkins don’t know how to help as Quentin grows more and more obsessed with the past. Is he reliving the previous scandals as a reincarnation of his ancestor? Will the same murders and executions repeat themselves, or can this haunting and possession be defeated?

Less jammed pack than their predecessors in House of Dark Shadows, the later, secondary cast from the series does a fine job playing some familiar but mostly new roles here. Without the expected Collins-Stoddards, vampires, or Barnabas players and plots, Night of Dark Shadows director Dan Curtis and writer Sam Hall bring forth some of the often unseen storylines from the show’s final years. While this absence may be off putting to some Dark Shadows fans, it’s nice for new viewers to see that there was more to the show beyond Barnabas. Fun Rebecca references, and a pleasant, normal couple in a haunted house feeling also make Night of Dark Shadows a fine bridge to and from the series for fans of traditional seventies horror. The filmmaking is a little dark, but that fits this mood and the askew, cramped camera style. These production values may look old and low budget now, but the design is a step up from the infamous Dark Shadows sets falling over, same day tape mistakes, and small television style. The crazy period flashbacks and dreams may seem out of place, but this dreary, macabre bend matches the show, and well done car chases and a few scary intense sequences keep Night of Dark Shadows brooding as she goes and make for an entertaining finish. While the repetitive, drawn out soap style simply would not work for the cinema, Night of Dark Shadows is well paced – if Dark Shadows had to retire the Barnabas storyline and move on, this was the right, fresh step in a nice little ghost story direction.

But hold your excitement! Night of Dark Shadows may finally be available on DVD, but this is the 94 minute edited version rather than Dan Curtis’ full 129 minute vision. Those lovely, silent dream sequences become confusing by default in this reduced edition simply because the missing bridge scenes, clarifications, and character development are so apparent. Maybe two hours plus would have been too long for a gothic soap opera adaptation, but a few more scenes of explanation would have polished Night of Dark Shadows completely. Instead, several now cliché horror tropes like killer greenhouses and scary swimming pools seem unnecessary. Though authentic in tone thanks to the gothic locales and good old-fashioned witch-hunts, Night of Dark Shadows isn’t quite a horror movie. House of Dark Shadows took its freedom from the safe TV format and ran with the blood and vampire gore, but Night of Dark Shadows stays free of anything saucy or gruesome. It’s refreshing that the solid atmosphere, slow build of past and present, and the inherent sense of danger are given time over the shock values – unlike today. Who will win out – the past recreating itself or the here and now? Night of Dark Shadows uses frightening muted sounds and silent screams – unlike the often and loud screams and shockers of the series – and I’m surprised this what you don’t see, easy on the ears technique isn’t used more. The viewer’s mind imagines how we might sound in terror, personalizing the twists, turns, and cinematic flair.

He sounds a little different and has some weird hair, but David Selby (Falcon Crest) is in wicked form as this edition of his perennial Quentin Collins. Although his appearances in the flashbacks and dream sequences as his ancestor Charles Collins are confusing, granted, this is again thanks to the missing or unclarified answers for those memories and dreams. The past time period itself is never officially dated, and the ghosts appear to be both in Quentin’s mind and real to others. Is it really reincarnation or something else? These questions hurt the character motivations, but Selby works the going crazy as a worthwhile lead. As this something or other possessed or reincarnated something, Quentin becomes very angry, scary, and his physical appearance eerily changes in a Jekyll and Hyde style. Though they have some nice romantic scenes together, Kate Jackson (Scarecrow and Mrs. King) doesn’t seem to appear enough as Quentin’s wife Tracy. She looks really young, out of place, and unrefined but this is probably that Rebecca vibe again. Tracy investigates where she shouldn’t, creating pleasantly suspicious and angry moments, yet she inexplicably remains thru some serious violence. People in horror movies never leave when they have the chance! Lara Parker, by contrast, is ever enchanting with her wispy white gowns, witchiness, and scandals as this latest incarnation of Angelique Collins. The paintings of her are as haunting as she is, and it’s easy to see why Quentin would be captivated by her spectre over the cold and plain Tracy. Of course, the character wither tos and why fors are confusing – since when did a witch having an affair become hanging proof of said craft? Cough thanks missing footage not cough.

