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Wednesday, Oct 25, 2006


As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, how Italian horror maestro Dario Argento made his name in two competing concepts of fear.


Dark and mysterious are the twin paths Italian director Dario Argento travels on. It’s a duality that has come to define, and in some cases, confine, one of macabre’s most meaningful artisans. Down one road lies the realm of the human soul, a place easily perverted by the notion of man as the most monstrous, destructive force in all the world. It is here where his giallo efforts exist, films based on the famous Italian pulp paperbacks known for their yellow – or ‘giallo’ – covers. From the animal trilogy The Bird with Crystal Plummage, Cat O’ Nine Tales and Four Flies on Flies on Grey Velvet to efforts like Tenebre, The Stendhal Syndrome and The Card Player, these reality-based thrillers have used the cat and mouse game of killer and cop to completely reinvent the notion of crime and punishment. His cinematic specifics have gone on to influence filmmakers the world over. 


Down the other trail, however, is a place even more enigmatic and disturbing. It is here where you will find the surreal supernatural efforts that have come to form the foundation of Argento’s sizable legend. While there are those who swear by his crackerjack murder mysteries, citing their power as both inventive narratives and examples of nuanced craftsmanship, it is his jarring juxtaposition of light and dark, real and unreal, good and evil that has had the true lasting effect for the filmmaker. Using the central theme of Thomas DeQuincey’s Three Mothers (Tears, Sighs, and Darkness) and mixing elements both actual and avant-garde, Argento strove to give horror a vibrant, visual representation. He didn’t just want knives and blood to be the basis for all fear. No, along this motion picture pathway, the recognizable and the dreamlike exist in a near incestual bond, unholy and slathered in sin.


Discounting his efforts for Italian television, it is amazing to note that the ratio between Argento’s tripwire whodunits and his paranormal pictures is almost three to one. He has only made three wholly supernatural cinematic statements – Suspira, Inferno and Phenomena (released in the US as Creepers) while the rest of this oeuvre is overwhelmed with death, dismemberment and detectives. When fans and scholars discuss his films, they too diverge along predisposed conduits, some certain that its his giallos that will live on long after his spook shows have faded, while others champion the challenges raised by the auteur’s otherworldly epics. To the fans of films like Inferno or Phenomena, Argento represents a real leap in style incorporating substance. He manages to make the macabre both beautiful and baneful, luring in audiences with his gorgeous visuals while simultaneously scaring them to their very core. It also helps that, with only three real examples to go on, the horror hits far outweigh the murder mystery missteps.


Indeed, when viewed linearly, Argento has gone from exciting to erratic when it comes to his signature serial killer sagas. Recent efforts like The Card Player and Sleepless have been considered inconsistent among critics and fans alike, and many feel the need to go back as far as Tenebre to find a pure examples of his hyperstylized human horror show. This, unfortunately, leaves out one of the director’s best efforts – 1987’s Opera. Using the majesty of the classical music format as an amazing backdrop for his slasher like leanings, this story of a cursed production, and the murderer enforcing the fear, is seen by many as Argento’s last legitimate stab at giallo excellence. Everything that’s come since – his American thriller Trauma, his Black Cat part of the Poe piece Two Evil Eyes, even the sensationally sick and somewhat sloppy Stendhal Syndrome – is viewed as lesser examples of his one-time artistic acumen.


But perhaps the most telling argument against his later works is the abject brilliance of the movies he made in the past. It is usually difficult for a trendsetter to stay ahead of the fad or frenzy they have created. The most popular superstar or commercially viable format only need to overstay its cultural welcome a month or two too long and it’s a trip into oblivion or outright hatred. Many artists faced with this dilemma simply give up, or revisit the circuit of golden oldies, recycling their greatest successes until there is no longer a paying audience. Reinvention, sometimes viewed as the key to continued longevity, can help, unless your experimentation is so wild and uncharacteristic that you lose the core audience who followed you up until this point.


Such was the case with Argento in 1975. He had created one of the most successful strings of films in the history of Italian cinema: the unintentional Animal Trilogy. With achievement came the deluge of copycats and imitators, each taking Argento’s use of the camera and convention breaking to try to repeat his success. His career sat at a crossroads, in more ways than one. An attempt at a comic western (The Five Days of Milan) had failed, leaving the reigning king in a dangerous state of audience languor. He needed something both to challenge his skills and to regain his crown as the king of the thriller.


As usual, it was a dream—about a medium reading the mind of a psychopath—that brought about the idea for another terror tale. But this would be a crime story like none other before or after, a gruesome saga of a disturbed mind on a murderous spree to cover up the past. The screen would be filled with blood, deep red rivers of gore. Style would be heightened and the experimentation with angles, techniques, color, and sound would be as important as the emphasis on story and acting. This would be the birth of a new style of giallo, one filled with artistic as well as criminal elements. And it would mean the reawakening of Argento, not just as a commercial director, but as an important cinematic visionary. In reality, the film did indeed mark a turning point for the director. It bridged the gap between previous real world based movies and began the ascent into the realm of the fantastic and the frantic. Profondo Rosso, otherwise known as Deep Red, would mark the true origins of his style and the sense of horror that would herald and haunt Argento the rest of his career.


