Friday, February 14, 2014

"It Eats Everything": 14 Best Valentine's Day Horror Movies

So today's the day. Love is in the air and all that, but there's no reason blood, sinew and fear can't be in the air too, right? The horror genre is full of offbeat romances, love stories on the darker side of the spectrum and today's the perfect day to share them.

14. Jenifer (2006)

Jenifer succeeds as Argento's most romantic movie, despite star and writer Steven Weber describing its moral as "men will fuck anything as long as it has nice tits." Jenifer has a great body, but a monstrous face, and a taste for human flesh. No one should want to look after her, especially if it drives their whole family away and they lose everything because of her. But... dem tits.

13. Nekromantik (1987)

It's a strong love story in its own quirky, disgusting way. Basically, guy works on the roadside cleaning crew and brings back pieces left over from car accidents to his girlfriend. One day he finds a whole corpse. He brings it home and they have a threesome with it. It turns out to be better in bed than he is, so she leaves him for the rotting corpse, he gets mad, goes on a killing spree and stabs himself in the gut to kill himself while vigorously masturbating. See? Beautiful.

12. Dellamorte Dellamore (Cemetery Man) (1992)

Loosely inspired by the comic book tales of Dylan Dog, this follows a young gravekeeper who just can't keep the dead down in their graves. After the accidental death of the woman he loved at the hands of the living dead, he projects her face onto every woman he finds attractive thereafter. His attempts to reclaim what's gone always leave the ladies to meet the same unfortunate fate.

11. Let the Right One In (2008)

Truly a beautiful, haunting film. Young Oscar has a lot of rage inside of him. He might even want to kill the people who are mean to him. Along comes Eli, an androgynous vampire who tells him it's okay, and might even show him how to do it. It's coming of age, it's young love, it's predator teaching predator, and just about everything you could ask for in a truly heartfelt horror film.

10. Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Shaun of the Dead is advertised as a romantic comedy with zombies and that's exactly what it is. The movie succeeded because it has two of the best filmmaking elements that are very rarely balanced: gore and heart. It holds up because it's about getting your life together when the whole world seems to be (or is) falling apart, and succeeding despite it.

09. Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Dracula on screen is the most romantic of movie monsters. There's just something about the guy that people desperately want to fuck. Coppola's 1992 film is the most overtly sexualized version, save the 1979 film starring Frank Langella. This is oft-toted as the most accurate adaptation of the book and that's true, save the subplot that drives the film: that Mina is the reincarnation of Dracula's dead wife (first done in the '72 version written by Richard Matheson). The romantic side of this film works despite everything. It's lavish, over-the-top beautifully done and beautifully acted, and it might be the sexiest vampire film ever made.

08. Audition (1999).

This movie from Japanese master of horror Takashi Miike follows a man who, some years after the death of his wife, wants to remarry and is having trouble finding the right woman. He holds an audition for a movie in order to try and meet the right woman, and he does... or so he thinks. There's something weirdly beautiful about this incredibly disturbing film. Asami is a great antagonist, quietly but violently obsessive. A victim who will not be victimized again and who will stop at nothing to put her life exactly the way she wants it.

07. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

I'm sure people will think this should be #1 and if we were going in terms of quality, it probably would be (except for that comic relief old maid or the things in jars) but the truth is that Bride of Frankenstein, while a masterpiece, is sort of an unromantic movie. That's kind of the point. That's the whole crux. When the female monster is made, she thinks Karloff's creature is as ugly as everyone else thinks he is. Elsa Lanchaster gives one of the best performances in the entire scope of horror as both the Bride and Mary Shelley herself.

06. May (2002)

May is also a beautifully disturbing film from the always-incredible Lucky McKee. May's never had a friend, save for her doll Susie, who she can never touch because Susie's encased in glass. May is fixated on parts of people, but as she says "so many pretty parts, no pretty wholes." When people inevitably turn away from her, May realizes the meaning of her mother's motto "if you can't find a friend, make one" and begins to take the parts she loves most from the people in her life in order to construct the perfect friend.

05. Christine (1982)

Misery may be thought of as Stephen King's most tragic horror romance, but it's a little one-sided. The whole beauty of Christine is that it is a love story. It chronicles the love between a boy and his first car, an obsessive, destructive romance that no one can come between or they will pay the ultimate price. Even though one party is a car, a lot rings true about the more violent and obsessive side of love.

04. Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993)

Oh, this movie. It's mentioned once or twice on this blog. It's Warm Bodies done right the first time. Despite low budget and production values there really is a strong heart to this film and it really is a powerful love story. It's a bit ROTLD meets Hellraiser. Girlfriend dies in an accident, boyfriend takes her to his dad's secret government facility and brings her back. But she's different. She's hungry. And to stop herself from eating people she has to mutilate her own body, because pain keeps the hunger at bay.

03. Bride of Chucky (1998)

This one beat out Natural Born Killers for a spot on the list because it is Natural Born Killers, only with dolls and that's way more awesome. I'm not even kidding, I think Bride of Chucky is kind of a brilliant movie. It's purely European and completely balanced horror comedy that never takes itself too seriously while at the same time never forgetting to take itself seriously when it needs to. The romance at the center of the film is off the wall, completely destructive, but it works. It so works. Serial killers need love too, especially when they're three feet tall and plastic.

02. High Tension (2004)

There's not a lot I can say about this one without giving it away, so I'm basically going to cut to the core and say: see it. Get up, find it, see it now. French filmmaker Alexander Aja knocked it out of the park with this throwback to 70's grind house films, driven by an honest, romantic through line that brings the entire thing to its very messy end.

