#21 Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

I love 1970’s TV movies.  They are rarely good, but often have a good premise.  Here we have a spooky house and some little creatures that look like murderous raisins.  The raisins want Sally’s soul and they don’t like the light.  Sally knows this fact, yet the lights remain off for a good portion of the movie. 

No worries, with TV movies you can zone out for ten minutes and then enjoy the hook going into the commercial break.  Most breaks here consist of the raisins spewing venom, “We’re free, free free.”  We’ll kill her tomorrow, tomorrow.” Fade to black and we’ll be back after these words from Jimmy Dean Sausage.

Everyone complains about remake fever in Hollywood, but this is a good one to update.  I look forward to the Guillermo Del Toro produced version, coming in 2011.  Skip this one, and wait for that (I’ve included the remakes trailer below). 

What’s your favorite TV movie?  Comment Below

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#20 Strange Behavior

Bill Condon won an Oscar for “Gods and Monsters”, a fantastic portrait of friendship with a dark edge to it.  Condon’s first screenplay credit, “Strange Behavior”, is no less subversive and no less fantastic.  Combining the mad scientist and slasher genres, it is a film of fun little moments.

Strange things are happening at the local college.  So strange, that the top cop in town won’t let his son apply there.  Haven’t parents learned that forbidding one thing, may lead to kids dabbling in something worse?  “No son, please don’t get a basketball scholarship to Galesburg.  Oops, I forgot to stop you from participating in the school’s notorious psychological experiments.”  You know, the ones that turn normal kids into murderous psychopaths.

The standout moments in the film are the little throwaways, such as the creepiest scarecrow I have ever seen.  There’s also the police chief’s beer filled refrigerator, and dialogue peppered with choice lines that no real character would utter.  The quirk starts right at the beginning, with a scene involving the intimate morning grooming rituals of two characters, which made me question their relationship: father and son or lovers?  It is an oddly placed moment, telling the audience this is not your standard horror fare.  Luckily, it never skews far enough into David Lynch territory, staying firmly within the horror genre. 

The horror is top notch, with each murderous set piece inventively staged.  One happens as shadowy silhouettes.  Another involves a stalker in an old man mask, a mix between Uncle Fester and a deranged monk.  Each scene has a different feel, as locations and murderers change each time (this is no shock, as they do not conceal the identity of the killers).  The movie culminates with a satisfyingly clever ending.  

Horror comes in a variety of forms.  Some scare the heck out of you, others are just plain fun.  Very few are written by future Oscar winners.  It doesn’t matter if the lights are on or off when you watch “Strange Behavior”, it won’t scare you much.  However, it is great entertainment, so have fun with it.

Ever won an Oscar after writing a horror movie? Comment Below

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#19 The Monster Squad

I refuse to mess with nostalgia.  We all have those songs and films that have a special place in our hearts because of the point in our life when we first experienced them.  I love “Top Gun” and “Cocktail”, while Madonna’s “Crazy for You” makes me think of my first slow dance with a girl (oddly enough, so does “Stairway to Heaven”).  So I will never look down on any piece of pop culture.  That being said, I’m sorry geeks of a certain age, but I didn’t enjoy “The Monster Squad”.

Dracula, the Mummy, Wolfman, Creature from the Black Lagoon (looking a bit like the Predator thanks to Stan Winston’s creature design), and Frankenstein’s monster should be enough to make a movie work.  Or maybe a movie with that many monsters is cursed (“Van Helsing”).  Throw in a band of outcasts who need to stop the monsters from taking over the world and it should be Goonies with monsters (thanks for the reference Joel at www.forgottenflix.com).

You get all of the great 80’s movie beats: a creepy neighbor who will be a kindly old man who helps the kids, cowardly bullies, and the older tough kid who hangs out with younger kids because everyone his age must think he’s a joke (perhaps because he dresses like a 50’s greaser).  There is a montage of preparation before battle (accompanied by a song with lyrics, “Rock until you drop.  Dance until your heart stops”).  The end credits even include an innocent rap song, one about monsters and saving the day, thankfully a few years shy of the influence of gangsta rap.

The final confrontation – I don’t remember it.  I know I watched it, my eyes were facing the screen, but I don’t remember it.  There was something about the werewolf blowing up.  A need for a virgin or something . . . sorry I was about to become nitpicky.  It didn’t work for me, because it was too familiar.  If I had been a kid at the time I know it would have been different.