Frankly, there is no better Italian thriller, giallo, detective, horror, or slasher style film than Deep Red. It resonates with all the visual excesses and subliminal undercurrents that Argento would later explore to their maximum capacity. It is a tour de force of camera, composition, and film craft skills. It is such a benchmark of smart, passionate film construction that it surpasses expectations and thwarts potential imitations. In his rethinking of the psycho killer genre, he focuses less on the slayer and more on the climate of fear. He wants the threat to come from the unknown, not some clear-cut origin. Because Argento is one of only a handful of horror directors who appreciates and uses the apprehension of the unfamiliar to provide mood for his movies and motivation for audience dread, his films are viewed as disturbing and uncomfortable. But this does not mean they are unsuccessful. Indeed, Deep Red is a terrific thriller, and finally confirmed Argento’s genius to those outside the foreign film market.


Success drove the director to push even further. He had even greater ambitions. Since he first read about them in a collection of essays entitled Suspiria De Profundis, Dario Argento had been fascinated with the Three Mothers, the imaginary rulers over the dominion of pain and suffering. Conceived as a complement to the entire Graces/Furies/Muses notion of mystical, powerful women, their origins do not derive from some ancient teachings or cultural folklore, but from the hallucinatory mind of an opium addict. Seeking inspiration and a chance to move away from the genre that made him a superstar, Argento took the tale of the Maters Suspiriorum, Tenebrarum, and Lachrymarum as the logical components to a trilogy. Each film would deal with a different Sorrow. Each would focus on a different location. Inferno, Argento’s equally artistic and brilliantly confusing 1980 follow-up to Suspiria, focused on Death herself, the Mother of Darkness. But with the success and acceptance of his experimentation within the conventional mystery drama of Deep Red, Argento wanted to branch out and tackle true supernatural horror. Suspiria is that startling starting point.

Understand this is Dario Argento’s version of the supernatural we are discussing, one rooted deep in European manners and superstition. In Argento’s world, ghosts do not kill people, knives do. As he views the paranormal, it manifests itself in everyday, mundane brutality. Possession may lead to illness, or even death, but more times than not a victim will be cut, or hung, as a means of quenching paranormal bloodlust. Suspiria is a horror film unlike any other in that it ventures far away from the standard “old dark house” or “living creature” notions of terror to invent a world where setting, style, and sound are more frightening than the bloody victim on the floor. In Dario’s realm, death is a release, an explosion of bound tension and a surrender of will. His work is the natural link between classical, gothic horror and the existential terror of post-modern cinema. Argento is truly one of Italy’s best, most misunderstood, and underappreciated directors. His influence on American horror is evident. Just look at any film by John Carpenter, for example, and you will see the trademark frequencies found in Argento’s cinematic stockpile.


It’s more than his avant-garde style that confuses and angers people. He is not willing to play fair and is more interested in how a film makes you feel than how it resolves its plotline. Something can be beautiful, and confusing as hell, but as long as you see the grace in its presentation, the meaning is unimportant. Argento confounds the fan looking for cold-blooded killing (though he does provide many sequences of graphic mutilation) or expecting the conventions of a standard horror ideal. Suspiria is the best example of this conundrum. While it is a film about witches, we hardly see any of their activities or rituals until the end. While it is a film about the power of black magic, the death is all common and realistic (except for a demonically inspired animal attack). Indeed, Suspiria is its own self-contained universe, a place where palatial settings mask hordes of meat-rotting maggots, or beautiful stained glass becomes a deadly pointed weapon of destruction. Viewed as a trip in to Argento’s private realm, it is easy to see why many call it a masterpiece. Suspiria takes convention and tosses it into a room filled with barbed wire fencing, letting it struggle to survive the oncoming visual and aural onslaught.


With this one two punch, Argento cemented his moviemaking mythos, and forged the dueling avenues that his erratic career has had to maneuver. Every proceeding film now had a major tour de force benchmark to be held up against. Whenever he tried another crime thriller, Deep Red became the critical focus of the comments. If he branched back out again into pure horror, the hallucinatory genius of Suspiria cast a shadow over the entire enterprise. Interesting enough, said film would also follow any giallo effort, arguing that Argento should stop wasting his time with such procedural parlor tricks and get back to finalizing the Mothers Trilogy (fans will be happy to know that he has plans to make the third and final film, hopefully for a 2007 release). Like the burden that any artist carries when they are compared with their past, Italy’s premiere fright master has been both lauded and lamented for his choices, unable to escape the opinions of fans, and fellow filmmakers, when it comes to his often confusing career moves


So now that our corridors have names, now that Via Suspiria and Via Profundo Rosso are labeled and legitimized by the numerous viewers who’ve traveled down their complicated and occasionally confusing logistics, it is safe to say that Dario Argento remains a true motion picture enigma. He is one of the few remaining filmmakers from decades gone by that can still rely on their reputation to sell a story. He is one of the few directors who still gets fans in a frenzy when a new project is announced, providing them with instant recall of journeys both grand and grating on the twin roads of his aesthetic’s twofold directions. Though his track record has been anything but flawless, he does have more classic cobblestones and masterpiece mortar than many creators can claim in several lifetimes.