01. My Bloody Valentine (1981)

Is this the best film on the list? Not by a long shot. But something about it stands up among the onslaught of early 1980's slasher films. The calendar slashers exist for this purpose. A counterculture, horror culture alternative to all the other things people watch on their respective holidays. Don't want to watch traditional Valentine's Day fare? My Bloody Valentine will always be there for you, to attack, mutilate, tear and rend the holiday into something still very recognizable as Valentine's Day, but redder.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

13 of the Most Interesting Horror Movie Fan Theories

Fan theories are an interesting thing. Some make the movie more enjoyable, some are completely out there and frightening, (i.e.: Room 237, the JFK of horror documentaries) and some are just fun to think about. Here are a few of the best ones I've heard and speculated on myself:

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

The theory: Eugene is Billy (from Black Christmas)

Why it makes sense: This one is well-supported because it was actually the original intent, and was stated in the original script. The movie clearly shows that Eugene is an "old pro" of the slasher tradition, but it's never made quite clear exactly who he is. Billy makes the most sense because unlike any of the other classic slashers, Billy got away at the end, we never found out who he was and Black Christmas is considered by many to be a major precursor to the slasher genre, if not the first outright slasher film.


The theory: The aliens in the film are actually demons.

Why it makes sense: This is a nice theory because it actually makes a lot more sense than the film itself. For an alien invasion film, Signs has a ton of religious overtones (that's how they got Mel Gibson to do the movie) and the idea basically goes that this is the end of days, demons are beginning to walk the Earth, and this is not a family learning to come together in a crisis, it's a family being judged for their sins. The ending especially makes sense: the creatures are not aliens who happen to be allergic to water (while invading a planet that is 75% water) but instead are invading a minister's home, in which the water is blessed, and are defeated by holy water. That all makes for a much more satisfying horror movie.


The theory: Dewey is the third killer in Scream

Why it makes sense: This unsettling theory actually stems the duration of the franchise, and makes the most sense while considering the third film. The initial theory is that Billy and Stu could not have planned everything in the original film, so they needed another person to guide them. But instead of being Roman, Sidney's "long-lost brother" in Scream 3, it's one of her oldest friends. Basically, the reason each killer is so fixated on Sidney is that they were guided by Dewey throughout each entry, manipulated into tormenting this poor girl by her big brother figure. There always was something off about the guy.

Psycho/ Halloween

The theory: Sam Loomis in Psycho is Sam Loomis in Halloween

Why it makes sense: This one's more fun to think about than anything else. Obviously the name in Halloween was an homage, but the theory states that Sam Loomis, who was looking for a way out and new path throughout Psycho, was deeply affected by the tragic events that unfolded at the Bates Motel, and pursued a career in psychology. A few years later, he met a young patient named Michael Myers, and saw in him some of the qualities he'd seen before, and hoped working with Michael would prevent another Norman Bates. Instead of being able to do that, he was left on the sidelines, once again completely unable to help or control the situation. Loomis' pursuit of Michael may in fact be his own projected desire to undo the worst situation of his life and finally put the memory of his dear Marion Crane to rest.

Evil Dead (2013)

The theory: The Evil Dead remake is actually a sequel

Why it makes sense: Unlike some others on the list, this one is fairly common and even seems well supported by the film itself. The cabin in the remake is nearly identical, although that could come down to good production design. Unlike the original, a lot has clearly happened here. This is not one family that has suffered through the book's wrath, it's whole families, suggesting that the evil has been present here for a long time (say about 30 years.) The book is well-worn and full of warnings to stay away, run away, get the hell out of there, warnings by all the people who have made these mistakes before. Then there's the fact that the classic car from the original three films appears, and looks in much rougher shape than it did in those films, because so much time has passed. Some even believe that Mia and David are the niece and nephew of Professor Knowby, who uncovered the book in the original films. Then there's that last bit at the end there with Bruce Campbell, but that could just be a little nod. Or the return of the King.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

The theory: Nancy is Freddy's daughter

Why it makes sense: Bear with me. Nightmare is a fine film on his own and totally works. But the movies never totally explain his fixation on Nancy or the her house, which for some reason became the fixation of all the sequels. This theory, which I have pondered before, states that Krueger's fixation throughout the entire series on that house is his belief that it should have been his house, his daughter, his life, and every film is an attempt to reclaim that. Also explains why Marge kept the glove in the original film.

Friday the 13th: A New Beginning

The theory: Roy is possessed by Jason

Why it makes sense: Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, is infamous as being the Scooby Doo of the Friday sequels, where we think it's Jason the whole time and then the mask comes off and surprise! It's Roy, the paramedic. But in the movie, Tommy Jarvis is haunted by "visions" of Jason Voorhees, and the theory states that he's actually seeing Jason's ghost, who has connected with Roy's rage and taken control of his body. This ties Jason Goes to Hell into the earlier films, as that film showcased Jason's ability to possess people after his own body is destroyed.


The theory: Michael Myers can actually talk, is several background characters throughout the series

Why it makes sense: I like this theory. Michael Myers is a practical joker in the original film and is more interested in setting up scares than anything else. In Halloween 4, when the group of Michael Myers impersonators dissipate, one of them shouts "you thought it was me!" not "you thought I was him" and when they drive away Michael Myers is still standing back there. This could be an actual line of dialogue in the series by Myers himself. We already know that Michael LOVES to crowd the background of the scene in the series. The idea that he could be wandering the background without his mask actually makes a lot of sense. I've also heard the theory that he could be the man in Halloween 4 who points out Ted Hollister in the bushes and causes a bunch of rednecks to shoot their friend.


The theory: Ghostbusters died while crossing the streams, the second film plays out in purgatory

Why it makes sense: It would explain why the characters in the second film don't seem to remember the events of the original, save for knowing each other. The celebration at the end of Ghostbusters could have been posthumous, in which the group is now dead, but has not yet realized it.

Drag Me to Hell

The theory: Drag Me to Hell is about Christine's eating disorder

Why it makes sense: It would explain why all the supernatural things that happen to her are weirdly food-based. Christine is growing delusional and the torment she suffers is inner torment personified by her own mind.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

The theory: The cannibal family are relatives or immediate family of the police who investigated Ed Gein's farmhouse

Why it makes sense: Yes, Ed Gein inspired the movie, but I like this one. We never totally get a reason as to where the Sawyers came from or why they do what they do, and it's entirely possible that in this fictional scope the police who uncovered that seen went insane afterwards, and have spent the further years projecting and repeating the trauma on the poor unsuspecting young people that come across their farm.


