Monday, December 28, 2009

Come On, Dario

Dario Argento's "Giallo" is scheduled to hit American shores soon, whether via limited theatrical release or DVD. It's played some dates in Europe, but the U.S. market is maintaining a stony silence, despite the potential drawing power of Academy Award-winner Adrian Brody in the lead.

Of course, Argento has always had trouble getting U.S. theatrical play. His most famous work, "Suspiria," stands alone as the film with the heaviest theatrical distribution, courtesy of 20th Century-Fox's long-gone International Classics division. I saw it at Chicago's (also now long-gone) State-Lake Theatre in 1976, where I became aware of Dolby stereo for the first time, thanks to Goblin's incredible score. Being an American teenager, I hadn't been exposed to any of his other films ("Bird with the Crystal Plumage," "Cat O' Nine Tails," "Profondo Rosso," "Tenebrae"), although I'm sure one or two must've played some drive-ins at some point. I just that knew my mind was expanded by this crazy, colorful, haunting fairytale, even with most of the extreme gore excised. Still, you got to see a woman falling into a room full of razor wire, maggots raining from the ceiling... And the stentorian Alida Valli snapping, "Dance, girls! Dance!" All the acting was so strange, even from veteran Joan Bennett, and some of the dialogue was bizarre, but it all fit perfectly in the otherworldly framework. And Luciano Tovoli shot it in the old three-strip Technicolor process to get that extreme saturation.

A fond memory: I ran the film program for a couple of semesters in college and played "Suspiria" to a captive audience of students who'd probably never heard of it before. We didn't have a scope lens so I had to run it "squished"—and nobody left!

When the home video revolution arrived, some of those movies saw the light of day on VHS in the States, although in severely truncated and ludicrously retitled versions ("Tenebrae" became "Unsane" and "Phenomena" became "Creepers"), but there was still enough Argento magic in them to make me long for another classic. I was thrilled to discover a copy of "Inferno" at the video store, inviting like-minded friends over to watch the sequel to "Suspiria," only to have the evening fall flat on its face because 20th Century Fox's cuts included all the agonizing, drawn-out death scenes Argento specializes in (and we root for) as well as large chunks of continuity.

DVD changed all that. With the format's emphasis on quality, companies like Anchor Bay made obscure and/or censored European horror films available for the first time they way they were meant to be seen—uncut, restored, remastered and in their correct aspect ratio. I finally was able to see films like "Profondo Rosso," "Phenomena" and "Inferno" as the Maestro intended. And they were all vastly improved. Sadly, seeing them complete for the first time reminded me how self-referential a filmmaker he has become and how slack the scripts are, relying more and more on Argento-esque flourishes instead of solid storytelling. Even in one of his most interesting later works, "Non ho Sonno," he's falling back on old plot devices from his '70s hits. Now, I know we all demand the same things from Argento in every film—elaborate murders and weird characters—but can we please get on with the story? I don't understand how someone who made the superbly plotted "Tenebrae" would look at a lame project like "The Card Player" and say, "That's what the fans want! An Argento police procedural without any gore!"

There have been some bright spots. "Non ho Sonno" has the wonderful Max Von Sydow as a weary detective coming out of retirement to pursue a serial killer who has begun his murderous ways again after a 17-year hiatus, and its playful nursery rhyme motif is reminiscent of "Profondo Rosso." I know a lot of people hated "The Stendhal Syndrome," but it's actually grown on me even though it's almost too complicated. His "Black Cat" segment of "Two Evil Eyes" was very well done, and I even liked his TV movie, "Do You You Like Hitchcock?" with its nods to the master of suspense.

His most recent picture, "Mother of Tears," which was heavily promoted as the highly-anticipated conclusion of the "three mothers" trilogy ("Suspiria" and "Inferno" being the other two parts), played a limited engagement at the Nuart here in Los Angeles. Of course, I rushed to see it, and was disappointed by a real mess that made absolutely no sense, was ridiculously overstyled and played more like a horror remake of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." It desperately screamed, "Look! I'm a Dario Argento film! Aren't I fun?" But—crime of crimes—it was boring! Come on, now. Ludicrous, yes; incomprehensible, fine; but boring? Even the wretched "Phantom of the Opera" deserves to have many adjectives flung at it, but boring isn't one of them.