Perhaps this is why we are willing to accept his bifurcated approach to the art of cinema and leave it at that. Though he hasn’t always definitively delivered, he’s proof that the voyage is sometimes as important, and more interesting, than the final destination. It’s what makes Argento stand out in an arena filled with pure motion picture pretenders. It’s what keeps him vital, and viable, in the ever changing world of fear. And with two distinct ways in which to achieve his ends, it’s clear why he remains so important. While said dualism may be disturbing to those looking to easily classify their creative icons, it sets Argento apart from his Italian brethren. It’s what makes him the true maestro he has managed to become today.


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Tuesday, Oct 24, 2006

Whenever the calendar rolls over to a certain 31 October, fright fans break out their bountiful opinions and wax poetic and prosaic about the best and worst horror films ever made. While it may seem like nothing more than a rabid fanboy pastime, that fact is it’s not that easy a task. Like comedy, terror is in the heart of the beholder, too personal to be easily agreed upon. What some find frightening gives others a case of the uncontrollable giggles and its rare when fear can be universally applied. It’s just too individualized. As a result, making any list of yeas and nays allows for lots of second guessing and subjective stipulations – especially in the arena of b-a-d. Many can’t get past the numerous nonsensical sequels that endlessly pour out of the studio system, pointing to franchises gone god-awful as their primary examples of tepid terror. For others, it’s the offerings of the past, the low budget efforts of dollar driven distributors that did little except waste 80 minutes of the drive-in owners or matinee movie audience’s running time.


As a result, SE&L is taking a slightly different approach toward prioritizing the legacy of fear. This will not be your typical ‘worst of’ horror movie list. SE&L did not consider the lengthy, and rather lamentable, legacy of ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Roger Corman and his many mediocre monster mash-ups will find no careful consideration here, nor will any effort involving giant insects, radioactive non/humans or other examples of backwater b-moviemaking. Nor did we delve into the plethora of pathetic product that arrived in video stores once the VCR became the principal source of home entertainment. Picking through the sludge put out during that age of analog abominations would be similar to shooting undead fish in a broad-based barrel. No, the approach taken here is far more mainstream. By avoided the usual spastic spook subjects (Ed Wood, Manos: The Hands of Fate, anything featuring Arch Hall, Jr.) SE&L circumvented the whole ‘crap vs. kitsch’ debate. Instead, the focus now will be on those real films that actually thought they’d end up as some manner of frightmare myths.


The main element here is that each entry on this list THOUGHT it was going to be some kind of horror classic. They positioned themselves as remaking, reimagining or revisiting ideas that had been very successful in the past. Certainly a couple could be called out and out cash grabs, chances to bilk the box office out a few more dollars before pushing straight to cable. But it’s clear that, for the most part, these were serious, straight motion pictures designed to play as accomplished companion pieces to the rest of the genre. Naturally, they failed so miserably that their collapse becomes celebrated and over time, cemented their position as one of the cinema’s outstanding stumbles. After much deep thought and soured soul searching, these are the efforts that SE&L feels best exemplifie the worst that post-modern horror has to offer. Without further ado, here are the Top 10 Worst Horror Films of All Time, beginning with the biggest bumble of them all:


1. Exorcist II: The Heretic
Buried somewhere inside this absolutely pointless sequel to horror’s preeminent fright fest is a decent idea. Following up Regan’s irregular path into adolescence while the church investigates Father Merrin’s death is a parallel scenario that has a wealth of worthwhile possibilities. Sadly, director John Boorman decided to concentrate on the more psychobabble claptrap concepts inherent in the screenplay. Throw in some random locusts, a lot of Studio 54 style strobe lights and you’ve got cinema’s most stupefyingly bad scary movie.

 


2. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2
As irritatingly incomprehensible as the first film was (too much cursing combined with nausea-inducing POV camerawork) this scripted follow up was much, much worse. Though famed documentary director Joe Berlinger (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) would argue that excessive studio interference would ruin his original vision, it is hard to imagine how any initial ideas could make this movie work. It seems purposely lost inside it own insular devices. On the plus side, this completely crappy follow-up more of less killed the Witch franchise for good. Thank heaven for small miracles.

 


3. House of Wax (2005)
A group of grating plot contrivances discovers a ghost town made mostly out of dumb ideas…oh yeah, and paraffin. Lots of bad movie clichés ensue. While this incredibly amateur movie has its fans, most macabre mavens simply sniffed the aroma of Paris Hilton’s stunt casting and realized the awaiting repugnance. Granted the original material was no great spook shakes, but even Charles Bronson’s wooden acting in the 1953 feature was miles ahead of a certain spoiled socialite’s braindeath as bravado turn. Even the meltdown finale couldn’t save this stool-scented slop.


