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Monday, June 28, 2010

Teen Vamps

I'm sure teenage girls all over America are beside themselves with excitement as they count down the last few hours before the release of Twilight: Eclipse and the return of the sparkly vampires. I've only seen part of the first one while waiting in a doctor's office, and that was enough to tell me that these films were definitely not made for me. Hell, Kristen Stewart bites her lip more frequently than the vamps bite anything else!

But in the 80s, a pair of vampire movies featuring teenagers appeared on the screen, much like vampires themselves, as an unexpected and delightful surprise. And even though they had youthful casts, they were still rated R and delivered the nastiness and red stuff that one expects from a good post-Hammer vampire flick. They've also become generational classics.

NOTE: Spoilers follow, but if you haven't seen the films I'm about to talk about, where have you been?

In 1985, I read in the newspaper that a local theater was going to hold a Saturday night sneak preview of a new horror film, the legendary Fright Night (1985). It was such a simpler time. I knew nothing about it. There were no TV spots, no cast interviews on Good Morning America, no dedicated Web site...just an awesome poster that convinced me that I had to be there.

Arriving at the theater to catch the last 15 minutes of St. Elmo's Fire (which was enough), I spent the next couple of hours absolutely enthralled by what was happening on the screen. Fright Night seemed so unique—in one respect, it was a goofy teen movie, but on the other hand, it was a full-blooded horror film with surprising moments of darkness.

When we first meet high schooler Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), we see a a typical teenage nerd. He loves horror movies; he has fumbling make-out sessions with his girlfriend, Amy (Amanda Bearse); and his only friend seems to be the uber-geek "Evil" Ed (Stephen Geoffreys). But when the omnivorous Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) moves in next door with his live-in male "companion", Charley discovers that he's a bloodsucker when he accidentally sees him feeding on a local prostitute. No one will believe him, of course, so he turns to local horror TV host Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) for help, believing that he's an authentic vampire hunter and is the only one who can save him.

Sarandon is great as Dandridge. Majestic, campy and scary when he needs to be, he manages to seduce the entire cast, except for the one he wants most to bring under his spell—and that's Charley. McDowall was born to play Vincent. His transformation from embittered, faded horror star to valiant vampire killer is master class, and he brings true pathos to Evil Ed's death scene.

Bearse looks too old for the part from the get-go, but her later sexing-up and vampire makeover make you realize they needed an actor with more maturity for these scenes. Ragsdale hits the right notes, and Geoffreys is alternatively grating and funny as the spastic Evil—although his seduction by Dandridge and subsequent staking by Vincent—are uniquely moving and add a welcome note of melancholy.

Fox Television must have said, "Hey! Let's get those kids from Fright Night!" because next thing you know, Bearse moved to the long-running "Married With Children" and Ragsdale starred in the shorter-lived "Herman's Head." Geoffreys went on to 976-EVIL, directed by the original Freddy Kreuger himself, Robert Englund, before setting off on a career in gay porn in the 1990s.

A 1988 sequel, with Ragsdale and McDowall reprising their roles, was not nearly as successful as the original. This time Charley is in college and finds himself seduced by Dandridge's sister, Regine (Julie Carmen), who wants revenge for her brother's death. There are a few unusual scenes in the film and Carmen is exotic, but it can't compare to the original. McDowall was nominated for an Academy Award this time around (to make up for the fact he wasn't nominated for the first one). I saw it at the drive-in during its brief theatrical run, and then it hit the video shelves.

1987 brought The Lost Boys, which introduced the formidable team of the two Coreys (Haim and Feldman). Dianne Wiest stars as Lucy (get it?), a recent divorcee who moves back home with her sons, Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Haim) to live with her cantankerous father (Barnard Hughes) in Santa Carla, a Santa Cruz-type coastal California town proclaimed by local residents to be the "murder capital of the world." Lucy begins dating the owner of the local video store while Michael falls in with a gang of motorcycle toughs, led by David (Keifer Sutherland).

