Saturday, March 5, 2011

Giving New Life to a Classic

Thanks to my buddy and CHUD writer Josh Miller, I recently had the good fortune to witness Stuart Gordon’s insane and innovative stage production RE-ANIMATOR THE MUSICAL. All I have to say is WOW!

Now, this may come as a surprise, but I’m not a musical guy. But I am a horror guy, and in recent years, some beloved 80’s horror properties have been given the musical stage treatment. Croneberg’s THE FLY (reportedly awful), THE EVIL DEAD (reportedly decent) - I have to imagine that RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD and FRIGHT NIGHT the musicals can’t be far off. But none of these productions have a real theater pedigree, and that’s what I think will set RE-ANIMATOR THE MUSICAL apart from the pack. This story plays great as a play/musical, in some ways helping to flesh out and improve upon the film version. And this is largely thanks to the director Stuart Gordon.

For those who are unaware, Gordon has a background in theater and in fact was only dragged into the world of cinema to direct the film version of RE-ANIMATOR back in 1984. The results are well documented and known by horror fans as RE-ANIMATOR is now seen as a classic in the genre. For the uninitiated, RE-ANIMATOR is a Frankenstein-inspired story written originally by H.P. Lovecraft, and the film version is a madcap zombie freak-out featuring an unforgettable performance by Jeffrey Combs as the maniacally driven Dr. Herbert West. It’s the stuff of legends and if you haven’t seen it get off your computer and do so now. But who am I kidding, you’ve seen it.

Anyway – the musical. The cast is uniformly great, the songs are funny and tuneful and the production is minimal but surprisingly effective. It’s almost as if Gordon originally conceived it for the stage and adapted it for the film version 25 odd years ago. What really impresses is the innovation with the gore gags, the standout being Jesse Merlin playing the evil Dr. Hill as a zombie who carries his own severed head around in the final act! While he sings! It really must be seen to be believed and it truly honors the late David Gale’s performance in the original film.

There are other great gags, lots of spraying blood and some surprising elements that improve upon the film – the love story between protagonist Dan Cain and Megan Halsey, for instance, works better with songs. Naturally, being a stage production there are disadvantages, and as good as newcomer Graham Skipper is as West, he can’t hold a candle to Jeffrey Combs’ perfectly modulated performance. But anyone who loves the movie is going to find this to be a blast, whether they have an affinity for musicals or not. I haven’t seen any other horror musicals, but I can say with ignorant authority that this is the one to beat. See it if it travels, and if it doesn’t, come to L.A. You can crash on my couch.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Competent Hackwork

I get Adam Green, director and writer of the HATCHET “franchise”. When I was 10 years old, I too dreamed of creating my own horror icon like Freddy or Jason or Abraham Lincoln. I too imagined making movies full of gore and gross out gags and boobs; violent adolescent fantasies with no discernible plot or redeeming social value. In truth, I still enjoy these base pleasures, so I admire that a guy like Adam Green comes along and makes his dreams a reality. He’s a fan first and foremost, he’s one of us, and he’s living the dream. I appreciate that, I can get behind it, and hey, I’m even more than a little jealous.

But there’s a problem at the root of this. The filmmakers who made our beloved Friday the 13th and Halloween films weren’t fans. They didn’t give a shit. They were hired to do a job and their main concerns were hitting the hallmarks of the franchise and getting the movie past the MPAA in time for the release dates. They weren’t concerned with playing insider baseball with the fans in the form of stunt casting or slavishness to continuity or winking references to other franchises (well, OK, they did that a little). Hell, they often failed to keep their own continuity straight. But Adam Green is concerned with all of these things, and as a result, his bid at a legitimate horror franchise seems counterfeit.

I’m not trying to knock Green’s skill as a director, although I would say that he's workmanlike at best. What he’s really good at is delivering the kills. His horror hero, Victor Crowley, delivers inventive, ludicrous and excessively gory violence, which is really what every slasher fan craves. On this count, Green succeeds without qualification. Anyone seeking blood-soaked splatter and mayhem should absolutely see the film when it is released unrated (a major feat in itself) on Oct. 1st.