4. House of the Dead
Based on a popular video game, featuring those familiar scarefest sacrificial lambs (the zombie) and helmed by that talentless Teutonic hack, Dr. Uwe Boll, what could have been a semi-competent cult effort turned out to be one of the genre’s most mindless missteps. With sequences that seem stolen from a hyperactive TRL‘s monster music video and poorly conceived creatures that look like Cirque du Soleil artists gone gamy, Boll manages to set the entire undead film back decades with his poisonous pacing, directorial dumbness and overall lack of thrills.


5. Maximum Overdrive
We all know how misbegotten the original idea was (Stephen King as fright writer ≠ Stephen King, filmmaker) but few have really remembered just how horrendous this mess of a movie really was. It’s not that the Master of Horror is utterly and hopelessly incompetent behind the camera – in fact, his opening montage of machines going gonzo is pretty well realized. No, it’s everything after technology starts attacking that begins to fester and, ultimately, fail. A wailing Yeardley Smith provides the final nail in the klutzy King adaptation coffin.


6. Nightbreed
Legend has it that Clive Barker conceived his second feature film, based on his intriguing novella Cabal, as “the Star Wars of horror movies”. What it ended up being was an unqualified disaster, with substantial studio meddling and massive budget problems contributing to the world’s first eerie ipecac. Unable to decide if it’s a monster movie, an ambitious piece of beast-based mythos, or simply a slice and dice serial killer film, Barker braves all three. The ridiculous results, including the horrendous performances by all involved, speak for themselves.

 


7. The Fly 2
David Cronenberg’s first Fly was such a memorable masterpiece, a perfect marriage of material and maker that only a Hollywood halfwit could think that a sequel would succeed. Even worse, they decided to junk everything that made the original so special – concepts like script, emotion, intelligence and characterization – and replaced them with Eric Stoltz and a mutant puppy dog. Right. Only a Chevy-sized can of DDT (or a second sex scene with Daphne Zuniga) could have killed the creature feature franchise more expertly than this deadly drone.

 


8. Amityville 3-D
Sometime between 1982 and 1983, the geniuses behind Tinsel Town’s beans decided that that old warhorse from the ‘50s – 3-D – was ready for its motion picture comeback. As one of the several multidimensional efforts to make use of the tired cinematic turd, this third look at the Lutz house got even stupider and more incomprehensible. Nothing more than a lot of camera pranks perpetrated on an already blasé audience, the lack of any authentic connection to the so-called “real” events that occurred in the notorious locale made the film all the more laughable.


9. Van Helsing
How do you undermine the legacy of all the classic Universal monsters? Why, you give unlikely blockbuster director Stephen Summers a Mummy‘s worth of money and enough CGI to choke a ghoul. Then you let him raid your catalog of timeless terror icons and retrofit them into some stupid adventure yarn starring everyone’s favorite Downunder dude Hugh Jackman. While many consider this confused combination of the Gothic and the groan-inducing as merely a faux horror film, the dread one experiences while watching this carton creature creation is real enough.

 


10. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning
Otherwise known as how Sheriff Hoyt got his perverted groove on. You know you’re in trouble when a prequel (Strike 1), setting out to reshape and redefine one of horror’s premiere figures (Strike 2), instead spends all its time presenting the tale of how some ancillary character became a gun-toting goon. (Strike 3). When Marcus Nispel took on the daunting task of remaking the Tobe Hooper original, he brought as much artistic and narrative invention to the mix as possible. All this dreadful retread offers is pathetic, predictable pointlessness passing itself off as dread.


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Monday, Oct 23, 2006


Now this is more like it. Instead of your typical week at the local B&M, shelves lined with lots of standard mainstream cinema, the full moon howlings of the Halloween season are finally finding purchase among DVD distributors. This week, in particular, a lot of double dips and sparkling special editions of horror favorites (good and groan inducing) are making a major play for your hard earned weekly pay. Not that there aren’t other more ‘normal’ titles in the offing – you could opt for a documentary about the military industrial complex, a new version of Katheleen Turner’s steamy cinematic debut, or a complete collection of the classics that made Fred Astair and Ginger Rodgers the Hollywood musical’s most mesmerizing partnership ever. Still, with the leaves turning autumnal and the smell of fireplaces filling the air, nothing says ‘seven more days ‘til Halloween’ better than a good old fashioned frightening. The creepshow choices (plus one bit of sunny Summer fluff) available for 24 October include:


Feast

*
For most movie fans, Project: Greenlight has been a failure, especially as an intended purveyor of independent cinema. As a guilty pleasure reality show train wreck however, it’s been nothing short of brilliant. But the movies that have resulted from this experiment in overdriven ego have been nothing short of sad…until now. Fans of gore-loaded lunacy and old fashioned spook show fun will definitely dig on this throwback to a more viscous view of horror. With a narrative revolving around some monsters attacking the customers in a redneck bar, the clothesline plotting is perfect for lots of nasty set-piece bloodletting. Credit director John Gulager (son of Return of the Living Dead‘s Clu) and a saucy script by fellow film first timers Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton for getting the grue mostly right. Sure, this is a lame low budget bungle with almost no character development and a shaky sense of cinematic prerequisites, but when was the last time a film found a way to be foul and frivolous at the same time. Something like that takes a specialized scare talent.