The theory: Amity Island has been covering up shark attacks for years.

Why it makes sense: Well, first of all, they actually state "this has happened before" and are incredibly quick to cover it up. Especially in keeping the new hotshot police captain in the dark abut it. With the bureaucracy shown in the film, it actually makes a lot of sense.

The Thing

The theory: Childs was the thing at the end, the drink between them was one final test by MacReady to prove it

Why it makes sense: Of everything on the list, this makes the most sense, because it probably had to be one or the other at the end. MacReady had been shown filling the bottles with gasoline for use as Molotov cocktails, and if Childs drank out of the bottles, the gasoline would not have had an effect on him. Childs drank it, and there was no effect. The final moment that passes between them is a look of mutually assured destruction as the credits begin to play.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

"Jesus is Coming and He is Pissed!" The Ten Worst Stephen King Adaptations

In the last article we looked at the very best that Stephen King movies (those movies based on the works of Stephen King and not--generally--made by him) have to offer. Today we're looking at the other side of the coin. For every good King movie there are three stinkers and choosing the worst can be just as hard as choosing the best (sometimes it's harder, believe me). But even some of the worst Stephen King movies have a certain charm to them, as you'll see below. After a heavy internal debate, I've decided not to include sequels and prequels of King works that were not based on any actual stories by King, one because I wanted to stick to adaptations, but mostly because I didn't want to fill the list with Children of the Corn sequels.

10. Quicksilver Highway (1997). This is somewhere in the middle of the many, many collaborations between Stephen King and director Mick Garris. Sometimes they're great (Riding the Bullet, as you saw on the last list, was top notch. As is The Stand) sometimes they're really not great (this one, and another movie you'll see a little later on down the list) but usually they fall into that flat dead zone in the middle. Quicksilver Highway has one big thing going for it: Christopher Lloyd. This was the late 1990's when he was just starting to drift out of relevancy and he shows up here as a traveling salesman of sorts, selling terrible anthology tales. The movie claims to be "from the minds of Stephen King and Clive Barker" which sounds like the best movie ever made, but what it really means is that it's a half-handed adaptation and ultra low-budget adaptation of some of their weirdest stories ("Chattery Teeth" by King, and "The Body Politic" by Barker). An anthology of two stories is awkward, and you wind up spending the whole time looking for connections between the stories that just aren't there. Matt Frewer is entertaining as always.

09. Graveyard Shift (1990). This was the first story that Stephen King ever sold. And as a story, it's very entertaining in an EC comics sort of way. A Maine textile mill has a very serious--and deadly--rat infestation. As with so many King stories, it's a different story when committed to film. Graveyard Shift feels so completely like an old-school Charles Band movie that I'm still amazed that it isn't. The rats are weird, skinless muppets (or just rats, scuttling about--but mostly muppets) and the big "Queen Rat" needs to be seen to be believed. It also has the worst Maine accents ever committed to film, which is saying a whole lot. Brad Dourif shines in a minor role.

08. The Lawnmower Man (1992). Of all the probably hundreds of Stephen King adaptations this is the one King sued to have his name removed from. Take that in. Although, to be fair, it's mostly because the film was the result of taking two scenes from King's short story of the same name, and shoehorning them into a pre-existing and completely unrelated screenplay called "Cyber God" and then calling that an adaptation. The result is a very, very awkward movie. The bumbling idiot of the script is now a bumbling lawnmower man so that the title has relevance, while the plot revolves around a virtual reality program that can alter reality in which the idiot is king and can become all powerful. Cyber God, as a title, actually would have made sense, and then maybe this pre-James Bond Pierce Brosnan vehicle would have been somehow relevant. But taking King's name off the movie doesn't solve the issue of chimpanzees in Tron suits. Actually, the movie is a little bit wonderful, but not exactly good.

07. Dreamcatcher (2003). Stephen King has a talent for being able to put the most ridiculous shit (see what I did there?) on the page and writing it in such a way that we not only fully believe it, but it terrifies us. Dreamcatcher was the breaking point. Dreamcatcher is basically a retelling of It at a hunting lodge in northern Maine, adding an autistic boy for flavor, and replacing scary cosmic clown with aliens that come out of your poop. It's not exactly a fair trade. Morgan Freeman spends the movie wishing he was in another movie.

06. Trucks (1997). Here we have a truly special treat. One Stephen King story (and not a bad short story, at that) that actually made the list twice. "Trucks" featured in the Night Shift collection along with a slew of top-notch King stories. Trucks sticks closer to the story than its previous adaptation, Maximum Overdrive, but much like that film, the story is not the problem here. For one, the budget really, really shows. It's low and bad and no matter how many bad movies you take in, you'll feel bad for watching it. Basically, a bunch of people find themselves trapped at a gas station when 18-wheelers become sentient and decide to take over the world. Somehow, this still manages to be the second-worst adaptation of the King story.

05. The Running Man (1987). It kinda hurts. One of King's most poignant, scathingly accurate pieces of sci-fi, predating The Hunger Games in social commentary, with dead-on black humor about the nature of violence and television (it predicted a whole lot)is... turned into a loud, explosive action vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Social commentary? Punching! Hitting things! Explosions, yay! A story about a man forced to compete in mindless violence for people's entertainment is now simply mindless violence for people's entertainment. I guess Arnold gives some of his best inaudible screaming here, but it's kind of painful other than that.

