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Saturday, Mar 31, 2007


As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This week: drugs - and marijuana, specifically, get placed under the sin and skin microscope.

By its very definition, the exploitation film finds its foundational subject matter in the areas that society despises. These movies explore the taboo, the scandalous, the unmentionable and the forbidden. From sleazy and abhorrent sexuality to tales of brutality and sadism, the raincoat crowd and lovers of grindhouse goodies wanted material that made the squares feel uncomfortable. They also demanded that smut be used to spice up the proceedings, be they rough and tumble or ribald and risqué. Yet one area that always drew the most controversy and harshest criticism was that of drugs. Since many fringe features tended to glamorize its gratuity, parents and public officials feared that any motion picture approach to addictive narcotics would turn impressionable youth into rock solid speed-ballers.


Granted, drugs had been a staple of the genre for as far back as the roadshow experience. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, with mass communication rather limited, exploitation entrepreneurs understood they could make a fast buck or two by scaring gullible yokels with poorly made message movies. Utilizing harrowing titles like Marihuana: Assassin of Youth and Cocaine Fiends, these premeditated pitch efforts, complete with intermission instruction from a renowned scholar on the subject, were nothing more than the set up for the sale of ‘educational manuals’. In fact, these poorly constructed tomes, usually made up of material from medical journals and college textbooks, provided little valuable information. But they helped line the pockets of the promoters, and gave off an aura of authenticity that a standard theatrical play date would definitely lack. 


But time caught up with the roadshow crowd, as audiences grew more sophisticated and skeptical. So the grindhouse gang simply decided to use drugs as one of many clothesline narrative devices – basically, an idea upon which several erotic and/or violent scenes could be crafted. A perfect example is Mantis in Lace, sometimes known as Lila. Producer Harry Novak wanted to make a movie featuring starlet Susan Stewart. Unsure of the proper angle, he came up with a concept that would have our heroine flip out whenever she took acid. Her aggressive ardor would then turn deadly, as she went from canoodling to carving up her possible paramours. Aside from the occasional Mondo style documentary, or attempted serious dope drama, most movies involving recreational pharmaceuticals relied on this peculiar perverted pretext.


As part of their ongoing release schedule with Image Entertainment, Something Weird Video digs up two very unlikely companion pieces for its April DVD double feature. Offering up excellent transfers and a collection of added content (in this case, educational shorts and preview trailers) both the arcane Acid Eaters and the well meaning Weed illustrate perfectly how the grindhouse used opiates to help mellow out the more miscreant of the masses. Each one offers up its own delights and disappointments, but as examples of latter era exploitation, they’re priceless. Let’s begin with the bizarre:


The Acid Eaters (1968)

From 9 to 5, the members of the White Pyramid motorcycle club work average, everyday jobs. But once quitting time arrives, these fun loving loons like to hop on their mini-bikes and make for the mountains. There, they smoke pot, skinny dip, and screw. Their main goal however is the elusive ivory tower with its promise of LSD delights. Once found, our free spirited sex fiends drop tabs, drop trou and get groovin’ via a group grope. Though it all seems rather tame, there are indications that such corporeal playtimes can lead to some manner of implied evil. But for The Acid Eaters, working hard means making one’s relaxation as randy as possible.


Like simultaneously smoking and slipping on banana peels, Byron Mabe’s psychedelic sleaze out The Acid Eaters purports to expose the lighter side of LSD – you know, the baffling, more bosomy part. Featuring an almost never dressed (and decidedly blonde) Pat Barrington and the muscleman’s answer to a monkey, Buck Kartalian, this prurient pilgrims’ progress through the wonderful world of wanton behavior is one of those ‘see it to believe it’ productions. While it’s obviously trying to illustrate the counterculture in unquestionably craven terms (these over the hill hepcats even make body painting seem skuzzy) while concurrently exploring the inner world of dope, what we wind up with is the exploitation equivalent of some swinger’s sad home movies. Mabe, whose time behind the camera included such odd duck delights as A Scent of Honey, A Swallow of Brine and Space-Thing, has a very limited motion picture vocabulary. In essence, he’s a catch as catch can kind of filmmaker, setting up his actors in various sequences of sin, and then moving the lens around as much as possible to capture all the action. Then he goes into the editing booth and hacks his handiwork to death, rearranging the narrative until it’s almost as nonsensical as his artistic aesthetic. And since producer/co-conspirator David F. Friedman basically agreed to such a cobbled together conceit, we are dealing with a movie with a singular surreal purpose.