Longtime Dark Shadows players Nancy Barrett and John Karlen also suffer character inexplicability in this truncated Night of Dark Shadows. While Barrett looks really fresh faced and colorful compared to an often drab regular series style and Karlen has fine moments of action and intelligence, we never really learn who Alex and Claire Jenkins are and why they are at Collinwood. They are novelists and friends of Quentin, is that all? Alex maybe witnesses Angelique’s ghost and Claire serves tea. They go to New York and confusingly see and learn enough about the Collins’ past to be worried and insist Quentin and Tracy flee the estate. So, somehow the Jenkins have no purpose and all the critical plot points at the same time? Their role in Night of Dark Shadows may be most confusing of all – if not for Grayson Hall’s perfectly creepy housekeeper Carlotta Drake. Her keeping the spirit alive and reincarnation talk comes too few and far between because of those deleted scenes, and while such talk is believable nay even expected by regular Dark Shadows fans, this meta physical crutch is too big a leap for film audiences. Hall is wonderfully mysterious in what she does and doesn’t share about Collinwood’s history and has some weird game with that spooky tower, but she has no room to be as Mrs. Danvers nasty a maid as she could be – like her 1970 Parallel Time Hoffman character on the series.

I really like the lesser seen James Storm and his Gerard Stiles scares in the 1840 Dark Shadows storyline, but his modern Gerard Stiles looks a little out of place in Night of Dark Shadows ­– not to mention that he disappears for half the film. Despite his best menacing henchman caretaker spin, we don’t see him enough to understand why he’s battling Quentin and threatening the ladies. Christopher Pennock also appears too briefly in the hazy dreams and flashbacks as Charles Collins’ brother and Angelique’s wronged husband Gabriel, yet he’s still so over the top. Thayer David also has a mini good time as the witch hunting Reverend Strack, but surprise, surprise, he and Clarice Blackburn are little more than cameos. There’s no room for Phoenix talk in Night of Dark Shadows, either, but Diana Millay does get to mention the word fire as Charles’ scorned wife Laura Collins, just for good measure. She looks very young and beautiful instead of being so overly made up on the soap proper, and all the costumes from the empire waste gowns to cozy oversized seventies sweaters look great. Dark Shadows composer Robert Cobert’s themes accentuate the horses, superb grounds, abandoned places, and stunning Lyndhurst Castle locales.  If you can go to the Sleepy Hollow filming locations, I highly recommend it!

Unfortunately, not only does Night of Dark Shadows suffer from its original forced editing crisis, but this new video release is decidedly cruel to those expecting any restoration love and may actually anger longtime fans. The volume and voices are low, with music cues out of place thanks to that missing footage job. Subtitles are a must, but the only other feature on the DVD is a vintage trailer. The menu interface is awkward, too, dated, and, well, nineties or something. Yes, it would be expensive and difficult to reinstated the recently found but without sound lost footage. One with some Dark Shadows passion, however, would find a way to make voiceovers, theme music, and cast re-records work. Vocal clips from the late Grayson Hall can’t be accrued from almost 500 appearances on Dark Shadows?  It’s nice to see Night of Dark Shadows made available, but this release feels lazy, a bottom of the barrel appeasement for fans – way to slight the audience you are directly targeting for your video sales! Regardless of its condition or expense, the excised content should have been included on the video release. Night of Dark Shadows is a good gothic and moody little film – it just needs polish or a kick it up a notch edge – which that cropped material most likely delivers. Viewers will certainly look at this and think they skipped an explanation or wonder if there is a video jump, mistake, or missing scene – the lost material is that obvious in some sequences.

Can you imagine how cool it would have been if more                 of Dark Shadows films had been made? There are a lot of neat possibilities in the titles alone. I dare say if one really wants to bring Dark Shadows to the big screen – %#@$ that Tim Burton shit – they should remake this Night of Dark Shadows script in its entirety. From the Cobert music and Lyndhurst setting to original cast cameos and an unmistakably R rating, the original “My name is Victoria Winters…” mysterious tone and paranormal gothic style of the series is all here. I’ll even give a pass for a cut theatrical release – so long as there is a dang extended edition! Flaws and all, Night of Dark Shadows is not a bad little film for its million dollar budget. Unlike House of Dark Shadows’ cinematic consolidation of the vampire storylines – meant for fans of the show or bloody horror audiences – this is actually a good starter piece for gothic ghost tale lovers curious about Dark Shadows beyond the Barnabas plots.  Wise audiences will be able to see the editing errors, and understandably, some fans of the series may disown this botched work. However, once forgiven for its apparently ongoing lack of studio love, Night of Dark Shadows is an entertaining and spooky good time.