But HATCHET II doesn’t really achieve anything beyond these simple thrills. The plot is belabored and stupid, and the film sits pretty much dead in the water until the killing begins in earnest halfway through. Do I really need to synopsize? Basically, the survivor girl from the first film (now played by tiny, cute-as-a-button Danielle Harris, sadly bringing nothing to the role besides fan credibility) recruits a bunch of rednecks to go back into the swamp to hunt axe murderer Victor Crowley (another fan favorite Kane Hodder). Crowley's already convoluted backstory is added upon, yet the rules of his existence and motives remain so maddeningly vague that even the characters comment on it. Is he a ghost? Can he be killed? What does he want? It doesn't really matter though, 'cause once the rubbery mutant hillbilly shows up the plot pretty much goes at the window, with characters just wandering around the swamp and getting butchered in hilarious fashion.

Speaking of hilarity, there's plenty of hit-or-miss jokes and even more fan service. Aside from the inexplicably bad Danielle Harris, the performances were solid, with Tony CANDYMAN Todd, AJ HOUSE OF THE DEVIL Bowen and the Comic Relief Black Guy being the standouts. There was also a shack-dwelling redneck with good comic timing. I think I was supposed to know who he was, but I didn’t. CHILD’S PLAY director Tom Holland was also in the movie, but I had to be told later who he was. I guess I should turn in my horror nerd membership card or something.

Nah, I’m not gonna do that, it's a good picture of me. Anyway, HATCHET II is deeply flawed, but I can't say I didn't have fun watching it. If you didn’t like the first HATCHET this won’t warm you to the "franchise", but if you did like it, you’ll like this one. Green has grown into a competent hack, er, journeyman director, and this film doesn't have the amateurish vibe of the original. We’re living in an era where fanboys are our new genre hacks, and I don’t know how I feel about it. On one hand, it’s cool to see “one of us” making it, on the other, it’s kind of sad that none of us are really that great.

Except for me. I’m awesome. I’ve got a kick-ass idea for a LEPRECHAUN reboot. I'm thinking Danielle Harris as the leprechaun. Green could direct. "This St. Patrick's day, the blood flows GREEN"!

Holla at me, Adam.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Cuts Like a Knife but Feels So Right

I fully expected my next post to be about PIRANHA 3D, but fate had other plans for me. I did see PIRANHA (without the D) and it was pretty good, but something happened on the way to that viewing that changed everything. The viewing was at the local drive-in, and the happening was the first film in the double bill.

That film was MACHETE.

MACHETE is a film by Robert Rodriguez that began as a fake trailer in 2006’s uber-flop GRINDHOUSE. How it happened that anyone ponied up dough to make a spin-off to a flop is mystery for the ages, but I’m glad they did because MACHETE is fucking awesome. It’s about a former Mexican Federale turned day laborer who gets mixed up in this whole crazy political plot concerning the US/Mexican border, but what it’s really about is how this badass Machete guy mows through his enemies in a hilarious and gory fashion. Machete is played by 66 year-old character actor Danny Trejo in what is sure to be his only lead role as an action hero. With his hard-lined, worn-in face and gruff delivery, Trejo is like a Mexican Charles Bronson. Maybe that doesn’t appeal to you, maybe you like your heroes young and pretty with smooth alabaster skin, in which case I think you can still find the new Twilight movie playing somewhere, but personally I’m going to stick with Danny Trejo. I guess I’m just jaded that way.

As cool as Trejo is, he’s surrounded by an equally cool cast of well-known faces. Probably most surprising is Robert DeNiro as the racist Senator who wants to put an electrified fence along the border. But for me the real standout in the cast was Jeff Fahey, an actor most people know from the hit TV show “Lost” but who I know from the awesome 90’s horror gem BODY PARTS. Fahey excels at playing scumbags, and he tackles his scumbag role in this film as if his scummy life depended on it. Some of the best moments are exchanges between Fahey and Trejo, including a text message gag that is so priceless that I’m going to let you discover it for yourself. The other cast members are good too, and there are memorable turns from Michelle Rodriguez, Don Johnson, Cheech Marin and Steven Fucking Segal, just to name a few. I could have maybe done without hot hot Jessica Alba, but my buddy liked her in it so maybe I missed something. She wasn’t as bad as she usually is, I’ll give her that much.

Lindsay Lohan was also in this as Fahey's slutty daughter who ends up as an uzi-weilding nun. I know on paper this sounds like the best part of the movie, but really it was just good for a couple of chuckles. This was the biggest flaw in my opinion: under-used Lohan. You do get to see her body double's boobs though. Oh well.