Many times throughout the non-linear storyline, you’re not sure whether you should laugh or lick toads. The drug taking material is tepid at best – everyone smokes a little grass and then takes large bites out of obvious Styrofoam LSD tabs – and the sex scenes offer the basic groan and grapple we expect from the genre. Barrington gets a couple of corrupt solo scenes, including a baffling jungle boogie in front of a black bongo player, as well as an unsettling dream sequence where she succumbs to her eye patch wearing “daddy’s ” advances. Ew! As for Kartalian, he jumps around like a chimp with chiggers, gets his own beefcake moment when he takes a much needed shower, and finally dons red longjohns to play the Prince of Darkness. Indeed, one of the most impressive elements in The Acid Eaters, aside from the curious comical blackouts where a couple who’ve just met go for a literal roll in the hay, is the 50 foot tall white LSD pyramid set smack dab in the middle of the California countryside. Sure, all Mabe and his cast can do with the prop is use it like a part of Plato’s Retreat: The West Coast Version, but it still makes for a visually arresting prop. As a matter of fact, it elevates one’s overall appreciation for this haphazard head-trip. If you want to see silicon skin sacks swaying in the Pacific breezes, there’s plenty of pulchritude on hand. If you’re more interested in the chemical component of this whacked out weirdness, your lysergic acid diethylamide search will just have to continue.


Weed (1972)

Hoping to provide a fair and balanced look at the use of marijuana among American youth, as well as the laws that threatened to make many of them criminals, director Alex De Renzy travels from the jungles of Mexico to the streets of war-torn Cambodia to explore the cultivation and criminalization of drugs. Speaking with government officials, anonymous dealers, sympathetic lawyers and angry scholars, De Renzy wants to make it very clear that, as an agent of addiction, pot is no worse than alcohol. He then goes on to dispute the way in which politicians, for the sake of a campaign promise or continued power, push an agenda that is detrimental to both people and society’s position. While he’s not sure if dope should be legal, he definitely believes the official view of it should be more moderate and rational.


Representing the other approach to dealing with drugs, in this case, an expose-style exploration of the late ‘60s/ early ‘70s generational gap, Weed hopes to be an even handed and informative look at marijuana, its facts, and fallacies. Offered by Alex De Renzy, a flesh peddler playing documentarian (by day, he maintained a healthy career in hardcore pornography) and using the Nixon Administration’s foundational studies to begin the real war on drugs, what we experience here is a travelogue teased with various pro/con conceits. On the negative side, we get government officials arguing that pot produces an unruly, addicted and mentally unbalanced member of society. They fuss over the illegal smuggling, exploitation of third world countries, and the increased crime that comes with smoking dope. Then we get the counterculture perspective, a look at how weed and various doorway drugs are viewed as rights, privileges, and part of the new, hip and free scene. De Renzy does a good job of never letting one side win the fight. While we rarely see the substance used (there is a single sequence where a group of Canadian heads enjoy a kind of slapstick smoke, the action sped up to create a clear comic ideal) we do witness warehouses full of the illegal substance, and the creative ways transporters use to fool law enforcement. Perhaps the best scenes stem from a give and take exchange – indirectly – between members of the legal/criminal prosecution portion of control, and the social workers and scholars who simply want to help the kids. The latter view harsh laws as a deterrent to education, and their arguments are very compelling.


In fact, the odd thing about Weed is that, with its non-sensationalized approach to the subject of marijuana, it’s occasionally hard to find the true grindhouse angle. Some may suggest that De Renzy was merely doing the public a subversive service. By putting out a documentary that neither demonized nor defended pot, he created a calm dialogue where before there was none. As a result, the subject became quasi-scandalous, since it refused to tow the emphasized governmental positions. And we are talking about late stage hippy-dom here, a time when drugs were just starting to turn from fun to felonious. By bucking convention, and undermining the Establishment, De Renzy was indeed pushing an envelope of acceptability. On the other hand, this is nothing more than insightful interviews strung together with some intriguing exotic locale work. It’s a treat to see Tibet in all its pre-horror glory, and the sequence where soldiers in Vietnam discuss the ready availability of “#1 Cigarettes” (as the marijuana joint was nicknamed) illustrates the various cultural elements attached to dope. Heck, we even hear a Missouri wildlife warden defend the hemp plant as the perfect habitat and winter cover for quail and pheasant. While the final scene seems like a slap in the face of a close-minded and politically oriented position toward pot, Weed has a lot of interesting things to say.


