Thursday, October 29, 2009

Halloween week movie viewing part deux

This is off-topic but I've got to rant for a moment. Being a bicyclist in Los Angeles is a risky proposition. Today I got bitten by a stupid lady's stupid dog, and no fewer than three moronic motorists decided to hurl their three-ton hunks of metal in my path even when I had the right of way. But I digress.

On Saturday I 'll be at the New Beverly Cinema in Hollywood to see 1988's Night of the Demons (remade this year) and the Dario Argento-produced Demons (1986), both cheesy, gory fun. The New Beverly is the last surviving revival theater in Los Angeles. There used to be lots of them—the Fox Venice, the Tiffany, the Rialto, the Nuart (which is now a first-run arthouse)—but the home video revolution killed them all off. And even though it's easy to get these films on video, it's much more fun to watch them with an appreciative audience. For those of you who will be stuck at home handing out candy, here are my final picks for your Halloween enjoyment...

1. Who greenlighted this mess? Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977).

What would Halloween be without a Linda Blair movie? Since the original Exorcist has been done to death, I thought I'd focus on its woebegone sequel starring a tipsy Richard Burton, confused Louise Fletcher and—above all—Blair herself reprising her role as Regan MacNeil, now an extremely buxom teenager who has been left in the care of Sharon (Kitty Winn, from the first film) because Ellen Burstyn wisely ducked out of this debacle.

Evidently Mom feels guilty about being away making movies all the time, so she has Regan under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Jean Tuskin (Fletcher). Hmmm...nothing says "I love you" than a visit to a shrink. Anyhow, Tuskin's office is located in what appears to be a combo mental health clinic and day care center. Along with the various patients suffering from various mental illnesses, there are also groups of carefree children laughing and playing. And did I mention the entire place is made of glass? All the offices, all the walls. So much for doctor-patient confidentiality. And I guess they took it on faith that one of their more troubled patients wouldn't pick up a chair and begin smashing down the walls one by one.

Enter Father Lamont, played by an extremely strange and sweaty Burton. He has been given the assignment of investigating the exorcism and Father Merrin's (Max Von Sydow) death from the first film. Barging into Dr. Jean's office, he insists upon interviewing Regan, but she refuses, claiming that the exorcism had done her more harm than good.

I'm not going to go into a long description because I want to have room to talk about other movies, but let's just say the remainder of the film contains a hilarious psychiatric device known as a "synchronizer," a badly-matched double of possessed Regan (Blair refused to wear the makeup again), James Earl Jones in a giant bug suit (I'm not kidding), Fletcher getting her chest massaged by Blair and a thoroughly deranged Burton carrying on about things that are "eee-vil." Watch this with a bunch of friends and make a party out of it. It's so easy to Mystery Science Theater this turkey, it's like shooting fish in a barrel. You can read a lengthy and extremely hilarious review of it here.

2. Ugly Stepchild—Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982).

Another sequel that was thoroughly loathed on its original release, Halloween III dumps Michael Myers and replaces him with a story of a Halloween mask maker whose diabolical scheme is to plant pieces of Stonehenge, long thought to be a site of witchcraft and supernatural power, into his masks. Then, when a special commercial is broadcast, a signal would be sent to the chips in the masks and all the children wearing them—and watching—would succumb to horrible deaths.

Audiences expecting another installment of "the night HE came home" were disappointed by a '50s-style tale reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers but with modern gore. However, as with other films of the era, time has been kind to III. The atmosphere is nice, there are some grimace-inducing deaths, and Dan O'Herlihy, as Conal Cochran, the sinister owner of Silver Shamrock Novelties, has a field day chewing up the scenery.

Tom Atkins (The Howling) stars as Dr. Dan Challis, who is understandably miffed when a patient under his care, who had been discovered clutching a Silver Shamrock mask and feverishly muttering, "They're going to kill us all," is viciously murdered in his hospital bed. The man's daughter, Ellie (Stacy Nelkin) arrives and together they travel to the coastal town of Santa Mira to unravel the mystery. Impersonating store owners picking up an order of Silver Shamrock masks, they are given a VIP tour of the factory. But when Challis returns later and discovers Cochran's diabolical plot, it's a race against time to stop the cursed commercial from being broadcast.

Now, there are plot holes you could drive a truck through, to be sure. I mean, there are only three mask designs: a witch, a pumpkin and a skull. Even in 1982, why would this meager selection become the top-sellers in the country? How in the hell did Cochran manage to steal a whole block of Stonehenge and fly it to California? How did he become an all-powerful billionaire from selling Halloween masks? Why would Ellie, who is at least a decade younger than the frumpy-looking Challis, immediately want to jump his bones when they get into their motel room? And why did they include a shot of Tom Atkins' butt?

The Silver Shamrock jingle will haunt your nghtmares. Watch it if you dare. And it raises more questions: Would the kids in New York die three hours before the ones in Los Angeles? What about daylight savings time? And what if the commercial was pre-empted by a news event or the World Series going into extra innings? I'm just saying.

3.  The classic: Last Man on Earth (1964).

This first adaptation of Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend" is a shot-in-Italy creepfest starring Vincent Price as Dr. Robert Morgan, the titular last man. A mysterious plague has swept through society, transforming everyone else into vampire-like creatures who cannot stand the daylight. Immune as the result of a vampire bat bite he received on a visit to Panama, Morgan spends his days hunting these creatures down, staking them and burning them in a communal pit. His lonely, terrifying nights are spent in his boarded-up house with the monsters outside trying to break in and moaning his name: "Mo-o-o-rgan!" Flashbacks reveal that he is a research scientist who had been trying to find a cure for the virus but had obviously failed.

When he meets Ruth Collins (Franca Bettoia), she reveals to him that she is a member of a group of survivors who have been infected but are taking an experimental vaccine, allowing them to move about in the daylight when it is in their bloodstream but reverting to vampire form when it wears off. Their plan is to kill off the unsalvagables and rebuild society. Since some of the people that Morgan had killed as vampires were actually part of their group, Ruth had been sent to spy on him.

While she is asleep, he gives her a transfusion of his blood, apparently curing her, and they decide to take the cure to the others. Before they can do so, the survivors attack, as their plan all along was to kill Morgan before he could destroy them.

Clearly an inspiration for Romero's Night of the Living Dead and far superior to the Charlton Heston hamfest The Omega Man, Last Man delivers atmosphere and chills in spades. Price is wonderfully understated as the tormented Morgan, and even the Italian actors and scenery (when it is supposed to be American) doesn't prevent you from getting a good case of the goosebumps. Long in the public domain, this was only available as a washed-out bargain basement video, but the MGM DVD restores it to its monochrome widescreen glory on a double feature with the Ray Milland sci-fier Panic in the Year Zero. There's also a colorized version available, but I'd avoid it like...the plague!

This is one to start at 11:59 on Halloween night and watch it with all the lights off. If that doesn't get to you, nothing will.

Happy Halloween!

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