PopMatters Review


In the Dark

*
If you can get through the first act of this well meaning mock macabre, you will find yourself thoroughly enjoying this inventive riff on the whole Blair Witch school of ‘you are there’ terror. Indeed, the best part about this otherwise average horror attempt is the way in which writer/director Slater Kane and his collection of feature film amateurs set out to sell us on the reality behind this Halloween visit to the burned out Ridgley Institution. Using a wonderfully evocative real life backdrop, and a nice combination of hand-held and security camera shots, we do get the impression of being along on a holiday party prank gone horribly, horribly wrong. Sure, some of the sequences are slapdash, but we definitely end up with something that succeeds more than it stumbles. Kudos then to a creative ideal that wants to be as realistic as possible, while also understanding that the best horror films have artistic flourishes that keep the fans fixated and on the edge of their scary movie seats.



Monster House

*
Thankfully, this is one computer generated cartoon that doesn’t fall into the typical genre trappings. It doesn’t offer cutesy, cuddly anthropomorphic beings voiced by famous celebrities cracking Borscht Belt level pop culture quips. There’s no major moral about believing in yourself or savoring your friendships. There’s only one major action setpiece, and it grows instinctually out of the storyline, not merely tossed in to show off the computing power. The wee ones won’t be clamoring for Chowder or Zee action figures and only the most seasoned film going youngster will find anything instantly “likeable” about the knotty narrative. It’s a credit then to Executive Producers Stephen Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. They have made the first tween classic, a movie destined to be remembered by audience members a little too old for talking cars and wise cracking woodland creatures, but still unable to enjoy the harsher elements a PG-13 or R film has to offer. For them, this is a Goonies to get lost in, an amiable adventure yarn that has action and atmosphere to burn.



My Dead Girlfriend

*
Like a far less substantive Shaun of the Dead, this quirky little comedy from independent titan Tempe gets by on great big globs of goodwill and a sunny script that’s more slacker silliness than uproarious horror. Canadian outsider auteur Brett Kelly, responsible for The Feral Man and the Bonesetter series, tries something decidedly different here. Instead of pouring on the brooding, atmospheric elements of your standard living dead horror film, Kelly finds the funny center to a scary situation and then cranks up the irony a couple of witty notches. The result is a sometimes clever, sometimes cloying attempt to avoid the standard zombie clichés while making the frightening and the funny pay off in ways that are noticeable, not nominal. Though we never completely connect with the characters onscreen, and have a hard time getting a handle on the “mythology” aspects of this monster movie, the overall effect is one of witty experimentation in the melding of genres.


 


Nacho Libre*
Okay, so it isn’t Napoleon Dynamite. Frankly, what could be? Jared Hess and his uniquely named wife Jerusha delivered a devastatingly original take on human folly with their look at a bunch of Idaho eccentrics, and very few films could match its amiable instant karma. So it’s unfair to grade Nacho Libre by any other standards that it’s own. Sure, Hess shows a great deal of cinematic sameness with his food-oriented opening and random blackout gags (what was with that corncob to the eye, anyway). Still, as a look at the Luchadores of Mexico and the way in which they infiltrate and influence the everyday life of the country’s sun-dried citizenry, this is a clever, cute little movie. And while it doesn’t have Napoleon Dynamite’s wealth of quotable dialogue (it’s a safe bet no spelling bee-er will be giving a shout out to pals with that “stretchy pants” line), it does contain enough clever moments to warrant a real reel recommendation.



PopMatters Review


Saw 2: Unrated Director’s Cut*
The first Saw announced a new kind of horror into the seemingly stagnant genre – a brutal and confrontational style of scares that many have now labeled ‘violence porn’. Sadly, such a title may indeed be appropriate for this less than stunning sequel. Everything that James Wan got right in the initial narrative is all but missing here. Instead, there is a real attempt to turn Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw into a new terror icon while mimicking the “clever kills” from the original tale. A few work, while a couple seem sadly derivative. It’s as if first time filmmaker Darren Lynn Bousman forgot what makes movie macabre work, and instead, focused on keeping the cat and mouse guessing game the center of the scares. While there is some worthwhile material here (the acting is uniformly good, and the art direction is downright creepy) we end up wanting more of the complex, clockwork plotting of Saw I and less of the redundant retreading that this effort seems to thrive on.