04. The Mangler (1995). Oh, Tobe. Oh, how the mighty have fallen, and how far, and how fast. Tobe Hooper exploded onto the scene with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and made something culturally iconic, and yet his second movie, Eaten Alive, was one of his worst. He's had hits and misses and movies you completely forget, but the misses make up most of it. Yet he can do it. He has it in him to do it. He's the only director to appear on both the list of best and worst Stephen King adaptations here (because he did Salem's Lot, and that was incredible), and I think that sums up his career pretty well. Point is, The Mangler is not one of his finer works. But with an evil, possessed industrial laundry machine it would have been hard for anyone to really make that work on the screen, but at least he does it in true Hooper style. When the machine starts moving around to stalk its prey, the movie really becomes a treat. Robert Englund appears under a ton of old age makeup and some random bionic legs and totally hams it up, being apparently the only person to understand what kind of movie he's in.

03. The Tommyknockers (1993). There have been a lot of Stephen King miniseries to make it to television, and many of them have had high ambition but have not quite had the budget to make the story work on film. This is one of those true rare miniseries treats to apparently have neither ambition nor budget. To say it's the worst King miniseries is nothing short of a milestone. Granted, the book is oft-malingned as King's worst, but I enjoyed it. Clearly more than the filmmakers did. Most of the plot lines from the book are completely removed, characters who appear in one or two scenes (mind you in a big book centering on a whole town) are fleshed out into primary antagonists. Seemingly made with the thought "Traci Lords seducing men with alien lipstick is clearly more important than whatever the book was about, I don't know, I didn't read it." In their half-assery they could have at least changed the ending to something more film-able. One hilarious note about the book: King wrote this tale of a struggling alcoholic at the height of his own alcoholism without ever realizing he had written it about himself until much, much later.

02. Sleepwalkers (1992). Remember up there when I talked about the frequent collaborations between Stephen King and Mick Garris? Well, with this as a starting point it's amazing they ever put together anything worthwhile at all. Sleepwalkers was directed by Garris with an original screenplay from King himself, which just completely boggles my mind. I cannot believe Stephen King wrote this movie, like, I have actual denial about it. Because there is nothing about it that works. Anyway, the story is about a couple of cat people who suck the souls out of teenagers. The cat-people are a mother and son who are 100% no questions asked romantically involved, and in a very physical son. Also, last name Bates, hardy-har-har. The movie also suggests that these soul-sucking people who both turn into cats and can only be killed by them (I know) is the origin of vampire legends, which is a little like finding out Santa Claus actually is real, but he kills cats because he's allergic and bangs his own mom.

01. Maximum Overdrive (1986.) "If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself." This is what a terrifying, coked out Stephen King says in the trailer for this movie. Yeah, side note, in addition to taking this list, it's probably the worst horror trailer of all time. Stephen King does not just narrate the trailer, he tells you everything looking right at you with those weird coke eyes and staring into your soul. Stephen King probably doesn't want to remember himself in the 80's, but man he went out of his way to make sure no one ever forgot. Anyway, this is the first adaptation of "Trucks" only it's about all machinery deciding to rise up against man at the same time (there's an unfortunate vending machine incident, in a movie that is a series of unfortunate incidents) Emilio Esteves tries to take the spotlight as leading man, but the real leading man is a big angry 18-wheeler that wears the Green Goblin's face like it just massacred a toy store. If I haven't said it already, Stephen King wrote and directed this film himself. Hell of a way to find out you're just not a director, and he has wisely directed nothing since.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

"Fun is Fun, And Done is Done:" Top Thirteen Stephen King Adaptations

Stephen King, master of the modern horror story, and still reigning er, king of cinematic horror. His works don't always translate to the screen with the same power they had on the page, but when they do, they do. And that's what we're looking at today. For the purposes of the blog, we're only going with the horror movies derived from King's works. Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption are both incredible and have enough things said about them. From small town terrors from vampires to clowns, to isolated psychological terrors to psychic predictions you really don't want to be right. King's work covers every kind of horror there is, things in the darkness of the night and the darkness of the soul. Horrors from without and within. And when everything comes together on the screen (which as you can see from the wealth of adaptations, is not the norm, but I digress) it, well, shines.

13. It (1990). What's there to say about It? It's classic. Tim Curry's performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown is a thing of legend. In truth, everything I could say about It at this point probably wouldn't be doing it any favors. Because when people talk about the great qualities of It (and rest assured, they are there) they are generally only talking about the first part of this two-part miniseries. The story centers on childhood nostalgia and confronting the (in this case literal) demons of the past. All of the flashbacks find themselves part of the first part of the miniseries, almost a self-contained story. As a result, the second part falls flat. But God, that first part. Pennywise makes himself known in memorable ways to each of the children and the young cast outshines their older counterparts.

12. Creepshow 2 (1987). One of the standards one can't help judge a Stephen King movie by is: how Maine does it look? Sometimes they fall very flat. Creepshow 2 gets major points for shooting in actual Maine. The opening puts us off to a wonderful start with the second chapter of the EC comics styled anthology, with Tom Savini giving a splendidly over-the-top performance as The Creep. He spins us three yarns: Old Chief Wood'n Head follows a vengeful wooden Indian who seeks to avenge the deaths of the shop owners who took care of him and return Indian treasure to its people. The second story, The Raft, is what most people seem to remember about this movie. It's based on the story of the same name from King's collection "Skeleton Crew." A bunch of horny teenagers swim out to a raft in the middle of the lake where they are picked off by a ravenous, mysterious oil slick and it's just as wonderful as it sounds. The third and final story "The Hitch-Hiker" was originally intended to be included in the first Creepshow, but time and budget saw it cut out and replaced by the "They're Creeping Up on You" segment that we'll get to later. Creepshow 2 is one of the last great 80's anthology movies, but it was not a bad note to go out on.

11. Silver Bullet (1985). Werewolf movies often seem harder to come by than great vampire or ghost movies. But the 80's, whether they're good or bad, they're entertaining. Luckily, Silver Bullet leans heavier on the good side. With a script by King himself and performances from Corey Haim and Gary Busey in their absolute prime. handicapped Marty, his sister, and his Uncle Red seek to put a stop to the werewolf plaguing their small town. The werewolf effects weren't exactly up to the quality of other films of the era, like The Howling or An American Werewolf in London. But still, better effects than the Howling sequels. So there's that.