20 September 2013

Butterfly on a Wheel

Butterfly on a Wheel is Too Mixed Bag
By Kristin Battestella

Perfect couple Abby (Maria Bello) and Neil (Gerard Butler) Randall are on their way to a weekend retreat at his boss’ cabin in hopes of a promotion for Neil. Unfortunately, the meticulously calculating Tom (Pierce Brosnan) hijacks their SUV along the way. He has Abby and Neil’s daughter Sophie (Emma Karwandy, The Dead Zone) abducted and insists the only way for the couple to get their daughter back is to do everything he asks for the next 24 hours. From mundane errands to theft, Abby and Neil’s desperations and crimes increase quickly and result in deadly consequences.

Stateside this 2007 family thriller was unimaginatively re-billed Shattered – we get how their world has crumbled, thanks. However, this humdrum, common title is actually more indicative of how basic director Mike Barker (To Kill a King) and writer William Morrissey’s (The Entitled) interwoven plot and stock characters actually are. Spoilers, our happy couple isn’t perfect after all, and Butterfly on a Wheel takes too many stupid misdirections to prove it. This isn’t anything viewers haven’t seen before – we see it a lot, truly – yet the path here grows increasingly preposterous only to bottom out in the end. Yes, that is the point of the original Butterfly on a Wheel name and source, but the viewer has no reason to care why this man is making this couple do these elaborately mundane tasks, and by the end, there might even be a little audience anger or resentment. Oh, was that all? We want the explanations to be bigger than they are. Kidnapping, forced motivations, deception, and betrayal are all certainly relatable topics, yet somehow the terrorizations feel so hollow. Are we not meant to be scared by these real world dangers? The focus on the crazy, calculated randomness cheapens the what could have been complexity here.

Fortunately, producer and ex-James Bond Pierce Brosnan keeps Butterfly on a Wheel mildly interesting. We’re just not used to seeing his suave, often classy, and besuited self so five o’clock shadow and dicey with a slightly scary introduction – one may even initially suspect that Brosnan’s and Gerard Butler’s roles should have been reversed.  His full Irish lilt is toned down and Tom’s creepy nature is surprisingly good, but his threats simply aren’t that apparent. More viewers will probably get choked up at his burning of the Randall’s money than when he cuts off phone calls to their kidnapped daughter. We don’t see the child, babysitter, or other accomplices and modes of operation, so the elaborateness of his plan isn’t fully felt. I dare say the child plot points could have been removed, as they are ironically a non-factor instead of the core of Butterfly on a Wheel.  Wonderful subtle moments from Brosnan, however, do keep some sinister alive. It’s very disturbing when he lights a cigarette and goes right on talking after he crashes a car as if nothing major had happened. Granted, it’s tough to take Pierce Brosnan as full on, seriously evil, but Tom has nothing to lose, and such desperation can be frightening or strangely understandable today.  As Butterfly on a Wheel unfolds, you almost don’t blame him for what he does.  Of course, part of his back-story isn’t what it seems or will be obvious to some audiences. Tom’s quest could have been achieved with a lot simpler betrayals, and whatever control he thinks he has, isn’t really about him at all. Butterfly on a Wheel tries to be coy on these secrets, but the back talking script should have been streamlined or left to allow Brosnan free reign on this potentially intriguing turn.

Our sappy couple is also written as so damn perfect that it is sick and obviously too good to be true – not the best foundation to open Butterfly on a Wheel. It feels like Maria Bello did a lot of these scary thriller types ala A History of Violence post ER, and the plain, simple wife role doesn’t suit her. Abby dresses kind of ugly, and of course, her life is meant to be fulfilled by a baby and a photography hobby turned business in typical Hollywood cliché. Yet somehow, little wife Abby almost immediately changes into the tough talking, pants wearing half of our couple once her daughter’s life is at stake. On one hand, this is understandable for any mother, certainly. However, the sudden character change is too unbelievable, and it’s evident that her weapon in this escapade will be something sexual – in this case a striptease. Wise viewers will predict her character arc completely, and once Abby is resorted to her feminine wiles, she sort of disappears from Butterfly on a Wheel before the finale. Ironically, she becomes sympathetic by default in this absence before the over long, soap opera twist and supposedly kicker conclusion undoes the character completely.