PopMatters Review


Slither*
Writer (and now director) James Gunn holds a very odd place within current fright filmography. Responsible for the terrific Tromeo and Juliet and the quite decent remake of Dawn of the Dead, he has also foisted the forgettable pair of Scooby-Doo features on film fans’ fragile heads. This makes his first solo effort all the more creatively complicated. In some ways, Gunn is giving us the best of both worlds – a true splatter filled return to the days when he worked closely with indie icon Lloyd Kaufman, as well as a taste of the contemporary scares that have been his box office bread and butter. Overloaded with homages to zombie films, alien invasion flicks and those mindless mutant monster b-movies that used to clog up the bottom shelf at your local Mom and Pop video store, Gunn delivers the kind of sensational, satiric schlock that many post-modern genre films sorely lack. Here’s hoping there’s more of this kind of movie in his future. Fear often needs a shot of silliness to keep it from going completely astray.



PopMatters Review


And Now for Something Completely Different:

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 24 October:


Sweetie: The Criterion Collection*
Sweetie is a strange experience, a movie made up almost exclusively out of hints and suggestions. Nothing is ever discussed outright in this amazingly nuanced narrative, and issues that appear to be boiling below the surface are simply allowed to simmer and soak into everything around them. Obviously, as portrayed by Australian auteur Jane Campion in her first feature film, this is a family hiding a mountain of damaging dysfunction behind their dry, sometimes even dopey, demeanor. Whether it’s just a simple case of one child’s uncontrolled Id crashing into the rest of her family’s slighted and submerged egos, or something far more sinister and suspect, the result is a ticking human time bomb waiting to insert itself into situations and simply implode. As a tale of people picking each other apart for the sake of their own sense of security, Sweetie represents one of the most amazing family dramas every delivered to celluloid. But there is more to the movie than just a sizable sibling spat with parents unable to control their progeny. In the hands of Campion, it is art animated.



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Sunday, Oct 22, 2006


As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, how Tobe Hooper, one of post-modern horror’s most promising filmmakers, became a monster movie pariah.


How did it happen? Where did he go wrong? In a perfect world, Tobe Hooper wouldn’t be a fright film pariah. He’d be considering his next creative decision, mulling over dozens of derivative Hollywood scripts in a coy cat and mouse game that he, naturally would end up winning. He would have taken the success of his amazing 1974 classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and parlayed it into a non-stop stream of genre defining and redefining efforts. There’d be no question about who directed Poltergeist (screw a certain Steven S.), and past films like The Funhouse and Eaten Alive would be seen as minor missteps instead of the last likeable efforts from one of the medium’s most misbegotten masters. Sadly, this is not a perfect world, and as anyone who’s tried to sit through many of Hooper’s more recent efforts, he is definitely not a perfect filmmaker.


So how did it happen, actually? Where indeed did Tobe Hooper go wrong? There are some rather ardent supporters who still believe in his ability to scare people, holding out hope that he’ll eventually right his derailed directorial canon. They will overlook outright junk like Spontaneous Combustion, Night Terrors, Crocodile, The Mangler, and his most recent reject, Mortuary and still claim that prior to becoming a Hollywood hack for hire, Hooper was still a vital filmmaker. They may have a point. Looking over the films he’s made in the 12 years between the two signature Saw films argues for an artist still trying to be viable in a filmic category that was slowly swallowing its own soul. As the Devil gave way to the slasher, Hooper helmed unique and uncompromising movies that said more about who he was as an idealistic individual than the current state of macabre.


No one could have predicted that a little slapdash exploitation film made to grind some bucks out of the still viable drive-in demographic, based loosely on the life of Wisconsin’s notorious Ed Gein mythos, would end up being one of terror’s tent pole experiences. Through a combination of inspiration, invention and outright karmic happenstance, what could have been a minor monster movie became an unsettling work of art. Take away all of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre‘s violence and brutality – the final shot of Leatherface dancing in the rising sun of a new day is one of the most compelling images ever captured on celluloid. It made Hooper an instant icon, and secured his place as one of the pioneers of terror. It also opened doors for the former college professor and documentary cameraman that perhaps he shouldn’t have passed through.


There were also signs early on that all was not well in Hooperville. Right after his killer alligator epic Eaten Alive, the filmmaker was hired to helm The Dark, an oddball extraterrestrial invasion film that looked and felt like an attempt to jump on the about to be hot Alien bandwagon. At some point in the production, Hooper went head to head with the producers, and was fired. John Cardos was brought in to finish the project. It wouldn’t be the last time that Hooper was removed from a movie. Aside from the rumors surrounding Poltergeist, he quit the British snake thriller Venom, sighting “creative differences” with the main moneymen. Among the many reasons a filmmaker can fall in the tripwire town of Tinsel, failing at the box office is creative crime number one. But standing right besides said fiscal flopping is the “difficult reputation”. Whether or not his reasons for rejection were viable, Hooper had been labeled. And after his next three films, he’d more or less cemented his professional unacceptability.


After that notorious suburban spook show hit, Hooper was handed a number of possible projects. Unfortunately, he fell in with the infamous meddlers Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan of Canon Films. While they promised financial support, they delivered no guarantees when it came to final cut, or eventual distribution. Three years came and went before Hooper’s adaptation of Colin Wilson’s The Space Vampires arrived in theaters, minus 15 of its original 116 minute running time, and with the lamentable title change to Lifeforce. More sci-fi than scary, and missing much of its internal logic thanks to the editing, the film was viewed as a failure by even the most ardent Chainsaw supporter. Even those who came to appreciate the movie in later years were mainly responding to the recovered “director’s cut”. It was a stunning blow for a man that, up until this UK jive, was considered a fabulous fright master.