10. Riding the Bullet (2004). Not, in fact, a sequel to Silver Bullet (although I would like one of those, movie Devil.) This is the best of Mick Garris's (thousands of) Stephen King adaptations. A young man has to confront death, the nature of it, and learn a thing or two about glorifying it as he has a hitch-hike that turns out to be very literally life and death while going to see his mother in the hospital after a potentially fatal stroke.

09. The Mist (2007). Frank Darabont shined with his versions of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. Here, he decided to try his hand at adapting some of Stephen King's actual horror stories. This is a very Lovecraftian story about people trapped in a supermarket, surrounded by very thick mist and the creatures inside of it, trying desperately to get inside. The controversy surrounding the ending of the movie has caught a lot of people to keep this off their lists, but it's a hell of a ballsy ending and King himself has said he thinks it's better.

08. Christine (1982). First of all, John Carpenter. Secondly, this is a great allegorical, unsettling love story about a boy and his first car. Nothing ever comes between Arnie and Christine. Not bullies, not his best friend, not his actual girlfriend. Arnie has power, has something of his own for the first time in his life, and he will let everyone die before he lets that power go. The car is a major character, somehow believably terrifying. Christine remains a great film in Carpenter's career, and an underrated classic.

07. The Shining (1980). What? The Shining isn't number one? Don't get me wrong. The Shining is a powerful, incredibly unsettling and atmospheric horror film but as a King adaptation it sort of falls flat. What started out as a creeping haunted house story about a man's trouble with his own past and his own doom built on false promises and succumbing to evil, becomes a story about a very unstable man in a delirious, shattered narration of a trapped mother and son trapped with a father who cannot be held on a leash much longer. Still powerful, still has great performances, and it still has fantastic imagery. But when a thousand people give you a thousand different meanings, then that means the meaning was lost in translation.

06. Pet Sematary (1989). Once again, major points for filming in Maine. And, major points for a horror movie directed by a woman (even rarer then than now). Also, a script by King. It would have been hard to mess this movie up, so luckily they didn't. It doesn't live up to the novel (does it ever?) But it's one of the most terrifying adaptations, for sure. A haunting rendition of "The Monkey's Paw" and what happens when you repress or refuse to accept death and its place in the world. As Jud Crandall so eloquently put it: "Sometimes dead is better."

05. 'Salem's Lot (1979). Tobe Hooper barely held onto his career after his debut masterpiece, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But every hit he had after that was worth it, and Salem's Lot shines the brightest. Still the most powerful miniseries adaptation. One of the best of King's novels is adapted into a story of small town secrets boiling to the surface, through vampires. Mr. Barlow, the Dracula figure of King's novel, is reimagined as a silent, stalking Nosferatu-type figure. The vampire effects, cheap as they were, still scare the living hell out of me.

04. Creepshow (1982). Creepshow, is simply put, a masterpiece. This is the only film on the list actually starring Stephen King himself, and good lord does he shine. The tagline is "The Most Fun You'll Ever Have Being Scared" and it is 100% right. With a script from King and the directing talents of George Romero, plus Tom Savini handling make-up effects. Each segment is delightful. We've got a mogul returning from the grave for his long overdue Father's Day cake, Stephen King as a lovable hick covered in alien moss, Leslie Nielsen burying Ted Danson in the sand and leaving him to drown followed briskly by Danson's revenge, a monster in a crate who's been stewing hungrily for a very long time, and a germ-obsessed business tycoon with a major bug problem.

03. The Dead Zone (1983). David Cronenberg's most accessible movie does not sacrifice anything visually. It's still a powerful, character-driven film and Christopher Walken gives the performance of his career. A man wakes up from a coma five years after an accident, and he wakes up with some extra talents. He can see what's going to happen to people. Either right away, or a little way down the line. He tries to be reclusive, but he can't stop helping people, and he learns to live with it. But when he shakes the hand of a man running for president, he sees the potential end of the world. A nuclear holocaust and a man crazy enough to bring it about. So the question he must ask himself: if you knew Hitler, and you knew what he was going to become, would you kill him?

02. Misery (1990). First of all, Kathy Bates. She gives an all-time great performance for which she received a well-deserved Academy Award as a reclusive woman who pulls her favorite writer out of a car crash and keeps him bed-ridden so that he can write a new book, just for her. Here, we see some of the author's fears come to light: the number one fan. And she, like the movie, is completely unforgettable.

01. Carrie (1976). The first is the best, but there's been plenty of great ones along the way. This is the perfect marriage of a great King story and stylish, quality film. Brian de Palma shows his skills as one of the all-time greats, and Sissy Spaceck and Piper Laurie give unforgettable performances as telekinetic, lonely, friendless Carrie White and her deranged fundamentalist mother, the true monster of the piece. The film unravels along with Carrie's psyche right up until the prom, when enough is finally enough and we are treated to one of the most lavish, colorful and iconic massacres in horror movie history.

So there you have it. That's my take on the best horror films from the minds who adapted the mind of Stephen King. Stay tuned for my list of worst Stephen King adaptations coming soon.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Evil Comes in All Sizes: Ranking the Puppet Master Series

So, I recently delved into a massive, masochistic undertaking. I sat down and watched all the way through the Puppet Master franchise. For those of you who don't know, Puppet Master was a 1989 movie from legendary B-Movie producer Charles Band--the man responsible for such movies as Re-Animator, Ghoulies, From Beyond, Laserblast, Trancers, Subspecies, Demonic Toys and a whole slew of others. It was the first film from Full Moon Entertainment after the bankruptcy of Band's Empire Pictures. Puppet Master was one of the most successful home-video releases of all time upon its initial release and has launched a legacy of straight-to-video horror fare and merchandising, not to mention becoming the most successful straight-to-video series of all time.