It doesn't take long for David to reveal his gang's true nature to Michael—they're all vampires, and they want him to join in the bloody fun. At first Michael resists, but he is drawn to Star (Jami Gertz), a not fully transformed vamp they seem to be holding captive, and of course he starts making hormone-driven bad decisions. When he shows up floating outside Sam's bedroom window, the younger brother enlists the aid of a pair of strange locals, the Frog brothers (Feldman and Jamison Newlander) to help rescue him.

Sutherland brings a feral intensity to his performance, and Patric is channeling Jim Morrison big time. To reinforce the similarity, "People Are Strange" is used on the soundtrack at the beginning of the film and there's a Doors poster in the gang's underground lair. Wiest provides appropriate normalcy to the proceedings, and Hughes is pretty hilarious as the crotchety grandpa.

But what's the deal with Haim's character? Is he a queen in training? At one point, he's taking a bubble bath while singing the female part of a blues song in falsetto. You also see him wearing a T-shirt with the slogan "Born to Shop" imprinted on it. He has a sexy pin-up of Rob Lowe in his bedroom, and his fashion sense...well, let's just say he got into Jennifer Beals' Flashdance wardrobe.

Nevertheless, it's got effective humor, a good score, surprisingly nasty killings and a few nice twists to keep it moving. And the atmosphere is great. I love a boardwalk amusement park at night. It's unavoidably creepy. The film was a huge hit, and the Coreys had a career for the next decade or so.



At the 2008 Comic-Con in San Diego, the long-awaited sequel, Lost Boys: The Tribe was being heavily promoted. I was thrilled to see that there was going to be a special midnight screening of the film right after the Star Wars Fan Movie Challenge. Feldman, reprising his role from the first film, was on hand to provide an introduction, and I was all set to see the long-awaited sequel to a great film.

Boy, was I ever disappointed. Essentially replaying the plot from the first film, except replacing the two brothers with an orphaned brother and sister (complete with incestuous overtones), it was lackluster and dismally acted. Sutherland's half-brother, Angus, took the role of the head vampire, and he was just awful. I didn't even stay until the ending. Hell, I even got a vampire makeover at the Warner Home Video booth earlier in the day, providing them with a free moving billboard at the convention! Hmph!

Now the remake of Fright Night has been announced for 2011 in 3D. The cast certainly sounds promising: Colin Farrell as Dandridge, Anton Yelchin as Charley, Toni Collette as Mom and "Dr. Who" David Tennant as Vincent. Superbad's Christopher Mintz-Plasse, an acquired taste to be sure, is set to play Evil Ed. It's also going to be set in Las Vegas, so there may be some sparkly vampires around. Dreamworks in producing and Disney is releasing. All I can say is it better not be rated PG-13!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Let the Sun Shine In

When Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoos's Nest) decided to make a film of the musical Hair in 1979, most people (myself included) thought, "It's too late." The play was more than ten years old, and the Hippie messages seemed irrelevant in the drug-and-disco-drenched '70s.

What a revelation. This movie has been waiting patiently for us to come back to it, and it has aged wonderfully, which is to say not at all. More than 30 years after its release (gasp!) its messages are just as important. We're stuck in another meat-grinder war, our country is bitterly divided, and the internet—for all its positive aspects—takes away the essential human connection. We could use a refresher course in peace, flowers, freedom and happiness.


I've seen it many times over the years, but I watched it in that newfangled HD last night and I couldn't believe how fresh and vibrant it still is. Original writers Gerome Ragni and James Rado loathed it, and purists complain about alterations in the story, but hey, folks—that's why it's called an "adaptation." Berger is now the leader of the group rather than Claude, Woof is no longer bisexual (although he admits he wouldn't kick Mick Jagger out of his bed), and Sheila is a debutante instead of a radical. Sometimes it's wise to stick to the original (as Tim Burton did with
Sweeney Todd), but Hair really needed more structure to work as a film. On stage, it's more like a revue, with the barest smattering of plot to string the songs together.