His next step didn’t endear himself to anyone. Hooper had always loved 1953’s Invaders from Mars, and wanted to modernize the cheesy matinee classic. Unfortunately, while the situation looked new, the effects were as retro as a trip back to the Eisenhower era. The decision to maintain the look and limits of the old b-movie style of monster made this intended update more funny than fresh, and fans just didn’t get the rationale behind revisiting what appeared to be a standard shoddy creature feature from the past. Lost for a novel next step, Hooper appeared to become desperate. His next move would baffle even his heretofore strongest followers.


Depending on who you listen to, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 is either a wonderful cinematic satire, on par with the scathing social commentary found in George Romero’s work or the last bullet in the creative gun that helped Hooper commit career suicide. There’s no meaningful middle ground on the project – fright film mavens either love it or LOATHE it. Purposefully the polar opposite of everything he did in the 1974 original (tense atmosphere, documentary stylizing, maintenance of an air of authenticity) this full blown farce had our antihero Leatherface as a hyped up horndog. It presented the previous sinister Cook as a non-stop one liner dropping Bleak chorus. It even introduced a new clan member into the mix, the metal plate sporting Chop Top, whose sole purpose seemed to be egging on his power tool wielding brother while dropping deranged pop culture references.


Time has definitely treated this instantly dismissed title rather well. Even disparate elements like Dennis Hopper’s Method acting madness, or the entire Vietnam-based abandoned amusement park now seem like part of one artistic madman’s personal cinematic purgative. A great deal of the time, Chain Saw 2 plays like Hooper’s final statement on the entire Massacre phenomenon. He kids himself, and his fans, even adding a scene where Drive-In critic Joe Bob Briggs comments on the manner in which Leatherface slaughters some random babes. Golan and Globus had wanted another dark, disgusting exercise in dread. What they got was an aggressive, Airplane! like lampoon where the only thing taken seriously was Tom Savini’s autopsy-quality F/X.


It was apparently the straw that finally broke the fear fans’ benevolent back. The original movie is considered by most to be one of the best ever made. The revamp came and went without anyone much mentioning it afterward. Canon closed shop, leaving Hooper to wander through a few tame television efforts before trying his hand again at the big screen. Spontaneous Combustion was certifiable proof that his outright genre rejection shown in Chain Saw 2 was not just some one-time Hooper experiment. A stupid story involving nuclear weapons, genetic defects, and one man’s ability to immolate people made absolutely no sense when it finally found its direct to video home, and the disdain and contempt for the audience was obvious. Hooper no longer wanted to connect with viewers. He was merely going to give them what he saw fit. Fuck ‘em if they can’t take his fright.


It has been all downhill from there. When the best thing you can say about a recent Hooper effort is that it had some pretty good gore effects (the only interesting element in his otherwise pointless Toolbox Murders remake), you know you’re dredging the bottom of the boo barrel. Having long since given up on this journeyman turned joke, most fans find his current canon to be as laughable as it is lamentable. His production credit on the two new Chainsaw updates also causes the faithful to cringe, again considering the status the first film has in the annals of the genre. And yet, none of this really explains why he’s now such a non-entity. Scholars could compile as much research as possible and still not be able to figure out how or why Hooper finally fell.


It’s possible that, like Chain Saw 2, or Eaten Alive, the movies that many consider to be horrid examples of Hooper’s oeuvre will find solid support upon future reevaluation. After all, his masterpiece was considered quite the abomination at the time of its release. It is conceivable that something like Night Terrors will be hailed as a classic, or Invaders from Mars seen as something of a sci-fi highlight decades from now. His career could also be a clear case of the almost unavoidable horror one hit wonder paradigm. Maybe Hooper only had one good movie in him, and the original Black and Decker epic was it. It could also be that Hooper was stereotyped by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Perhaps he saw himself as a far more varied filmmaker, capable of dabbling in any and all cinematic categories. Unlike Sam Raimi who found a way out, Hooper got stuck being a terror titan – and it effected everything he did thereafter.


Of course, one can’t discount the Poltergeist factor. The 1982 film was such a huge hit that individuals on both sides of the situation obviously understood the power of being linked to such a box office behemoth. The power play against Hooper – the persistent if still unproven rumors that, once again, he had been replaced and that the end result was more a Spielberg style scare film – hounds him to this very day. It leaves people with questions, allowing them to think that there is more truth than professional sour grapes behind the undying creative control gossip. And maybe it became too much. Maybe playing the Hollywood game and getting your otherwise appreciated name dragged through the meaningless motion picture mud has scarred Hooper forever.