Even sans my preferred bearded style, Gerard Butler (300) thankfully looks good with dark hair and a nice accent for Butterfly on a Wheel. Of course, the barely there glasses are meant to show the audience he’s all business without having us loose focus on those beautiful eyes, and Neil is all good looking and he knows it vanity to start. He’s the perfect salesmen and doesn’t sweat the competition until he unexpectedly looses his cool once Tom enters his life. Butterfly on a Wheel opens with so much time spent on establishing the couple as is, and again, the role reversal almost comes too easy. Suddenly Neil is revealing limp fish true colors, completely emasculated, and afraid of heights. If it is this easy to ruin this guy, then all the effort Tom goes thru is really unnecessary, isn’t it? We don’t even know what Neil did to be the focus of Tom’s plan anyway – a smart viewer can suspect, but we don’t care enough about the character thanks to all these switcharoos. There are numerous opportunities for Neil to do something about Tom, but he strangely becomes a stupid, not fully thought out character who falls into too many easy chances. His lack of police help also becomes weak plot points, as does his own love and mixed motivations for his daughter. With all the lies and assholeness littering Butterfly on a Wheel, the audience doesn’t really know what to believe and by the end doesn’t much care so long as Butler is pretty to look at throughout. 

Though mostly of television extraction, full potential also isn’t given to the fine supporting cast, including BFF Samantha Ferris (The 4400, who I never realized looks so much like Leah Remini!), competitive co-worker Nicholas Lea (The X-Files), and surprisingly Desiree Zurowski (Charlie St. Cloud) as babysitter Helen. The saucy twists for secretary Claudette Mink (Kingdom Hospital) are expected, but her plots come across as asinine rather than bringing any layering or realism. Her Judy is so nice to Abby’s face, but her reasons for the bitchiness are never realized – ultimately, her revelations just feel cruel and stupid. Most of Butterfly on a Wheel is also too dark to see all the action – by time we get to the final, drag out fight, the audience is tired of the flat, dreary, blue tinted palette and nighttime photography. Some of the physical, intimate violence, however, does look angry and authentic – Gerard Butler has spoken of his ongoing back problems from the crazy car crash scene here. You don’t like hearing about people being injured for a film, but somehow it adds a bit of dimension to Butterfly on a Wheel, a desperation that’s missing in the drama onscreen. 

Butterfly on a Wheel could have been a straightforward and taut thriller about four mature adults getting revenge on each other via work, finances, and sex, but instead it fizzles under its own pretentiousness.  If none of this actually happens, then is there a point to it all? The audience is the one who suffers the titular roundabout exaggeration more than anyone, as if we’ve been tricked into watching something that pulls the rug out from under us – and not in a good, surprising twist, fun film way, either. It could have been much, much more, yet Butterfly on a Wheel unfulfills on its attempted terror and suspense with predictable stupidity. Precious few intense moments and a bemusing to watch cast almost make up the difference, but not by much.

17 September 2013

Quality Contemporary Horror

Quality Contemporary Horror
By Kristin Battestella

Amid all the craptastic new horror pictures this past decade, there are precious few demented diamonds in the rough. Here, however, is a quick quartet of recent, worthy, quality scares and frightful films.

Drag Me to Hell – Sam and Ivan Raimi (Evil Dead, Army of Darkness) present this 2009 tale of curses and consequences starring Alison Lohman (White Oleander) as the likeable and realistic Christine. She’s trying to change her accent, forget her ‘porker’ past and family issues, and keeps doubting or compromising herself, yet she’s also trying to pin her problems on someone else. Lohman carries the increasing paranoia nicely with honest pace and progression as her true colors come forth amid the good jump moments and the not so gruesome that it’s overdone gore and grossness. Justin Long (The Apple Guy), however, is annoying and simply not believable as a college professor; his Freud versus paranormal debates and supposed love for Christine are unconvincing. Reggie Lee (Prison Break) and David Paymer (Mr. Saturday Night) are jerks, too, but their antagonism helps the plot along against the stereotypical gypsy curses as Lorna Raver (The Young and the Restless) makes for a very creepy, gross old lady thanks to that weird eye and a variety of vomit, bugs, and won’t say die dead body encounters. But if she can do all this summoning evil goat demons, why couldn’t she just pay her loan? Although it’s okay to laugh in some scenes – and props for bemusing stapler uses – there is a bit too much sunshine, modern trappings, and a decidedly CGI feeling. This isn’t quite as dirty or desperate as it should be, and we know what’s going to happen the whole time – even the title and poster reveal the predictable twist untwist endings. Fortunately, most of the scares and suspense are well done what you don’t see shadows and wind effects, and the Spanish spins and multi language mythos add flavor along with Dileep Rao’s (Avatar) unique take on the usually clichéd psychic. There are subtle Evil Dead references, of course, but one can certainly laugh or be scared by this entertaining little flick - eyeball in the cake at the dinner party and all.