The problem? I just oversold it way too much. Because what started as a great B-Movie series about wacky killer marionette puppets has gone through massive budget cuts (for, again, a series that started out straight-to-video) and two bankruptcies (Full Moon Pictures into Shadow Entertainment into Wizard Video into Full Moon Features) and so, ten films later things are not exactly where they started. But nonetheless, Full Moon claim they're on top with yet another new Puppet Master film on the way in addition to a TV series coming to their recently launched streaming network in 2014. It's a long journey with continuity errors that would make the Friday the 13th franchise jealous and story lines ranging from unique to insane to vaguely racist, so without further ado, let's begin the countdown.

11. Puppet Master: The Legacy (2003). What's the worst thing about any TV series? That moment when they first run out of ideas and hit the inevitable clip show episode. It's one trope that obviously couldn't really translate to film, right? Well, nobody told Charlie Band. This movie marks the only one to be made during the company bankruptcy and maybe the only film of all time co-produced by Blockbuster. Puppet Master: The Legacy starts as a noble effort to bridge together to the (many) continuity errors of the series, explaining what happened to most of the characters who never appeared again and trying (and failing) to make sense of the convoluted timeline. The problem is that it goes through all this in about 15-20 minutes of new footage shot with two actors over two days, while the rest is filled in with "flashbacks" to recap the entire series so far. Oops.

10. Retro Puppet Master (1999). Another entry that started with very noble intentions, the best thing I can say about this movie is that at least it doesn't use any stock footage. This one's a prequel set in 1902 starring a bunch of people who were maybe thinking about attending acting school some day. Let's not kid ourselves, the stars of these movies are the puppets, their great designs and wonderful effects. Neither of those things are present here. Instead, Retro Puppet Master focuses on a youthful Andre Toulon (the titular puppet master of the series) and his very first batch of living puppets, which are based on the unused concept art for the original movie, no joke. And they look it. This also marks the first PG-13 puppet master film, so we can't even look forward to some interesting kills. Instead, the pseudo-puppets face off against a gang of demonic blues brothers while Toulon sometimes remembers to do a French accent.

9. Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys (2004). Growing up as a Full Moon fan (back when they were a popular b-movie company, and had fans) this felt like one of the most hyped up movies I could ever remember. It was probably one of the movies I spent my youth most looking forward to, alongside Freddy vs. Jason. It was first announced way back in the early 90's and was going to be the second Demonic Toys film and the fourth Puppet Master film, but they couldn't pull it together at that time, or multiple times over the next twelve years. It was finally scheduled for release in 2000, with an accompanying action figure series and a plot that would have seen Traci Lords buying the puppets on eBay. But once again, this brings us back around to the bankruptcy. Around 2000, Full Moon went under, completely. Charles Band, who knew fans were looking forward to the film, also knew he didn't have anything near the money to make it, so he sold the rights to.... the SyFy (SciFi) Channel. What we have now is a 'movie' starring Corey Feldman and Vanessa Angel as rival toy manufacturers, one who owns the puppets, one who owns the Demonic Toys. The film borrows most of its plot from Halloween III as the toy lady wants to use a commercial to take over the world with Demonic Toys on Christmas morning. The showdown of the title takes under four minutes.

8. Curse of the Puppet Master (1998). The was the first major dip in quality for the Puppet Master series after Full Moon split from distributor Paramount Pictures in 1994. After Puppet Master 5 claimed to be the final chapter, this was deemed worthy to reinvigorate the franchise. This one centers on an old man who runs a doll museum and recruits a brainless gas station attendant to build him a new puppet (but what a twist, he actually plans to turn him into a puppet). This entry is actually nearly a shot-for-shot remake of, of all things, another B-movie titled Ssssss! Anyway, by this point Full Moon was so out of money that the puppets just sit there the whole time and when they do move 90% of their action is stock footage taken from the other movies.

7. Puppet Master: Axis Rising (2012). The most recent movie, made after Full Moon's declarative comeback continues to be a step in the right direction but with still too little budget to make much of any kind of impact. It's got a little more puppet action and tries to have a bit more story than the average fare (especially with what Full Moon's making these days) and it relishes in being campy as fuck. After all, this is the first Puppet Master movie actually directed by Charles Band (who won't admit he directed "The Legacy" under a pseudonym). Released under the title Puppet Master X, because Band refuses to acknowledge Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys as a film and insists this is the tenth in the series.

6. Puppet Master: Axis of Evil (2010). This was Full Moon's comeback tour. The first film since '04 and the first from Full Moon since '03. For the first time since 1993, the puppets have the ability to do their respective things, head drilling, head spinning, vomiting leeches, etc. without resorting to stock footage. It even tries to have a plot line, picking up from the flashback prologue of the original film and continuing the story from there. But the acting is not up to the ambition of the script, especially the racist, overdubbed Dragon Lady.

5. Puppet Master 4 (1992). We did it, guys. We made it to the watchable movies. We've made it through the Z-movies and into the B-movies. Puppet Master 4 and 5 were shot at the same time, initially intended to be one big theatrical movie titled, of all things, Puppet Master: The Movie. I don't know either. Here, we've got most of the puppets in action and the great stop-motion effects in their heyday. The plot shifts from earlier entries to a crazy story about a genius robotics nerd working to crack the key to artificial intelligence who uncovers Toulon's living puppets. But, it turns out the magic that makes the puppets live was stolen from an ancient demon who is willing to kill to get it back. The puppets find themselves the good guys, protecting the nerd and his friends from puppet-sized demon minions called Totems. It's a lot of fun from a time when Full Moon had the budget to at least half-match their ambitions.