It sure does appear that, after the Poltergeist poisoning and his inability thereafter to reproduce it’s success, Hooper simply gave up. Nothing post-Chain Saw 2 has had the pure horror chutzpah of the movies he made in the ‘70s. Even his TV miniseries version of Salem’s Lot and the carnival as killing floor fiendishness of The Funhouse can’t find a comparative contemporary equivalent. It’s as if this director just stopped trying once 1986 ended, and the last 20 years have been an endless ramble toward complete cinematic insignificance. It’s already working. Many younger film fans think the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a meek, mild effort when compared to Marcus Nispel’s balls to the wall reimagining, That a true horror milestone can be made unimportant reflects very poorly on the man who made it. If he’s not careful, Tobe Hooper may discover that it’s too late to save his already addled legacy. And that’s more terrifying than anything he’s done in decades. 


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Saturday, Oct 21, 2006


While cruising the sun stroked byways of Retirement Territory, U.S.A (a.k.a. Florida) on his mega-machined chopper, wounded Vietnam veteran Herschel runs into Jesus’ personal P.R. representative, Angel. She lives with her dope fiend sister Ann in a house frequented by several prime examples of why American ingenuity and productivity was so poor in the ‘70s. While Angel preaches the psalms to Herschel, Ann tries to get to “know” him in the true Biblical sense. Realizing that the only begetting old Hersch is interested in is of the platonic variety, Ann seeks her revenge by making the beefy buffoon smoke some oregano doobies laced with pure smack. One puff, and Herschel is hooked, painfully craving more spiked smoke to calm his horrible overacting.


But instead he gets a job on a local turkey farm where the inbred cousins of Bartles and James feed him free bird pumped full of Adolph’s meat tenderizer, overly salty chicken broth, and the magic ingredient Polyplotpoint 80. Instead of copping a buzz off the L-tryptophan, however, Herschel turns into a half-man/half bird beast, complete with papier-mâché turkey head and overdubbed gobble. Hungry like the hen, he goes out looking for drug addicts to kill for their rich, chemically enhanced blood. And while Ann feels guilt for getting Herschel hooked, and Angel memorizes the last few Beatitudes, the foul feathered fiend roams the streets of Sun City Center, looking for supermodels, rock stars and grade schoolers to supply him with the opium rich artery juice he so desperately needs.


What do you get when you cross some retread reefer madness, accidental drug addiction, religious fundamentalism, body building and processed turkey loaf? Well, if you’re oddball director Brad Grinter, you end up with Blood Freak, the only film in the entire exploitation canon to be endorsed by The Southern Baptist Convention, the Betty Ford Clinic, and the Butterball Thanksgiving Hotline. There is probably no other movie in the long lineage of monster/maniac/heroin related filmography that centers on a brawny European muscleman getting addicted to Chinese Rock-enhanced wacky weed while working as the subject of some warped experiments at the local subsidiary of the Perdue poultry empire. Only Godmonster of Indian Flats can boast a more bizarre cinematic universe, and yet its Old West weirdness just cannot compare to Freak‘s Vietnam vet in a fowl mood madness.


It’s hard to fathom what Grinter was hoping to achieve with this movie. Was he mad at drugs? Irritated by religion? Longing for the invention of Stovetop Stuffing? The motivation is unclear. But the method used to achieve it is downright demented. Grinter is of the old cinematic school that feels a movie doesn’t have to make a great deal of linear sense as long as it contains frequent shots of the director smoking. That’s right, about every eight minutes or so, our swarthy South Florida celluloid sod appears on camera, eyes blurry from too many Tom Collins, fingers and breath stained yellow from endless Marlboros, hair swirled with a combination of Alberto VO5 and dried vomit, and proceeds to narrate the film by blatantly reading from the script. His Grecian Formula 16 chorus adds an inebriated pseudo-philosophy to the entire pissed off psycho pullet shenanigans.


But these drunken monotonous-logues by Mr. Grinter, with their non-sensical segues and his pre-throat cancerous croak are not the only unhinged things about Blood Freak. The whole religious, Jesus saves subplot is hilariously out of place here. It’s as if some cast member ran across a copy of The Watchtower on the craft services table and wouldn’t let the production finish until there was a little holy hollering added to the sex, drugs, and turkey murders. The cast gives off the aura of being perplexed by their own performances, with the forced child confession emoting of the actress playing Ann as plastic as the elaborate layers of eye paint she wears—Tammy Faye must be spinning in her vanity chair.


But it’s the whole murderous doped up turkey-man idea that shoots this movie into the surreal stratosphere. The scenes of our strung out strongman, big bullem bird head in place, attacking victims and letting blood have an unworldly, downright disturbing quality. You will be laughing, mind you, but some of the gore is fairly nasty. Especially effective is an elongated torture scene near the end of the film. Lets just say it involves our insane roaster, a table saw, and a drug dealer’s leg (Lucio Fulci would be proud). The kinetic, freestyle editing, the endless shots of Grinter babbling like an improvising, smut peddling Criswell, and actors who play dead by wincing and wiggling as all the while effects gore F/X across their face makes Blood Freak a first rate crazed capon caper.


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