The Innkeepers – A lovely, historic atmosphere and setting accent the brooding suspense of this 2011 thinking person’s haunted hotel tale starring Sarah Paxton (Darcy’s Wild Life) and Kelly McGillis (Top Gun). The situational scares, ghost investigations, touches of quirky humor, and genuine conversations feel much more realistic than those so-called reality ghost shows. The subtle fears, whiff of gore, and shock scares are quality, but the what you don’t see whispers, overnight isolation, unknown paranormal activity, and psychic reactions are better. The simple lack of a camera and reliance on EVP gear for the onscreen investigation forces the audience to pay attention. While some modern viewers may dislike the slow burn pace or find the unambitious characters annoying, the lack of easy explanations and typical boobalicious scream queens is refreshingly honest. We need to see the personal normalcy so we know when the scares push people to the extreme. Yes, people don’t listen, let the paranormal go to their head, and go into the forewarned basement – but people close to death also see things differently. Granted, writer, director, and editor Ti West (The House of the Devil) wears too many hats and should have someone else sit back objectively and say, “Clarify this.” Perhaps there’s nothing fancy here – just a straightforward curiosity killed the cat self-fulfilling prophecy. However, today’s increasingly too in your face fancy horror films are becoming a problem, and this well-done little picture is more than worth a look.

The Moth Diaries – This 2011 adaptation of the Rachel Klein novel has some very slow early scenes with video game trappings, prep chick shenanigans, and jealous lesbian subtext. The title connections are loose and uneven shades of Carmilla, vampire clichés, ghosts, suicide, blood, and psychosis or any and all of the above go unanswered. The flashbacks and a few stupid dream sequences are too obvious, with a predictable one by one elimination – the audience is immediately aware of what’s going on while the characters remain juvenile and can’t piece together the evidence. Viewers also excited by the promised girl on girl vamps will be disappointed by the lack of boobs, for there is only one unnecessary yet not gratuitously filmed sex scene. Audiences will expect the hot teacher switcharoo, definitive twists, and clarification on the supernatural rules, but these also go unfulfilled. Either be a Carmilla spin or use your unreliable narrator - you can’t have both if you are going to drop the ball and not define your own film or its audience. Fortunately, Sara Boldger (The Tudors), Sarah Gadon (A Dangerous Method), Scott Speedman (Underworld), Lily Cole (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus), and the rest of the well-acted cast make up for any flaws – as does the creepy hotel turned school locales, literary touches, classy mood, and spooky atmosphere. There are a few good scares, too, and no overabundance of computers, phones, or modern technology. Of course, vampire fans will be disappointed in the lack of vampness, but psychological horror fans will be annoyed by enough vamp and ghost trappings.  Though entertaining, the trouble here is that it just never decides what it wants to be.

The Ward – Director John Carpenter (Halloween) keeps the suspense, mystery, and twists going in this 2010 psychological thriller. Yes, I would have liked more sixties in the 1966 setting beyond a few cool cars, some music, and old school nursing.  Granted, Amber Heard (Pineapple Express), Mamie Gummer (Evening), Danielle Panabaker (The Crazies), Lyndsy Fonseca (Desperate Housewives), and Laura-Leigh (We’re the Millers) do well for the most part but still seem too modern for the decade onscreen. Absolutely, wise horror viewers will shout at the television over the physical impossibilities, obvious connections, unoriginality, clichés, and plot holes from writers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen (Dark Feed) – if I say what films this is almost exactly like, it will spoil the whole thing! Fortunately, Jared Harris (Mad Men) is a quality, ambiguous mix of helping and hurting as the therapist of the hour, and there is some sharp editing, smart camerawork, and a hint of mid century fashion to set the scary mood. The sinister mental hospital with drugs, hypnosis, vengeful ghosts, undead possibilities, and of course, electroshock therapy also adds to the creepy atmosphere. Perhaps some of Carpenter’s tense scoring or an elder classic horror actor might have brought the heavy needed here, but I feel this should also be seen twice for full effect. Though there are still too many recent horror hang ups keeping this from being Carpenter’s best, the action doesn’t resort to today’s expected major gore, sex, or nudity and remains a step above recent slice and dice crazy pictures thanks to his stylized mental explorations, crisis, and fears.

However, I must again say, why do recent horror movies all have slow, fancy smancy, and effects laden opening credits wasting precious time? Hardly any films these days have opening credits and simply start cold. Why do horror films only delay and pad their runtimes like this? Do they think it is cool? It’s not. Give us the extra two minutes of scares and story, please!

12 September 2013

Raintree County

Raintree County is a Crazy, Must See Mash Up
By Kristin Battestella

Once upon a time, the 1957 Civil War epic Raintree County was the most expense movie ever made. Though blacklisted director Edward Dmytryk’s scandalous tale of the South has long since lost that mantle, this adaptation of Ross Lockridge’s novel remains notorious for its troubled, turbulent production.