While Rodriguez fails in Lohan-usage, he really succeeds in nailing the proper tone. This movie pulls off the rare feat of being brutal and fun, just like the drive-in/grindhouse films it emulates. More so than Rodriguez’s own PLANET TERROR and Tarantino’s DEATH PROOF, this movie really gets it. Maybe it was the drive-in setting clouding my objectivity, but I really felt transported watching this. Best of all, I felt that the film had a clever and smart story to hang all the mayhem on, and the prescience of the political subject matter made watching Machete hack up white dudes even more enjoyable. I know that sounds weird, but it’s just how I roll, deal with it.

I think the SUV full of Mexicans parked next to us enjoyed it too, so I guess you could say that MACHETE really brings people together. WITH A VENGEANCE.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Perfect Combination

Man, this summer sure has been crappy for movies. Luckily relief is here in the form of a terrifying yet sexy half animal/half woman creature. No, I’m not talking about SEX AND THE CITY 2, I’m talking about SPLICE!

SPLICE is the heartwarming story of Clive and Elsa, a couple of rock n’ roll genetic engineers who say ‘fuck you’ to the man and go ahead and make their own illegal genetically engineered life form, just like I would. They create this being named Dren who’s kind of a hot chick in a freaky alien Matthew Barney sort of way, which is exactly how I would make her. Anyway, everything turns out wonderful and the world becomes a blissful utopia and the three of them walk off hand-in-hand into the sunset at the end. Music swells, roll credits.

Just kidding! That doesn’t happen at all! You’ve seen enough movies where hubris-filled scientists meddle with nature, so you know this isn’t going to go well. And SPLICE is very much in that grand tradition. The filmmakers (director Vincenzo Natali, screenwriters Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor) are very aware of that tradition, and the film is littered with references to FRANKENSTEIN, THE FLY and possibly even GREMLINS as weird as that sounds. Stuff that horror nerds like me get off on. But don’t let that turn you off from this inscrutable masterwork.

OK I know there’s been some sarcasm in this “review”, but let me get serious here for a minute. I REALLY LOVED THIS MOVIE. It is a tightly scripted, well acted, beautifully shot, suspenseful, creepy, scary, funny and thought-provoking film. It’s the rare case where a genre work satisfies the requirements of the genre while at the same time taking the story to daring and unexpected places. Basically the perfect combination. The character work here is really strong -- the two leads (Adrian Brody and Sarah Polley) have depth and are flawed and compelling, and the creature Dren (Delphine ChanĂ©ac) is both a marvel of acting and digital technology. Everything the film sets up it pays off in a satisfying way, while at the same time giving you something you didn’t think you wanted to begin with. You know, the way a good genre film should.

Look, I’m not going to lie to you. SPLICE is going to freak you out. You’re going to squirm in your seat, thinking to yourself “Are they really going there?” I’ll tell you right now that the answer to that is (SPOLIER) “Holy shit!!”. Your mom is going to be really uncomfortable at some of the plot developments so you might want to leave her at home. This is not the warmed-over familiarity Hollywood typically churns out, and if that’s what you really like but can’t admit it to yourself, you’re probably going to hate SPLICE. It’s sort of a miracle this is in theaters, and I must commend Warner Brothers for picking up this crazy independent movie and giving it a wide release. I’m sure they never would have funded it in a million years, but they had the guts to put it out there in a big way. Good job Bugs Bunny.

The point I’m trying to make here is that if you love horror, sci fi and genre work in general, you owe it to yourself to go see SPLICE in the theater. I can’t promise you’ll like it as much as I do, ‘cause I’m pretty much a weirdo and this film was genetically engineered specifically for people like me. But I do think you’re smart and I think you’ll get something out of it, even if that something is fodder for your terrible nightmares. I won’t tell you the fodder it gave me, you’ll have to see it and find out for yourself.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an experiment to perform.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Your Worst Nightmare


I had a dream.

I had a dream that Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes would somehow manage to deliver something worthwhile with the upcoming A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET remake. The original Wes Craven film, while being one of the better slasher movies of the early 80’s is hardly an irrefutable masterpiece, and while the role of the iconic dream slasher will always belong to Robert Englund, the casting of Jackie Earle Haley as the new Freddy Krueger was an inspired choice. Anyone who saw Haley as Rorschach in WATCHMEN or as the child molesting creep in LITTLE CHILDREN had every reason to believe he’d knock this one out of the park with a razor-fingered glove tied behind his back. Why, for horror fans, this could be a dream come true!