I always thought Milos Forman was an odd choice to direct, although he certainly did a wonderful job. As it turns out, it was a labor of love on his part. In 1967, Forman attended the very first preview of the play at the Public Theatre in 1967. He went backstage and told the authors he wanted to mount a production of their show in his native Prague, but the Soviets crushed the short-lived "Czech spring" before that could happen. Nevertheless, his enthusiasm for the work never faded, and when Cuckoo's Nest made him a force to be reckoned with, he was allowed to lavish two years of production and 500,000 feet of film on his baby. As for the delay, Forman said, "Enough years have passed so we could avoid the tired rhetoric of those times and look back now with humor and understanding on what it was all about."

Great location shooting and Forman's European touch contribute immeasurably to the film's vitality. Good casting was extremely important, and the filmmakers assembled a truly sparkling troupe of actors, some just beginning their careers and two for whom Hair would represent their only film appearance. Everyone does their own singing, and it's great. Treat Williams as Berger projects the strong charisma that would make people fall for him—and they do. John Savage plays Claude Bukowski with a clenched jaw, making his transformation from moral, naive farmboy to demi-Hippie more dramatic. Beverly D'Angelo as rich girl Sheila Franklin brings a real warmth to her
role, and punk pioneer Annie Golden, as the pregnant Jeannie, plays goofy very well.

Hair
served as both the debut and swan song of guitarist and songwriter Don Dacus, who plays Woof. His fate is something of a mystery. He played with the bands Chicago and Badfinger and is said to have a role in "Cats" on Broadway in the '80s, but I can't confirm it. Dacus is on the far right in this photo of Badfinger. It was also the lone film appearance of Cheryl Barnes, who plays Hud's fiancee, although her singing career continued to flourish. Watch her stunning version of "Easy To Be Hard" from the film:



Twyla Tharp's avant-garde choreography works perfectly, and the scenes with crowds in movement are quite stunning. And thank God the filmmakers didn't "seventies" the music. At a time when disco godfather Giorgio Moroder was providing dance-oriented scores for films like Midnight Express and Foxes, the music in Hair has been allowed to retain its dignity, with original composer Galt McDermott merely speeding up some of the songs and giving them a more insistent rhythm, which works better with the visuals.

I loved Hair as a teenager, but I only knew it from the original cast recording and reading the play. I was almost in a production of it in South Bend, Indiana, at the long-gone but well-remembered Vegetable Buddies nightclub, but I moved to Los Angeles instead. So when the Met Theatre in Hollywood did a 40th anniversary staging of the play in 2007, I jumped at the chance to see it—twice, in fact. It was a marvelous production, and it gave me a chance to compare the experience to the film. They're very different animals, but I like them both.

I wish I could catch the Broadway revival (it closes next week), but the national tour is coming to the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in January. I'm sure you'll find me in line there. And a nice widescreen version of the film is available on DVD from Amazon for only ten bucks. Get your copy today!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Summers at Silver Dollar City

This is off-topic, but since we're heading toward summer vacation time, this is weird and even involves movies, I think we can make it fit.

When I was a kid, my family took a couple of vacations to the Ozark Mountains in Missouri. We stayed at a place called Alpine Lodge Resort on Table Rock Lake, but what was most thrilling for me and my sisters was Silver Dollar City, an amusement park less than a mile away.

From what I can tell by my research, the first time we visited was in 1969 (I remember watching the historic moonwalk on TV at the resort) and 1972 (the year that the "Fire in the Hole" ride opened at the park).

The Alpine Lodges are just what they sound like—Swiss chalet-style buildings with two floors, multiple bedrooms and kitchenettes, making them ideal for weekly family rentals.

At night the management would show 16mm films on a big wooden screen at the pool. Nothing really entertaining—as I recall they were mostly those free Chamber of Commerce travelogue reels—but it started my fascination with the projected image that persists to this day.

And the pool was cursed. On our first visit, I slipped on the suntan lotion-slickened cement and bashed my head, requiring stitches. On our second visit, my sister slipped on the same cement and jammed her toes through the spiky edge of the chain-link fence surrounding the pool, also requiring stitches, I believe.

Branson's transformation into the Las Vegas of the midwest was years away yet, but Silver Dollar City was a thrilling oasis of entertainment for restless kids who get tired of fishing and sightseeing. Coincidentally, the park is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, as I discovered when I went to its site, and I was amazed to discover that my two favorite rides—"Fire in the Hole" and "The Flooded Mine"—are still in operation. After all, it was quite a long time ago!