John Shawnessy (Montgomery Clift) has life dreams and literary aspirations thanks to the legends of his hometown in Raintree County, Indiana. His childhood sweetheart Nell Gaither (Eva Marie Saint), however, isn’t part of those aspirations once the wealthy and carefree Susanna Drake (Elizabeth Taylor) comes to Raintree from New Orleans.  Her romance with Johnny moves swiftly, and despite Susanna’s deception and lies, they are soon married and living on her family’s estate in Louisiana.  Unfortunately, long held Southern scandals, family secrets, and the looming War Between the States ultimately divide John and Susanna’s seemingly blissful life.

Dmytrk’s (The Caine Mutiny) cast is clearly all too old for their roles, and the messy, muddled, overlong, and confusing topics, tangents, and situations don’t help Raintree County find any identity. What’s this tale really supposed to be about – finding the titular tree, country racing, romance and love triangles, the War, or racism and mental health issues? The uneven pace takes so long in introducing all the characters – the audience has no reason to care why these vignettes are happening amid the looming Civil War themes.  Much of the opening feels unnecessary, and one wonders why Raintree County didn’t just begin with Elizabeth Taylor’s arrival to town.  Scenes inexplicably move from one lesson or life story to the next with little rhyme or reason. The twists and ties supposedly interconnecting these plotlines are poorly put together thanks to the long-winded mid century pomp onscreen and the behind the scenes turmoil – not to mention the obvious editing, different film values, and camera work used to shoot around Montgomery Clift. By time we get past any scandals to the subsequent war search and battlefield action, the viewer has forgotten how we even got there in the first place. Then again, Raintree County must not be about the Civil War either, because after it there are another 45 minutes of the same old dry, crazy politics and erroneous romances. The tender moments between father and child feel like a different show and Raintree County limps into its final moments – that’s the frickin’ tree?  By the end, nobody onscreen cares about the eponymous foliage either.

Although Elizabeth Taylor (There are just so many films from which to choose!) looks divine when she makes her scene stealing entrance twenty minutes into Raintree County, the audience never finds out why Susanna catches everyone’s eye – beyond those stunning eyes, fabulous frocks, and New Orleans drawl that is. We’ve seen Susanna’s Southern crazy, desperation, lying, and manipulation type before, yet it’s all played so juvenile, passionate, and wild. Yawn. Again, the cast is too old to play young in love, and the secrets, social mores, and scandals don’t explain the meh character motivations. Taylor is trying to bring some sort of nutty, look fair and feel foul, too good to be good true beauty hints, but the double talking script doesn’t help. If Raintree County was meant to be about her, then everything away from the Johnny and Susanna plots becomes superfluous.  Screenwriter Millard Kaufman (Take the High Ground!) should have seriously paired down the novel and developed the core love triangle to its full measures – Susanna is cruel to Nell, both women are bitchy, and hints of North and South tension, divides, and deceptions go undercooked. Indiana versus New Orleans could have been a turbulent enough dynamic, but the core characters’ relationships, potentially racist attitudes, and social stereotypes end up all over the board with no justice to any of the concepts. There are some few and far between but wonderfully, eerie, disturbed moments from Taylor filmed in an excellent, hazy style. However, in a feeling long three-hour film such as Raintree County, Taylor doesn’t seem to appear enough for Susanna to have any fully realized character development.  

Unfortunately, one truly sees Raintree County for one reason and one reason alone, and that’s Montgomery Clift. His infamous car accident during production of Raintree County caused significant pain, facial damage, and partial paralysis, and thus created drastic filmmaking differences in the picture. From up close shots of the young and pretty Clift ala the likes of A Place in the Sun to distant shots of a man clearly ailing, Raintree County has become an awkward spot the difference novelty thanks to this seemingly overnight change in onscreen character and performance. Clift’s passion is there, but the tragic circumstances are immediately apparent not just from scene to scene, but sometimes shot to shot with right side only filming tricks, and his different voice, weight, and stature. Too much is already happening for Johnny onscreen thanks to the all over the place script – the tree, writing, school, romance, running, fighting – but Clift is very into the character and then obviously unwell by the next cutaway. It’s makes Raintree County a heartbreaking, can’t look away, morbid curiosity, and the notion of Clift’s slowly being made mincemeat by the Hollywood industry is encapsulated in these few hours. If Terminal Station is his worst, then Raintree County is a close second at the bottom of Clift’s brief but otherwise excellent repertoire. The early, up close shots of Clift are the lone color scenes of him pre-accident – 1960’s Wild River and his final picture The Defector are his only other color movies. Beautiful and talented as he was, it’s almost as if Montgomery Clift just wasn’t meant for CinemaScope and the bright, zesty of color pictures. Despite some fine film work after Raintree County, this movie sadly marks the must see turning point between Clift’s career and his downward personal spiral.  