Keep dreaming little dreamer.

An admission -- while I have seen the remake of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, the cut I saw was at a test screening that was shown back in October of 2009. There were reshoots as a result of that screening, so it would be unfair to call this a proper review. But I did see a finished cut of the film, and I have held my tongue as the hype for this thing has grown, and I simply cannot hold it any longer. My tongue is coming through the internet, slathering slime all over your face as you scream in terror like a teenage girl. I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy.

So here’s the plot -- It’s the plot of a 1984 film called A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Have you seen that yet? If not, go watch it. Then we’ll be up to speed. I’ll still be here when you get back.

The new film follows the original so closely that for most of the running time the dream sequences/kills are basically the same, shot-for-shot. This decision baffles me since in every instance the sequences are done worse than they were in 1984. Think about that for a second. In the original, when Freddy’s form comes through the wall to swipe at a sleeping victim, it was done with a latex scrim. In the new version, it’s done with powerful computer software. AND IT LOOKS WORSE.

But I can forgive bad CGI, maybe the guy working on that one got food poisoning and had to run to the hospital or something before it was finished. Who knows. But this lazy attitude carries over to all of the dream sequences. The director of the remake is Samuel Bayer, who is best known for directing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. You kids won’t remember Nirvana; they were a good band that everybody liked and then the singer killed himself. Then he started stalking people in their dreams, starting with his ex-wife who was scary looking in her own right. Just kidding, that didn’t happen. The point is, Samuel Bayer is no Wes Craven. And Wes Craven is a world class hack who had a few decent ideas. Sorry, but it’s true.

The real crime of the new NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is lack of imagination. You’ve got this great concept and you just decide to redo the things that were done better the first time? That is just lame. Around the halfway point, new story elements are introduced, the only promising one being (SPOILER WARNING) the idea of ‘micronaps’. This leads to the best scene in the film, which takes place in a pharmacy. The ultra-bland and weirdly emotionless Nancy (Rooney Mara) is micro-dreaming of being stalked by Freddy in a boiler room. He’s swiping at her, hitting pipes with his claws while in reality stuff is being clawed off of the pharmacy shelves by an invisible force. Sound confusing? To Bayer’s credit, it isn’t confusing in the movie and is in fact very effective. I’ll give Bayer that one. But that’s all he’s getting.

Which brings us to the red-and-green striped elephant in the room. How is Jackie Earle Haley? He’s OK I guess. I’m gonna let that one sink in. Jackie Earle fucking Haley, brilliant actor and star of the original BAD NEWS BEARS is just OK as Freddy Krueger. To be fair, he doesn’t have a lot to work with; he mostly just mutters creepy things from the shadows, like an evil Bob Dylan or something. He gets to play Freddy pre-burn in flashbacks, and does as good job as you’d expect, but there wasn’t much to those scenes either. And that’s a real shame, because there’s a big reveal late in the film that could have been interesting and a good showcase for Haley’s talent.


In the new film, Freddy is a groundskeeper (which must be a sly reference to that Simpsons episode where Groundskeeper Willy was Freddy with a giant rake) at a kindergarten. All kids love groundskeepers, so naturally they befriend this fedora wearing creep. They start coming home with claw marks on them, and the parents accuse Freddy of the crimes. He is arrested, gets off on a technicality, and is burned to death in a warehouse by the parental mob. The point being that there is some ambiguity as to Freddy’s guilt this time around. This could have been an interesting twist on the original premise, but it all comes to nothing because Freddy really did abuse the kids. Oh well, never mind.

This type of missed opportunity is at the core of what makes this remagining (I’m copyrighting that word so don’t even try to use it) such an abject failure. It’s not that it isn’t scary. Freddy is the modern equivalent of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and hasn’t been scary for years. It’s not that the film is paced poorly and lacks even a single moment of genuine suspense. It’s not that the screenplay, by Wesley Strick and God knows who else, feels like it was actually written while sleeping. It’s that every time the film has the chance to go in an imaginative new direction, it pulls back to ape what the original did. The new film just doesn’t have the balls to be its own thing.