"Fire in the Hole" is an indoor roller coaster/dark ride. You rush through a burning town, and there are dips and twists you can't see coming. My favorite is the final dip, when you're heading straight toward the blinding light and blasting horn of an oncoming train. Right before the moment of impact, your car takes a long plunge while a prerecorded voice cries "Fire in the hole!" There's a splash when you hit bottom. Here's a video of the exciting conclusion:



"The Flooded Mine" is a water ride, but it's more in the style of "Pirates of the Caribbean" than "Splash Mountain." Riders are confronted by inmates who have overtaken the prison as well as the ghosts of those who perished in the flood. It's much gentler sounding than that description, although I understand they've added an interactive element: riders are given laser pistols to shoot at the prisoners and score points. They didn't have such newfangled things back in my day...not even on Star Trek. Here's a pretty decent video someone took of the ride just a couple of years ago:



The attraction that began it all is Marvel Cave, located near the park's entrance. It's pretty awesome, as I recall. There were also old-timey arts and crafts, like candle dipping, arcade games and cowboy shootout shows. Five episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies were shot there in 1969, and my young mind merged memories of watching the show with my visit to the park, and for years I was convinced I actually saw the cast there in person. I don't think that happened.

Interestingly, Dollywood was known as Silver Dollar City Tennessee prior to Dolly Parton's investment in the park, and it even had its own "Flooded Mine" ride until 1997.

Now that I know both Alpine Lodge Resort and Silver Dollar City are still open and thriving, it'd be a lot of fun to take a trip back there. What a time warp that would be.

If you're as fascinated by dark rides as I am, be sure to check out this terrific site.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

I'm Ed Wood and You're Not

Ever since Ed Wood's re-emergence into the public consciousness in the early '80s, thanks to the Medved Brothers' 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards, in which they declared Wood to be the worst director of all time, people have been quick to describe a bad movie as being "like an Ed Wood film."

Nothing could be further from the truth.

While you can certainly apply the adjectives "low-budget," ramshackle," "nonsensical" and "ridiculous" to the auteur's oeuvre, lumping merely incompetent films into an "Ed Wood genre" is not only unfair, it's also inaccurate. Wood's films are a genre unto themselves. Granted, they're all made on shoestring budgets, populated by horrendous actors, chock full of stock footage and mismatched shots, but what elevates them above merely "bad" status is that they also inhabit a bizarre universe of their own, with mad scenarios driven by the passions of the exuberant filmmaker himself. And they're not boring.

In the 1950s, Wood wrote and directed a group of memorably strange films that displayed his own peculiar worldview. His first, Glen or Glenda (1953) was a plea for tolerance of transvestism, when such things weren't even thought of in the American zeitgeist. Poverty row producer George Weiss wanted a film about sexual reassignment surgery, to cash in on the then-shocking news story of Christine Jorgensen's sex change, and Wood instead delivered a surreal tale about cross-dresser who just can't help himself. There is a brief, non-explicit surgery scene, presumably to placate the producer, but the rest is a jaw-dropping, film noir biography of Wood himself—a "normal" heterosexual man who enjoys wearing soft things....like angora.

Anxious to enter into a traditional marriage with a woman who will accept his proclivities, he is tortured by strange nightmares, probed by judgmental psychiatrists and watched over by a mysterious narrator—played by Bela Lugosi—who interjects dramatically-intoned non sequiturs that have nothing to do with the plot of the film itself. I wonder what the drive-in crowd made of this one as it unspooled on the screen.

After Glenda, Wood attempted to make more traditional, commercial narratives in the sci-fi and exploitation genres, but he just wasn't wired that way. Plan 9 from Outer Space, cited by many critics as the worst film ever made, is actually his masterpiece, a treasure trove of strangeness whose pleasurable impact perseveres even as other cheapjack sci-fi films of the '50s have faded into oblivion. The difference is that the other "bad" movies were made by money-hungry producers anxious to cash in on the packed drive-in theatres (which were then experiencing the zenith of their popularity) while Wood's films, as misguided as they may have been, came from the heart.