I’ll say no more.  Nostalgia is what it is, and if you have a fondness for this movie, enjoy.  I’ll stick with the awesomeness of “The Apple Dumpling Gang”, because that is one of the great movies.

What Nostalgic Film is Golden to You?  Comment Below

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#18 Lady in White

At the heart of all good ghost stories is a mystery.  The audience wants to know the ghost’s identity.  They want to know why the ghost roams the Earth.  “Lady in White” is a good ghost story, but the mystery does not lie with the haunted spirit.  All I wanted to learn was, “who is Frank Laloggia?”

The following are a few facts I learned about Frank during the film:

  1. He wrote and directed “Lady in White”, apparently independently.  He also recorded an introduction to the 20th Anniversary DVD of the Movie.
  2. He based the film on his childhood memories, naming the main character Frankie and even playing the adult Frankie in the film (an uncredited role).  Translation:  This is a very personal film for Mr. Laloggia.
  3. Frank’s childhood memories seem very familiar, including every small town cliché known to film.  There are dogs chasing kids on bikes, glaring nuns, and even wet cement to fall into.

I seem to have forgotten to mention ghosts.  There are two ghosts and even a child murderer on the loose.  The ghost story is quite dark and violent, even shocking at times.  Unfortunately, it gets lost in the childhood memories, which are very broad.  The two tones don’t work together.  Scenes about an Italian grandfather sneaking cigarettes cannot be followed by one where the ghost of a young girl relives her murder (this is one of the more interesting ideas of the movie, ghosts roaming free every night, until it reaches the time of their death, which they are forced to revisit).

Frank had the opportunity to make the film he wanted, and I applaud him for that.  We should support anyone who takes creative chances.  However, the downside of creative freedom is sometimes it doesn’t work.  Frank could have used some editing.  It could have been a classic ghost story, if the rest of the movie had been toned down a bit.  Frank attempted to create a Steven Spielberg film.  He didn’t quite get there, but at least he tried.

Have a Favorite Ghost Story?  Comment Below

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#17 Jigoku

What is hell?  Is it a state of mind, a physical destination, or just a concept used by the “Powers that Be” to keep the masses inline?  We’ll never know until we die, but that doesn’t stop artists and philosophers from contemplating the idea.  The Japanese film, “Jigoku”, provides a vision of hell, both on Earth and in another realm, and if it’s even ten percent true, I’ll never sin again.

The first section of the movie deals with Shiro, a college student in Tokyo, and his unhealthy friendship with Tamura, a suave minion of the devil.  Or at least he appears to be supernatural, appearing and disappearing whenever he wants.  Tamura fulfills the archetype of the seductive devil on Earth, tempting Shiro.  Tamura runs down a drunken Yakuza member with his car and flees the scene, leading to Shiro’s troubled conscience.  An effective metaphor on living a hellish existence on Earth, Shiro struggles with reporting the accident to the police or remaining silent.  As he struggles, another death occurs, he shacks up with a prostitute, and his life spirals downward.  The power of the section is unfortunately minimized as it does not feel real.  While the jazz score reminded me of the realistic “In Cold Blood”, I kept thinking of “Bedazzled” and anticipating an attack by Godzilla.

The second section follows Shiro on a visit to his family home, where his mother lies dying and his father cavorts with his mistress in the adjacent room.   The segment starts with a meditative style reminiscent of Ozu, but ends with a higher body count than the first five “Friday the 13th” films.  The centerpiece is a sake bacchanalia that leads to the comeuppance for every character.  To follow the films logic, if you sin you will face unnatural and untimely deaths.

The final 35 minutes of the film is “Dante’s Inferno”.  Shiro, and everyone who died in the film, travel to hell, a hell that looks a lot like the setting of an episode of “Lost in Space”.  The torments of hell are graphically depicted, surprising for a film released in 1960.  The gore makes the film feel more modern than “Kwaidan”, released five years later.  I would expect to hear a Japanese horror filmmaker, such as Takashi Miike, proclaim that this is a seminal film in his development.