I could go on about how sad it is that no matter how much this movie sucks it will still make millions of dollars on brand recognition alone, or how it was a bad costuming choice to go with the iconic striped sweater because horizontal stripes don’t do Haley’s diminutive stature any favors, or how the boiler room imagery made no sense in the context of the remake because Freddy didn’t abuse the kids in a boiler room. I won’t even go about discouraging you from seeing A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2010. I saw an early cut of the film. I’m sure they fixed all of the glaring problems and will deliver a masterpiece of modern horror that will thrill and delight audiences in years and years to come.

Yeah right. In your dreams.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Make way for the Human Centipede!


If you’re anything like me, you spend a good portion of your day pondering the idea of sewing three human beings together ass-to-mouth. Well, there’s good news my friends, because Dutch filmmaker Tom Six has taken this existential quandary and put it on glorious celluloid with THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (FIRST SEQUENCE). The film has been making the festival rounds for the last year, churning stomachs all around the globe. This sick puppy makes HOSTEL look like ON GOLDEN POND, and has been picked up by IFC films for distribution. Expect to see it soon at your local Cineplex in IMAX 3-D. Just kidding, I wish. This will undoubtedly be a straight-to-video, limited release at best. It’s probably better that way. I don’t know if Joe Six-pack is ready for Tom Six’s “vision”.

Hopefully you’ve ascertained from that first paragraph whether or not you’re the type of person who will get a kick out of viewing THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE. If so, read on. The “story” is centered on a whack job surgeon Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser, a scene stealing German actor who comes off as a cross between Boris Karloff and Udo Keir with a side of Christopher Walken) who specializes in separating Siamese twins. The good doc has been retired for a while, but he’s got this problem, see -- he just can’t stop thinking about body modification surgery. The guy has got a real jones, and up until recently has been able to satisfy his obsession with his beloved “Three Dog”, three Rottweilers that he has sewn together, you guessed it, ass-to-mouth. Sadly, Three Dog is dead, and now Heiter is ready to take things to the next level by trying this process on human beings.

After a brief selection process, Evil Patch Adams settles on three subjects for his experiment. They are two annoying stranded female tourists (Ashley C. Williams and Ashlynn Yennie) and a Japanese guy (Akihiro Kitamura) who speaks no English. I never quite understood the logic as to how these three were determined to be the perfect segments for the ‘pede, but it probably had more to do with what actors would be willing to stick their faces in each other asses than any real story concerns. Either way, when the surgical hijinx finally ensue, the actors tackle their “roles” with real aplomb. They spend the second half of the film shuffling around on all fours, heads nestled sweetly into one another’s ass cracks. The real trouper of the bunch is Williams, who after a brief escape scene is selected to be the middle segment. She’s got it coming at both ends. Good job, Ashley!

Anyway, there’s a little more story involving some boring detectives, but really who cares? You’re here to be grossed out, and in that department THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE succeeds. The gross outs are more implied than visceral (there’s a great scene where the workings of the centipede’s shared bowel tract is, shall we say, explored) and the film does a great job getting mileage out of its limited budget. A good example of this is the climactic “chase scene” which will go down as the slowest and least distance covering chase of all time. The film looks good and is shot and edited well, the rigging is top notch, the best boy second-to-none blah blah blah. What’s important is here is that THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE it is an entertaining film built around a flimsy but wonderfully gross premise.

And that’s really the point, isn’t it? Over the last decade we have seen the horror genre taken to extremes with the whole “torture porn” movement of the HOSTELs and the SAWs and their legion of imitators. There are some who would like to see things go back to a simpler time of good storytelling and legitimate suspense and scares, and you know, I’m down with all that. But horror always has to strive to push boundaries, and as I sat there watching THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE, I felt a strange swelling. That swelling was pride, pride in the fact that there was one member of the human race, an artist dare I say, that was willing to take his alarming, anally fixated fantasy and put it on film for the whole world to see. The world needs more “visionaries” like Tom Six, and anyone who calls themselves a fan of cinema should stand behind this type of inspired nutjob if for no other reason than to see the beaten, horrified looks on patron’s faces as they shame-walk out of the theater, the terrible, shameful weight of what they’ve just witnessed crushing down on them with sickening finality. Six has already promised an even more disturbing sequel, and personally I can’t wait.

Screw AVATAR, THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE is the real “game-changer” of 2010.