His Masters of Horror segments are okay, with "Pelts"coming off better than "Jenifer," in my opinion. Word on the street is that "Giallo" is no barn-burner, either, but fansites report that it may be due to Brody's "input" during the filmmaking process. And he's using screenwriters, as he did with "Mother of Tears," instead of writing it himself or with one of his old collaborators, which I don't think is a great idea. Can you imagine John Waters using a screenwriter on one of his films?

I'll see it, of course, but I'm still waiting for the next truly great Argento film. And I'm not talking about the "Suspiria" remake (for which he only receives character credit).

By the way, what's up with the still at the top of this post? Is Brody interviewing a corpse? Is he saying, "Now that you're dead, how do you feel?"

Monday, December 21, 2009

Best in Horror for 2009

2009 will be remembered as a year in which drippy emo vampires took over the big screen while kick-ass vampires stalked the airwaves. Zombies came back from the dead and so did remakes and sequels. Here's a list of some of my favorites of the year, in no particular order.

1. Zombieland. Following in the footsteps of "Shaun of the Dead," this is a funny movie about zombies, not a movie about funny zombies, a critical difference. Woody Harrelson is a riot as Tallahassee, a hair-trigger, testosterone-driven lug whose fondness for Twinkies knows no bounds. Jesse Eisenberg plays...Jesse Eisenberg, but this role was tailor-made for him. Bill Murray provides an amusing cameo and the list of rules Eisenberg's character follows is hilarious, popping up at random throughout the film. Not even 90 minutes long, it's brisk, amusing entertainment.

2. Drag Me To Hell. Praise the Gods of Cinema! Instead of another Eli Roth torture-porn travesty, we had Sam Raimi back in form showing everyone how to make a comedy horror film. Walking the thin line between creepy and goofy, it provides jolts as well as laughs and even gets away with a wonderfully nihilistic ending. It already pushes the limits of the PG-13 rating, but the unrated DVD is even better. No new scenes are added, but each of the gooey sequences are extended, providing a messier experience that would probably earn an "R."

3. Everything's better in 3D. Okay, these films would probably be a snooze in flat versions, but in RealD, they're a hell of a lot of fun. My Bloody Valentine kick-started the year for me, providing lots of refreshingly un-PC mayhem and various things (knives, breasts) being hurled from the screen. It was so cool when the killer miner turned his headlight to the audience; it actually felt like we were being illuminated and, therefore, recognized as potential victims! A side benefit of the film was Lion's Gate's DVD release of the 1981 original with the censored gore effects restored. Sure, the cut scenes were scratchy and didn't always match, but it was great to see what the filmmakers had intended when Paramount prudishly cut out all the fun on its original release. The Final Destination was a little more routine. Previous installments of the series were far more inspired even without the added dimension; it's like the filmmakers traded ideas for effects. That said, the RealD gave it the needed boost.

4. Orphan. I know, I dissed this one at first based on the poster, but it was a lot of fun and left films like "The Good Son" running home to their mommy. I mean, if you're going to depict a creepy little kid, do it with guns a-blazing. The film's multiple layers—screwed-up family, deceitful husband, disturbed wife—made the drama all the more intense.

5. District 9. This Peter Jackson-produced sci-fier from South Africa took on the issues of xenophobia and bigotry with admirable restraint. When a spaceship breaks down and hovers over Johannesburg, its alien inhabitants are rounded up and put into concentration camps. Nearly thirty years later, the creatures, called "prawns" by their human captors, still live in these harsh conditions in a slum known as District 9, and the government hires mercenary soldiers to relocate them to District 10. Shot in a documentary style, it's touching, humorous and delivers a powerful message without proselytizing. I was actually choked up at the conclusion!

Speaking of Jackson, word on the street is that "The Lovely Bones" is a stinker. I can't comment because I haven't seen it. Come on, Peter. First the labored "King Kong" and now a stoopid ghost story? He should take a lesson from Raimi—return to his roots with a nice inexpensive splatter comedy to loosen up.

6. Let the Right One In. Made in 2008 but not reaching American shores until early this year, this striking Swedish film tells the story of the relationship that develops between a lonely 12-year-old boy and the vampire next door. As deliberately paced as anything Bergman directed, it's set in the atmospherically chilly Scandinavian winter and the two young leads are marvelously natural and persuasive even in light of the fantastic story.