4. Puppet Master 5: The Final Chapter (1993). And it should have been. The last absolute blast of a Puppet Master movie is the second half of the story started with 4. The plot is mostly the same, demon sends a super Totem in his own image a couple days later to finish off the nerd and his girlfriend while a sleazy scientist wants to figure out a way to benefit from the puppets, somehow. It takes about 40 minutes to get going, but the effects are great and the showdown between the puppets and the Totem pulls out all the stops and would have been a perfectly high note to end the series on. But alas. Worth noting that the film lost one day of production because the entire crew walked off the set when their checks collectively bounced.

3. Puppet Master II (1990). This is probably the most accessible Puppet Master film for new people looking to step into the series. As a slasher, a killer toy movie, and a campy B-movie good to watch with a group, this one works the best. In other words, Puppet Master II works the best as a horror movie. The plot is very simple. The puppets have used the fluid that keeps them going to animate their creator, Andre Toulon. But now they have precious fluid left. But! A group of paranormal investigators have just taken up residence in the hotel that the puppets and their pruny master call home. Steve Wells gives a great, if awkwardly German, performance as an undead Toulon under a lot of invisible man bandages. The kills are great and one of the best puppets, Torch, sees his introduction in this movie.

2. Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge (1991). This film almost feels like an honest to god motion picture. The plot, story, and occasionally the acting are better than a straight-to-video sequel about killer puppets has any right to be. Toulon's Revenge is a prequel set during WWII that sees Toulon as a kindly old puppeteer who just wants to entertain the children. His show, however, pokes fun at Hitler and so his company is shut down and his wife is shot. The Nazis also uncover the secret that his puppets are in fact alive and they want to find out how. Badly. This film adds weight to the series by centering the emotion, depicting Andre Toulon as a tragic antihero and lets us in on the secret that the puppets all used to be human. Shot down by the Nazis, all of them just wanted the chance to keep on fighting, and so their souls were transferred into wooden bodies. We get to see the origins of classic puppet Leech Woman (Toulon's murdered wife brought back for a special kind of revenge) and the bread-and-butter of the franchise, Blade (Nazi doctor who died trying to make amends and do the right thing, taking a bullet so Toulon could escape). Six-Shooter, a fan-favorite puppet, makes his first appearance here. He was initially designed as a ninja/mercenary type, but changed to a cowboy to visually represent Hitler's opposition.

1. Puppet Master (1989). This one is about on equal quality with the previous two, it's admittedly nostalgia that makes it take the top prize. This one will always hold a special place in my heart. It takes a little time to get going, but this is a fun and quirky little slasher about a group of psychics who are called to a hotel by an estranged colleague, only to get there and discover that their one-time friend is dead. Mix into the plot an old puppeteer named Andre Toulon who killed himself in the hotel in the 30's, and you have a steadily building thriller... about a bunch of killer dolls. The puppet effects are the stars of the film, and the puppets are indeed stars right from their first appearance. Blade, Tunneler, Pinhead, Jester and Leech Woman all get to show off their talents in unique and imaginative ways. The film that launched an ill-fated franchise, nearly a dozen sequels, but when you sit down and watch it as a casual B-moviegoer, you can kind of see why.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

"They're All Going to Laugh At You": Why the Carrie Remake is Destined to Fail (For All the Wrong Reasons)

So, I was browsing my facebook as I do and after about a hundred memes featuring broken, abused teens and the million upvoted comments of them to "get the fuck over it" or "get a life" or, most commonly, "go crawl in a hole and die," I happened to see an ad for the Carrie remake due this October. And then a few things started to click for me.

For the uninitiated, Carrie was a film by Brian de Palma based on the debut novel of Stephen King. It centered around a bullied, abused, meek teenage girl named Carrie who began to develop telekinetic powers which manifested more and more as the movie developed and the bullying got worse and worse, hitting their peak after an awful prank at the senior prom. In the end, Carrie loses her grip, loses herself to her own power, and the repressed young girl becomes completely unhinged--and her entire town pays for it.

I began to realize immediately why this just won't work anymore, and it has little to nothing to do with how Carrie turns out as a film. It won't matter because when De Palma made Carrie, when Stephen King published the novel, the title character was an outcast that any teenager could identify with. They immediately latched onto and understood her struggle, even the unpopular ones. Many teens wrote to King having been bullies themselves, who saw the other perspective and realized the harm they were inflicting on people. One would think, one would hope, that these themes would be universal.

I mean, do kids still have these problems? Absolutely. But: will kids admit to them? Not in a million years.

One look at facebook and something has clearly changed, at least in the teenage market that a movie like Carrie would have to try and capture first. And that is that nobody identifies with the bullied girl anymore. There has been such a resurgance in bullying and teen suicide that nobody has any idea what the hell to do about it (so they settle for the fan favorite "do nothing at all"). We may post about it, we may "share" an occasional cause, but the truth is that as a culture we've pretty much begun to embrace bullying. It's a big problem, I even wrote a whole book about it, but now is neither the time nor place to plug.

No, what remains is the problem, and the root of the problem is this: when the 70's version of Carrie came out, everyone watching the film could identify with that girl's struggles, and everyone could feel her pain. In even such a stylized, gory film, there was an overabundance of empathy. Everyone watching latched on to Carrie White and hoped against hope that she would be able to turn things around for herself. And now, when kids go to see the remake they will be identifying with everyone AROUND Carrie. Chris Hargensen, Billy Nolan and their posse are the identification point of the modern teenage audience and it is a cold, hard truth.

I'd like to think not, but this a time when two to three hundred kids will all tell gang up on one classmate via facebook to tell them to kill themselves, just to see if they can pull it off. Hell, look around you. Look at how many human rights are being questioned every day now, it's not just teenagers, bullying is becoming a natural go-to state.

So the truth remains that when kids crowd into the theaters (if they're even interested enough in the movie at all) to see the new version of Carrie, no longer will they be thinking "why doesn't she do something about this?" but: "why don't they just kill the bitch?" It's blunt and uncomfortable to think about, but it is the truth. I can promise you that it is.