Likewise, Oscar winner Eva Marie Saint (On the Waterfront) feels woefully miscast as the so wide-eyed, innocent, and strangely dolled up Nell. The character should be the scene stealing heart of gold that the audience adores ahead of the lonely and scandalous Susannah. However, Nell comes across as some sort of nothing special, pining, interfering, mousy old spinster and Saint simply can’t compare to Taylor in style or presence with this kind of subpar material. Nigel Patrick (The League of Gentlemen) as Professor Stiles is also a bloated, smack worthy, unnecessary caricature – he’s so full of his own dang greatness and clearly flirting with all the student dames. His kind of teaching just feels so nasty and his entire plot could have been excised from the filming of Raintree County. How he received a Golden Globe nomination for this movie is beyond me. The supporting townsfolk also all seem like ignorant or drunk stooges, a whole town of jerks somehow making life difficult for Johnny in a series of coming of age clichés. Lee Marvin (Cat Ballou, The Dirty Dozen) and Rod Taylor (The Birds, The Time Machine) deserved much, much more. Most of the time I forget they are even in Raintree County!

Thankfully, Raintree County is a sewing enthusiast’s delight thanks to these big, colorful frocks and spectacle costumes – the lovely locales, regal homes, picturesque swamps, and wild ruins are divine, too. While he sure sounds pretty, Nat King Cole’s titular tune is a little out of place, and the scoring is a somewhat over the top with the fifties heavenly chorales.  Most of Raintree County’s attempts at sweeping and epic end up over ambitious and stand as perhaps the perfect example of fifties filmmaking gone awry. The battle scenes are well done, but they are just quick, almost incongruous montages. All that time was spent on drinking, races, and trees, but you montage the Civil War?! Of course, one can’t see Raintree County in all of its then glory because there has been no official DVD release stateside. Netflix very long waits the all region, awkwardly divided two disc Asian release – in which the sound is uneven, the subtitles are screwy, and the innate 65-millimeter widescreen/CinemaScope conversion is in desperate need of restoration. In spite of all its flaws, I’d love to see Raintree County restored to its original, wannabe Ben-Hur-esque perfection on blu-ray just for the Montgomery Clift observations.

Fans of the cast or other Civil War historicals can enjoy Raintree County, but perhaps a multi-episode mini series format would have better captured the scope of the eponymous tales, scandal, and adventure. Too much was happening onscreen and off for Raintree County’s sweeping Civil War loves and losses to succeed in its idealized Gone with the Wind fashion. Nonetheless, the sad circumstances surrounding Montgomery Clift and the film’s off kilter, hot mess scale make Raintree County worth seeing at least once.

06 September 2013

Mid Century Mystery and Thrillers!

Mid Century Mysteries, Macabre, and Mayhem
By Kristin Battestella

From big sci-fi horrors and mental scares to quiet Victorian fair and murder, classic film stars of the fifties and sixties knew how to spot these quality, good, old-fashioned, noir-infused mysteries and thrillers. 

The Hitch-Hiker – Actress turned director and co-writer Ida Lupino (High Sierra, Outrage) sets the bar with this ominous, black and white 70 minute road trip noir from 1953. From the foreboding “this could be you” opening warning and the faceless what you don’t see start to public paranoia and international investigations hot in pursuit, William Talman (Perry Mason), Edmond O’Brien (The Barefoot Contessa), and Frank Lovejoy (House of Wax) keep the suspense heavy. Everything from getting gas to stopping for groceries becomes intense here!  Ominous scoring, period music, stylized shadows and light, and Spanish flavors accent the peril while cool cars, gunplay, and desert locales keep this carjacking dangerous. The vehicular footage is anxious too thanks to nice interior filming and claustrophobic camerawork. Speedy roadwork and more close calls keep the viewer wondering when and how this all comes to a head. Though the end is a little rushed, the tension is entertaining in getting there. Sure, some may find the early fifties look dated, but this one feels quite modern actually, with desperation and intensity to spare. 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers – Kevin McCarthy (Death of a Salesman), Dana Wynter (D-Day the Sixth of June), and Carolyn Jones (The Addams Family) star in this 1956 science fiction fright fest full of interpretive allegories, scary great scoring, precious little special effects, and a simply stunning mood. Director Don Siegel (Dirty Harry) and author Jack Finney’s visions are tamed a touch thanks to the flashback frame, but the slow build of askew and helplessness creates the perfect mix of noir and what you don’t see paranoia. Where would you go and what would you do if alien pod people invaded your town? The natural fears escalate into desperation as friends and neighbors become the people you can’t trust. Nothing around you is what it seems, the clock is ticking, and there is nowhere to turn. Crooked camera views and angled perspectives accentuate the simplistic, seemingly innocent events as they turn into a frenzied chase, mass hysteria, and can’t fall asleep panic. The whiff of love story and focus on humanity before the science fiction and effects works surprisingly well against the erratic loss of emotion threatening our couple, too. Despite the sweet frocks, cool cars, classy drinking, and those slide across bucket seats, the fifties trappings may be too over the top for some of today’s viewers accustomed to more stylized variations on the theme. The 1978 remake is for those audiences, but this original remains a must see, taught thriller from start to finish. 