7. True Blood. Speaking of vampires, this HBO hit completed its second season this fall, leaving viewers like myself clamoring for more. It's sexy and shocking, a real spit in the face to those wimpy "Twilight" pretty boys. Yes, it's basically a soap opera with fangs, but it's a lot of fun. The culture it's created—vampires attempting to live (unlive?) peacefully among humans while fundamentalists flip out—is wonderfully clever, and other creatures in addition to the bloodsuckers keeps it interesting. I mean, who ever heard of a Maenad until this year?

8. Dexter. Another selection from television, this Showtime series came back with a bang this year after what I thought was a rather lackluster season in 2008. John Lithgow makes a terrific villain, and his Trinity was a marvelously complex and creepy character. Best of all is what he did to Dexter. He really got the hooks into him, screwing up his judgment and—gasp!—causing him to make mistakes. And if you haven't seen the finale, it's a controversial mind-blower that's making us "Dexterites" impatient for the new season.

It's easy to categorize the stinkers of the year—remakes. "Friday the 13th" was unbelievably awful (and surprising, since the director, Zack Snyder, made the excellent remake of "Dawn of the Dead). Instead of a seemingly indestructible phantom killer, here Jason is portrayed as some sort of lunatic survivalist who just doesn't like people. Add a gang of cliched kids snorting and drinking everything in sight and you just want everyone to die. Except you're not interested in watching. "Last House on the Left" wasn't as bad, but certainly no improvement on the original. As I mentioned in a previous post, I didn't see Rob Zombie's "Halloween 2" because his films are just terrible! On television, the CW's "Vampire Diaries" is also awful—"Gossip Girl" with fangs. Much better is the old "Forever Knight" series currently airing on Chiller. Although its early '90s roots are showing, it's still a fun vampire detective show.

Well, the new year brings us Benicio Del Toro as "The Wolfman" and Kelly Leek—I mean Jackie Earle Haley—as Freddy in the "Nightmare on Elm Street" redo. I'll be interested in them both. There'll be another (yawn) "Saw" film and Sam Raimi's remaking "Evil Dead"! The director of the "My Bloody Valentine" remake is doing "Halloween 3D," which could be a lot of fun. And William Lustig is remaking his own "Maniac" (1980). Weird. And—oh, God!—another "Hostel"! If this list is accurate, there will be tons of other remakes as well, some in 3D (which is the only reason to do it, in my opinion).

Surely the most horrifying thing I've seen this year is L. Ron Hubbard's Winter Wonderland near the Scientology building in Hollywood last Saturday night. Check out this creepy Santa! I wonder if he's a Thetan. You can see part of the band on the  left, dressed as pirates and singing "Highway to Hell."

Now back to your regularly scheduled holiday programming, already in progress.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Dueling "Christmas Carol"s

The holiday cheer continues here at WMV as we compare select film adaptations of "A Christmas Carol." Charles Dickens' famous story has been done numerous times on stage, on television and on film. There have been female Scrooges, African American Scrooges, comedy Scrooges—even Mister Magoo took a stab at portraying the old miser. It's a timeless story whose construction is's all a matter of execution, and that's where talent both in front of and behind the camera really counts.

Film productions of the tale date back to as early as 1901, and one performer, British actor Seymour Hicks, portrayed Scrooge twice in 1913 and 1935. I've seen the 1935 version. It's a primitive if interesting curio, with 64-year-old Hicks making a good older Scrooge but not terribly convincing in flashbacks when he must portray a much younger man. Also, only the Ghost of Christmas Present appears fully onscreen, with the rest represented by indiscernible shapes, pointing fingers and disembodied voices. Also, this is one of only two sound versions that shows the dead body of Tiny Tim!

The MGM factory took a stab at the story in 1938, with Reginald Owen as the miser. It's too sweet for me; a lot of the grimmer aspects of the story were eliminated, in keeping with the family friendly fare the studio was producing at the time. There are no wailing phantoms, the Ghost of Christmas Past is played by a pretty young woman, and the romance between his nephew Fred and fiance Elizabeth was greatly expanded in a way that Dickens never intended. And Owen just doesn't have the presence to make a truly menacing Scrooge. Humbug, indeed!