The film doesn’t quite come together for me.  There are too many different styles playing together, as evidenced by the excessive number of references I used to describe it.  It doesn’t quite work as a cautionary tale or a philosophical exploration of hell, because I didn’t walk away with a clear understanding of the filmmaker’s beliefs.  The torments of hell provide the most compelling section of the movie, both for historical interest and inventiveness.  For gore hounds, a must see.  For the rest of us, there are better contemplations of the afterlife out there.

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#16 From a Whisper to a Scream

Time for a sports analogy: “From a Whisper to a Scream” is a scrappy team that shows a few moments of promise during the season, but ultimately, it banks on an aging veteran, doesn’t have much talent and finishes ten games back in the standings.  Translation: a few nice ideas, but not a very good movie. 

The aging veteran in this case is Vincent Price, who anchors the anthology.  The stories themselves aren’t complete.  They are fragments of ideas, enough to keep me engaged, but not enough to make them memorable.  They have some beyond the grave vengeance, a bit of voodoo, and some carnies.  The best idea is the fourth, involving a town of creepy kids. 

The breakdown in the film is in the execution.  While most of us will see cautionary tales against practicing voodoo or necrophilia, it is should be a warning to all aspiring horror writer/directors.  Good horror is atmosphere, it is a feeling of dread, where the viewer feels unsafe and anything can happen.  A good twist ending may be clever, but it does not make a great movie.  The first three stories rely heavily on the twist format.  The fourth, and best, puts us in a different world where anything can happen.  In this case it is a Civil War era town in Tennessee, inhabited by kids.  It is a nice riff on “Children of the Corn”.

I don’t want to be too hard on this low budget film, because it tried.  There is enough to keep you engaged, but not enough to make me remember after I finish this paragraph.  Going back to the sports analogy, it was like a day at the ballpark where I saw a nice catch in the 3rd, a monster home run in the 8th, and my team lost by five runs.  At least the hot dogs and beer were good.

What’s your Favorite Horror Anthology?  Comment Below

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#15 Kwaidan

This year I learned a great deal about Japanese cinema.  I viewed a few Kurosawa films, endured “Audition”, and had my first experience with Ozu.  I learned one important fact along the way: I do not watch Japanese films.  I let them wash over me, feeling their emotional impact.  “Kwaidan” is an anthology of horror stories, but it is foremost a quintessential Japanese film, and the time I spent watching the other classics prepared me for it.

“Kwaidan” should not be anyone’s first Japanese film.  It will not play as well to horror fans who want to try something different.  Instead, it is for fans of Japanese cinema who want a change of genre, away from Samurai tales or small family dramas and into the realm of the supernatural.  At times epic and visceral like Kurosawa, it is also quiet and meditative like Ozu.

The stories feel as if they are long told folk tales, giving the film an immediate gravitas.  Indeed, to the uninitiated Westerner, the stories are fresh takes on familiar subject matter.  Each story has some sort of moral or karmic consequence at its core, with small and large acts of betrayal as the most prevalent catalyst.  All four segments are ghost stories, with ghosts who are neither completely benevolent nor malevolent.  It all depends on how the human characters react to their presence.

While the stories are all very compelling, they do remain familiar.  What sets “Kwaidan” apart is the visual style.  Filmed on a sound stage, it has some amazingly epic sequences, particularly in my favorite segment, “Hoichi, the Earless”.  The visuals start immediately in the title sequence, a mysterious and hypnotic dance of ink in water.  In some ways it is like staring at a lava lamp, but the most foreboding lamp you have ever seen.  This sets the tone, and each story has its own style. “The Black Hair” is dark and cold, like the characters.  “The Woman of the Snow” is otherworldly, as if in a corner of the Universe where the unseen forces that control us can actually be seen.  Indeed, the eyes of the Universe can be seen in the night sky throughout.  “Hoichi, the Earless” is violent and epic, driven by the fire of battle and the pounding rhythms of the biwa Hoichi plays (which sounds like an electric guitar).  “In a Cup of Tea” has the style of a fun samurai romp, one written by Rod Serling.

The film is a departure from the typical Halloween fare.  The style is the key to the film, but in the end, “Kwaidan” tells good old fashioned ghost stories and it tells them in a beautiful way.  It is a classic of Japanese cinema, but it is also a horror classic.  I have watched it once, but I feel as if I’ve know it my entire life.  That is the definition of haunting. 

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