The plot of Plan 9 is an indictment of modern society (yes, I just said that), bringing aliens to earth to stop scientists from blowing up the sun. Why they'd want to do that, no one knows, but it doesn't stop Wood from pulling his familiar cast of stock players—Lugosi, Tor Johnson, the Amazing Criswell—into the story to add to the nearly-incomprehensible fun. By now everyone is familiar with the favorite moments of Plan 9—Lugosi's obvious double stalking the graveyard; the shower curtain in the airplane cockpit; the wobbly cardboard tombstones; Johnson's difficulty extricating his bulky frame from the open grave—and it's these moments that make it so beloved, along with the copious amounts of Wood's babblespeak dialogue.

It's gratifying to watch for those wonderful Wood touches in all of his films. In The Sinister Urge, a shocking expose of the smut film racket, he's cast the most terrifying female lead you'll ever see (the amazing Jean Fontaine)—and it's not even a horror film! There's also a folded-up movie screen in the corner of a detective's office and an endless sequence of a car backing out of a parking space, exiting the lot, making a safe right hand turn and slo-o-o-w-w-ly driving past the camera down the street. Hell, I guess in Woodworld if you're going to go to the trouble of photographing a car driving, you might as well use it all! Wood himself cameos as a young thug who starts a seemingly unprovoked brawl at a malt shop.

In Bride of the Monster, there's a scene in which a file clerk has a pencil stuck in her hair in forward-facing shots but not in the reverses. Rubber snakes hang motionless in trees. There are lots of close-ups of Lugosi's rheumy eyes and arthritic hands as he "hypnotizes" his victims. And, of course, in the film's climactic scene, he sits in a cold, shallow pond, being "killed" by an obviously phony octopus. Yet even with all this insanity, Wood writes a monologue for the old trouper that's actually rather touching...and Lugosi delivers it with relish.

By the 1960s Wood was unable to find financing for his projects and he began writing pornographic novels—anything to get by. Still, the monster nudie Orgy of the Dead, which he wrote but didn't direct, is made memorable by his out-there screenplay. Try to follow this plot: Criswell plays the Emperor of the Dead, who has a Morticia-like assistant (Fawn Silver), and two henchmen, the wolfman and the mummy. They've come back from the dead (for one night only!) to sit in a graveyard and watch breasty strippers perform their acts. I'm not kidding. They snatch a young couple who've just been involved in the calmest car accident you've ever seen, tie them to posts and force them to watch as well. While plotting a way to escape the monsters' clutches, the couple bickers. One of their more memorable exchanges:

BOB: They wouldn't dare bury us in the same grave...

SHIRLEY: I hope not. I hate you.

BOB: That quick, huh?

SHIRLEY: Yes, that quick.

It's so packed with these choice Wood-isms that you find yourself fast-forwarding through the absurd striptease sequences to enjoy the hilarious wraparounds. Here's Criswell's intro, which is almost identical to his Plan 9 intro—except in color!



Of course we have Tim Burton to thank for the semi-biographical film Ed Wood, which blends fact with idealized fiction. Wisely ending the story before the agony of the last years of Wood's life, Burton (along with a dynamic Johnny Depp) preserves the memory of a truly one-of-a-kind filmmaker at his most enthusiastic and energetic. I think it's a fitting memorial. It was also a zillion times more expensive than all of Wood's films put together!

I hope I've made my point. Truly "bad" films are defined by unoriginality, dullness and a craven contempt for their audience on the part of the filmmakers. Today, mind-numbing drek like the Hostel series and the remakes of Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street fall into that category—cynical heaps of commercialism that make even the cheapest piece of vintage drive-in flotsam look like a classic in comparison. I know I'd certainly rather see Bride of the Monster again—with or without MST3K enhancement—than to suffer through Rob Zombie's Halloween II even once.

I'm certainly not saying that Wood's films need to be viewed in solemn silence or celebrated as examples of extraordinary works of art—but in a way they are. After all, here was a man who didn't let lack a lack of talent or budget stop him from doing what he wanted to do most...to make movies. Wood died just a few years before his films were rediscovered and celebrated. I wonder what he would have thought of that ironic turn of events? Would he have embraced his unlikely cult status...or would he have been offended? I think he would have been pleased.