I guess all I can do is hope the movie is good and ask people to judge it on its own merit, who knows, maybe it won't even be good. At this point, that might be the most merciful death it could hope for. Because the kids watching, they're all going to laugh at it.

Since Carrie came out, that last shock--that ending sting that invented the jump scare--has cemented a legacy spanning over thirty years. With so many reprintings of the novel, a "sequel" to the movie and a TV miniseries, it is still the image of blood-soaked Carrie from De Palma's film that stands out in the collective mind. And part of that was due to that last jolt, talked about for so many years, the possibility that Carrie could jump up, and get you at any moment. Now, it is the actual ending of the film that holds the most truth: the last moments in which Sue Snell wakes up and realizes that Carrie's hand, reaching out of her own grave to grab at her, was only a dream. And that Carrie White is dead and gone.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Day of the Woman: Defending 'I Spit On Your Grave' as Feminist Horror

So, we're going to be doing something a little different with the blog today, but it's something I'd like to do more of in the future. Basically, this is going to be somewhere between a rant and an essay, and I'll be getting into actual analysis of a particular film. In this case, Meir Zachi's 1978 film, 'I Spit On Your Grave.'

As someone who does nothing but sit around and talk (often thoughtfully, I hope, though it does depend on the movie) about horror movies, I was recently drawn back into the seemingly endless debate about whether "I Spit On Your Grave" has any merit. With a sequel (an ambiguous sequel unrelated to either the original film or the 2010 remake) finally on the way, I have to wonder why it is that this film is suddenly being revisited. And the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. But we'll get to that.

When "I Spit On Your Grave" was released in 1978, it was not only panned by critics, but called vile, repulsive and harmful. The critics at this time responded the same to every slasher film. The argument was different here, though. Slasher films were entertainment, they wanted to keep you on the edge of your seat, they were violent, but the violence was exciting, and passing. It never lingered. Basically, they wanted you to have fun.

This movie did not. And for that, it is a mistake to call it harmful. The only thing is, now critics have forgotten all of those slasher movies, and the fans have always ignored the reviews that did call them repulsive, but even a good many lovers of the horror film, well, this is one movie they've sided with the critics with. That or you get, "yes, it's sick and hateful, but I like, sick and hateful movies." And the thing that drove me off the deep end regarding this movie was something I read last night, from one of the most well-thought-out books on exploitation films out there.

Basically, they stated that even though it became a cult film and has its fans, there is no one who could argue "I Spit On Your Grave" as anything remotely feminist.

Well, hello, there. Here I am. And for better or worse, that's just what I plan to do.

For those of you who don't know, the movie follows a young woman, a writer, who moves into a small house in the country to work on her book. She immediately attracts the attention of the local men. They play nice, they watch her, and then they break in, rape her, and leave her for dead in the woods. But she doesn't die. She crawls home. She stares at the wall for about a day and a half. And then with quiet, casual reserve she exacts her revenge on every single one of them. It's not pleasant to watch, even if there is some cosmic, primal satisfaction in watching a woman castrate the man who raped her.

My first point is, if we're not supposed to take violence in film literally (and believe me, we're not) "I Spit On Your Grave" should not be the one exception. Literally, this is not a way that any problem should be solved, but in a primal form of expression, yes it damn well should. The violence in this film represents one thing: power. When the men are violent to her, they are brutal, and the camera soaks it all in. This is harsh, and perhaps too long, but almost necessary for her to do what she has to do afterward. When she kills them, the murders are increasingly violent, but only because she has taken that power from them and is now spitting it back out. By knife, by rope, by ax. One by one.

Should a woman kill her rapist? Not at all. Duh. But there has to be a satisfaction in seeing that trade off of power. Ideally, it needs to happen. In a better world, the tradeoff of power is there. A woman will identify her rapist, take him to court, and he will go to prison. That is a restoration of power. It is not the world we live in today. That is why I think "I Spit On Your Grave" is not only feminist horror, but necessary feminist horror, and why I don't find it remotely surprising to see a sudden remake and sequel come about in the last couple years.

The words "rape culture" are something you hear tossed around a lot. And the more I think about it, the more it's kind of true. We're in a world right now when news coverage of a rape in which the men were charged and convicted will still talk about what a shame their being caught for rape will do to their athletic careers. If this is rape culture, I Spit On Your Grave is counter-culture.

Watching the film again, as every rapist pleads for their life, you could take every word they say and it sounds exactly like something that's come out of FOX news in the last week. One claims she "deserved it because of what she was wearing" another tells her that "you can't blame me, a man's just a man" all excuses that are not only made frequently by alleged rapists, but by the media reporting on them. So when the main argument against I Spit On Your Grave as feminism pipes up: "if the movie is feminist, why is the rape shown in detail? Why doesn't the camera turn away?" Then I still have an answer, even though I don't like it.

The world we live in is both violent and not entirely un-chauvanistic. As sick as it sounds, showing what happens to the lead character in detail is probably the only way to ensure the entire audience is on her side. Because while the rapists still claim she deserves it for what she was wearing, nobody in the audience sounds an agreement. Because they saw it. They were right there in the dirt with her. They saw the whole thing from the woman's perspective, and that is precisely what all of these stories reporting on rape seem so frighteningly anxious to avoid. They don't want to think about it. This film makes you think about it. Tough love, yes, but I think we're all better off for it.

This is why I feel the film is both important as a horror film and a work of feminism. Why I think it is the perfect movie to revisit now. Is it an exploitation film? Of course. Was it intended to be as deeply read as I just went through? I kind of doubt it. But the film stands on its own regardless. It is a violent, cold statement against a subject that will never be anything but violent and cold. It is a film about power, and about putting it in the woman's hands and shutting up about it. We shouldn't have to go through a violent statement like this just to see the subject of rape from the victim's perspective. That should be obvious. But until 100%, as a country, we don't have to, then at least we do have violent statements like this. A powerful film that will show you everything you need to see, if you can stomach a look.