Man in the Attic – Jack Palance (Shane, City Slickers, and most importantly, Ripley’s Believe it or Not) stars in this black and white 1953 remake based upon the oft-adapted Jack the Ripper novel The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes. While the fifties meets Victorian Ripper colloquialisms and trite accents are tough to start the 82 minutes, period fashions and décor add to the old world mystery atmosphere. The young and handsome Palance is, of course, slick as always – he looks slightly fifties in his suave suit, but not so American as to be unbelievable  in the role. Although we suspect him of Ripper relations just because he’s Jack Palance, to his credit, his nicely odd, antisocial, awkward, and wound up tenant Slade plays against our sinister expectations. The criminal pace, police investigations, and suspicions, however, mount accordingly with a tense score to match. Sadly, the Can Can and French style musical scenes are too dated, small scale, out of place, and simply not as interesting as the titular implications, and this gives the scenes away from Palance a slightly unpolished feeling. Thankfully, the clarified, easy to follow, step-by-step Ripper plot is well done – good screams, smart uses of shadows and light, and off screen killings lead into a pursuit finish for this nice little atmospheric thriller. 

The Phantom Fiend – Then again, this 1932 hour long talkie with Ivor Novello – star of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 silent version, too – is also from same Lowndes source and still worth a look. The print quality is poor and the fast, tough to hear dialogue can be confusing, yet it’s neat to see those classic phone operators, newspaper headlines, tilted hats, furs, and period dressings adding to the crimes. Though seemingly charming, there is something creepy and suspicion afoot as the body count rises for a screaming finish. And did I mention there’s a 1944 adaptation just called The Lodger as well? Whew!

Please Murder Me – This 1956 black and white 75-minute noir starring future television crime solvers Angela Lansbury (Murder She Wrote) and Raymond Burr (Perry Mason) mixes guns, affairs, and bribery. The courtroom doubts and debates up the ante, too, and for love or money motives accentuate the crimes. Though stylized shadows and dark, up close photography add to the mood and suspense, the picture is too dark in some spots. The more telling than showing start is also a little slow, but great one on one scenes with fun soap opera drama and dialogue keep up the tension in all the right places. Lightning, hefty scoring, and black cats are tossed in for good measure as the titular actions hit, too. Some of the deduction and legalese may be too simplistic for today’s trial savvy audiences, yet other unforeseen twists and the novelty of seeing the stars in such early performances more than makes up the difference.

The Psychopath – I caught this 1966 Amicus toy creeper and murder mystery from director Freddie Francis (Evil of Frankenstein) and writer Robert Bloch (Psycho) late one night on Turner Classic Movies, and the sinister little dolls at the scenes of the crimes are very effective. Likewise, Inspector Patrick Wymark (The Plane Makers, The Power Game) is affable in his deduction – even if the investigation techniques are perhaps straightforward or obvious compared to the intricate plots tempting today’s criminology wise viewer. There’s a fine, international feeling to the intriguing suspects as well. Each has interesting accents, quirky vibes, snotty airs, suspicions, motives, and secrets. Nutty old lady Margaret Johnston (Portrait of Clare) adds to the macabre with her creepy doll collection, and the old school Victorian feelings and décor accent the then-contemporary classy, swanky sixties looks. There’s room for humor, too, thanks to the sardonic autopsies on the doll victims, and a hint of skin and sauce balances the suspenseful killings. The eerie sounds, music, and silence keep the pace steady for the full 83 minutes as the crimes escalate towards a memorable topper. Sure, there’s a plot hole or two, but there’s also room for some guesses, twists, and good old-fashioned mystery.