The 1951 English version started airing seasonally on American television in 1970 and quickly became the favorite. It's clear to see why: Alastair Sim is an absolutely perfect Scrooge. When the film begins, he is grim, humorless and absolutely incapable of expressing human warmth or emotion. As the spirits visit him, he gradually remembers the way he used to be and realizes that his time for redemption is running out. He becomes more exuberant—even childlike—as the feelings long dormant in his old carcass are awakened once more. It's a marvelous performance, and Sim is supported by a splendid cast of English character stalwarts. Though produced on a modest budget by tiny Renown Pictures (which is still in existence, much to my surprise), the sets and art direction are wonderful, the special effects are terrific and it doesn't cop out on the creepiness. I mean, this is essentially a horror story, after all! Sim and Michael Hordern, who portrays Marley's ghost, lent their voices to an animated TV adaptation 20 years later. Check out the trailer here. It looks much more like a Universal horror classic than a seasonal heartwarmer.

Another English version is the 1970 musical "Scrooge," which I recall first seeing at a kiddie matinee when I was a kiddie. It's one of those films that people said "meh" to when originally released, but it has grown in stature through the years. Mounted lavishly in the style of the 1968 smash "Oliver!", it features 34-year-old, Golden Globe-winning Albert Finney very convincingly portraying Scrooge through the ages. As a matter of fact, when you finally see him in flashback during the Christmas Past sequences, you're shocked to see just how young he really is. Alec Guinness plays Marley's Ghost, and it's obvious that he's having a blast with the role. His performance is off-kilter, quirky and a lot of fun. When Scrooge is sent to hell during the Christmas Yet to Come segment, he asks where they are and Guinness deadpans, "I should have thought it would be obvious." And "I'm sorry your chain isn't ready yet. They had to put on extra demons to finish it." Most importantly, the musical numbers are decent, and anyone who doesn't shed a tear during Tiny Tim's rendition of "The Beautiful Day" and the "Happiness" sequence with spurned fiancee Isabel is as hard-hearted as Scrooge himself.

I have a print of the 25-minute "Mickey's Christmas Carol" on super 8mm and I have to admit it's a charmer. The filmmakers had the dual challenge of telescoping the story into under half an hour while still inserting as many familiar Disney characters as possible, and they succeed admirably. Scrooge McDuck plays the miser, of course, with Mickey portraying Bob Cratchit. Among the other familiar characters are Minnie as Mrs. Scrooge, Donald Duck as Scrooge's nephew, Jiminy Cricket as the Ghost of Christmas Past and many other recognizable characters. It's actually funny without being cloying, and it looks great, with wonderfully lush animation and vivid colors. And it was the first Mickey Mouse cartoon made in 30 years at the time, on a double bill with a re-release of "The Rescuers" for the 1983 holiday season.

Last January I saw a stage production starring Christopher Lloyd, John Goodman and Jane Leeves at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. You'd think it'd be a dream, but what a mess! A huge set overpowered the stage, dwarfing the performers, and frequent scene changes required much hilarious and loud moving around of backdrops and awkward pauses. The music cues seemed to be whatever was handy, including a song from the Charles Laughton-directed classic "Night of the Hunter"! The actors seemed confused by the constantly flying scenery, resulting in some flubbed lines and unsure performances.

I really have no interest in the current theatrical release with Jim Carrey. I loathe that style of computer animation, I can't stand Carrey and I really hated "The Polar Express," Zemeckis' previous holiday movie with Tom Hanks. Unless the technology has vastly improved, the characters all have dead eyes and weird mouths that look like they have ill-fitting dentures. And I actually found myself in the theater struggling not to scream "SHUT UP!" at Tom Hanks. I intend to catch the 1984 George C. Scott TV version, however. It's on AMC December 20th and 21st. He makes a great Scrooge, I'm sure. And it's the other adaptation where they show Tiny Tim...dead!

Still, you can't lose with a double-feature of the Sim version followed by the Finney musical. They make a nice counterpoint to each other: one black and white, one color; one musical, one straight drama. But they both—most importantly—dish out the supernatural elements inherent in Dickens's original tale.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Santa Claus

Since the holidays are fast approaching, it's time to celebrate the secular emblem of the season, jolly old Saint Nick. And since we're in Weird Movie Village, we just have to talk about him in context with the 1959 Mexican fantasy film "Santa Claus." Millions of American kids were treated to this seasonal delight courtesy of K. Gordon Murray, a Florida-based exploitationeer and huckster who bought children's (and horror) films made south of the border, dubbed them into English, and four-walled them at kiddie matinees, a genre he was responsible for inventing.