So invite some friends over, order some pizza, put on Plan 9 and have a good old-fashioned riff-fest. I'm sure that, wherever he is now, Ed Wood will be smiling down on you.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

"Splice": Science Fiction Takes On Science

Tonight I attended a screening of Splice at the American Cinematheque at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood with the director in attendance. The film was one of the midnight hits at this year's Sundance festival, attracting the attention of producer Joel Silver, who picked it up for his company, Dark Castle Entertainment.

Warner Bros. is opening it Friday, June 4th, in wide release, and I'm kind of surprised. This is the type of film that needs gradual exposure and nurturing, like 2008's The Hurt Locker, to reach its maximum audience.

The horror fans will turn out, of course, but the double-whammy of Get Him to the Greek and Shrek Forever After will surely stomp Splice. On a more optimistic note, I think it has a good chance to beat the second weeks of Prince of Persia and Sex and the City 2.

Adrian Brody and Sarah Polley play Clive and Elsa, a hotshot pair of genetic engineers who work for one of those imposing "big pharma"-type corporations. They've created some entirely new life forms by combining the DNA of various fauna, resulting in big, sluglike creatures whose cells can be harvested to benefit mankind, which pleases their employers...and their stockholders.

Elsa is much more ambitious than Clive, however. She wants to move their experiments—and their careers—along faster by introducing human DNA into the equation. Clive warns her not to do it, but strong-willed Elsa forges ahead, and the result is "Dren," a vaguely humanoid creature with a split-top head, faunlike legs, a stinger in its tail and a penchant for maturing quickly.

Since Elsa has used some of her own DNA in the formula (a fact Clive doesn't realize until later), Dren soon develops feminine characteristics that both scientists recognize and find themselves strangely attracted to for different reasons. With a set-up like this, you just know it isn't going to end well.

Splice is getting some pretty strong pre-release buzz, and it'll probably have an okay opening weekend, but I'm sorry that the humor in the tale is being so underplayed.

The lead characters are Clive and Elsa in a more-than-obvious nod to Bride of Frankenstein. All of the scenes with the lab equipment and procedures are hilarious and indecipherable, entering David Cronenberg's "biological horror" territory but with their own unique spin (a comparison that director Vincenzo Natali (Cube) had no problem with during the post-film Q&A, by the way), and events escalate into an "Oh, my God! Is this really going to happen?" scenario.

The negative reviews are coming from those who don't appreciate the outrageousness. The Washington Post and The San Francisco Chronicle slammed it without question, but Variety's Justin Chang seemed to get the humor in his January review during the film's original Sundance screening. The New York Times' Manohla Dargis also got it right, and even echoed my sentiments about the somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. Still, it's one of those films I have to think about and certainly see again before I pass a final judgment.

My question to Natali was about the casting of David Hewlett in the role of Clive and Elsa's opportunistic boss. Hewlett's a cult figure in my book, for Pin (1988), Scanners II: The New Order (1991) and Stargate: Atlantis. Natali explained that they were high school classmates and that he casts Hewlett in all of his films.

Here's a crappy photo I took with my phone of Natali speaking to the audience. I really have to get a better phone.

Natali plans to adapt a James Ballard novel as one of his next projects, and that goes back into Cronenberg territory. I love Crash (not the film that beat Brokeback Mountain at the Oscars). It'll be interesting to see what Natali does with the quirky material.

UPDATE

I'm already feeling better about the ending. When you take the film as a jet-black comedy (which I certainly did), the conclusion can be viewed as an over-the-top spoof of mainstream genre films that require much frantic action in the last fifteen minutes.

Splice shows that he has the same twisted mindset that Cronenberg possesses, and Cronenberg's adaptation of Ballard's Crash is the wildest of black comedies. I look forward to Natali's adaptation. Last month he talked to Fearnet about Splice and the upcoming projects.

Boy, the trailer is practically one scene from the entire movie...

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