Murray would book his films into theaters on weekends, publicize the hell out of them beforehand, and watch the profits roll in. He knew that parents would be thrilled to get rid of their responsibilities for a few hours on the weekend, and sure enough, they dropped their tots off in droves to have their minds warped by these epics whose inherent strangeness was enhanced by the English dubbing.

Murray (known as "Kagey" to his friends) even served as the narrator for "Santa Claus." He released the English version for the first time in 1960 and continued to re-release it every few years throughout the seventies. It made tons of money and even became a seasonal staple on television. I can only imagine the college students and other enlightened individuals, armed with the necessary quantities of mind-altering substances, sitting down to enjoy the annual broadcast.

In 1959 Mexico, Santa wasn't a big deal. They were still celebrating the holiday traditionally, with piñatas and posadas and, of course, lots of religion. So this film in a way was introducing Saint Nick to the kids of Mexico. And what a warped debut it is!

The picture opens on Christmas Eve in Santa's magical castle in the sky. He is overseeing the final preparations for his flight. The toys are all ready, having been built by child laborers he seems to have kidnapped from all over the world. There's still time for him to sit down at the organ, though, and accompany each stereotyped ethnic group as they sing their native holiday songs.

Later, with the help of his young assistant Pedro, who looks like a creepy doll come to life and keeps lapsing into Spanish even on the dubbed soundtrack, he gets ready to launch his sleigh. The reindeer are all mechanical, and when Pedro winds them up with huge keys jammed into their sides, they begin to laugh maniacally. I'm sure many a toddler stored that image alongside the sugarplums dancing in his head.

But there's trouble afoot. Satan (not Santa) is sending his minion, Pitch, up to Earth to ruin Santa's night by luring children into corruption and screwing up Santa's toy delivery schedule. The actor playing Pitch wears a form-fitting red bodysuit, greasy red facepaint and various prosthetics to give him just the right demonic demeanor. Three little boys are easy to convert—soon he has them running through town smashing store windows and writing phony letters to Santa about how good they've been! They also plan to kidnap Santa and steal all the toys. Another intended victim is little Lupita, whose family is too poor to buy her a doll. Pitch tries to convince her to steal one from the marketplace instead. There's also a little rich boy whose parents ignore him, but what the hell—he's rich.

Santa takes the "he sees you when your sleeping" line a bit too far with his heavily-equipped communications room. He uses a bizarre telescope—a huge human eye mounted on an extendable rod—to watch the children on earth. There's also a huge pair of Mick Jagger lips mounted on the wall that tell him what the kids are saying. Even more disturbing, he has a "Dreamscope" that can see into their minds.

Noting Pitch's interference, he becomes irate and is determined to stop the devil in his tracks. What follows is a bizarre series of episodes of one-upsmanship, with occasional visits to the kids. Even Merlin the Magician pops in for a visit to give Santa dreaming powders (eh?) and a flower that enables him to disappear at will, since children aren't supposed to see him. I guess jaded adults would just think he's a fat guy in a red suit who got lost after the company Christmas party, so I guess it doesn't really matter. Although he does visit the wealthy couple at a luxe restaurant and serves them the Cocktail of Remembrance, which makes them long to be reunited with their child. I wonder how you make that?

Speaking of class differences, when Santa goes to the rich boy's house, he brings him a buttload of presents and even reveals himself to the kid (I said reveals, not exposes). Meanwhile, Lupita, who has struggled to maintain a virtuous life, doesn't get squat.

"Santa Claus" is readily available on video, but Shout Factory just released a Christmas gift for everyone—the "Mystery Science Theatre" version on DVD, and it's hysterical. Here's a nice long clip from the show with the singing slaves, Pitch and his intended victims:

Either way, MST'd or not, this is one weird flick. Make sure to catch it this holiday season. I gotta warn you, though: if you're one of the "kiddie matinee" orphans, viewing it may bring long-suppressed memories bubbling to the surface and cause some trauma.


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