Together, The Acid Eaters/ Weed prove that, when it came to putting gullible behinds in roadshow or arthouse seats, outsider film producers understood the value of a potent propagandized subject – and no issue was more volatile in the ‘50s – ‘70s than drugs. While the styles may be wildly divergent, and the entertainment consequences equally contradictory, these movies make the clear point that, when it came to exploring any and all forbidden fruit facets of society, no one did a better, more brazen job than the exploitation filmmaker. 


 


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Friday, Mar 30, 2007


It’s sad but true – mainstream movie critics hate horror. Not in the conventional way, mind you. No, the standard print or online journalist hates motion picture macabre in a manner that seems inherent to its very makeup. It’s like how little kids hate vegetables or teenagers hate authority. Put something scary out into the marketplace and watch the negative notices pile up. Don’t believe it? Well, let’s look at the stats, shall we. Picking the major theatrical releases of 2006, and finding the ones that specifically deal with standard genre themes, the results are absolutely shocking. There is a definite anti-terror sentiment. Even recent outings by James Wan (Saw) and Wes Craven (The Hills Have Eyes 2) remain with low double digital decisions on the webs’ review database, Rotten Tomatoes.com.


It’s not just the standard fright flicks either. Big budget Hollywood horror, anchored by box office favorites like Jim Carrey (The Number 23), Sandra Bullock (Premonition) and two time Oscar winner Hillary Swank (the soon to be released The Reaping) are being purposefully pigeon-holed as garbage by a journalistic paradigm that dismisses supernatural and paranormal elements as third class cinematic citizens – and it’s done automatically and en masse. Let’s go back to the beginning of 2006, shall we, and revisit the release of Eli Roth’s drop dead brilliant Hostel. Destined to be the Halloween of its generation, a movie as influential within the genre as it will be among the fanbase, the 93 writers who bothered to see the film ardently dismissed it (it earned a 59% approval rating). While certain caveats must be considered when dealing with such a gratuitously gory film, to read the blurbs posted, Roth committed some manner of horror movie hate crime.


It’s a revulsion that permeates almost all movie criticism. Though comic book movies and action films must endure the same perplexing prejudice, it seems that anything given over to terror just can’t catch a break. And if you combine the two – look out! Take Silent Hill. A video game adaptation (strike one) helmed by a style oriented foreign filmmaker (strike two) that dealt with themes and imagery revolving around death, religion, and surrealistic shocks (strike three), Christophe Gans’ groundbreaking masterpiece failed to fire up the Fourth Estate. Instead, they saddled the film with one of its lowest overall ratings – 27% - and argued that the visual brilliance on display was not enough to overcome the narrative’s intrinsic shortcomings. And almost all pointed out its PS2 platform origins.


It’s the same situation that happened when the first Hills Have Eyes remake hit theater screens. Granted, there is no love lost between franchise founder Wes Craven and those who write about film for a living. Their adore/deplore battle has extended as far back as the director’s first fright landmark, the nauseating and nasty Last House on the Left. Perhaps it’s his lofty ambitions for what are essentially exploitation flicks (he tends to defend his ideas by providing sound scholarly support for same), or the ruthlessness in their execution, but the two have been at loggerheads for decades. When a Hills revamp was announced, most applauded the decision, especially since those old enough to remember the original didn’t hold it in high regard. The second supposed stroke of genre genius came when director Alexandre Aja was chosen to steer the scarefest. His Haute Tension was a tasty slasher throwback, and all believed he could resurrect this sleazoid tale of a family vacation gone cannibal. Finally, we were dealing with a remake here – a somewhat proven entity seeming capable of providing the foundation for some funky fear factors.


With more than 50% of the press hating it, the Hills revamp turned out to be a major mistake. Not to fans, mind you. They loved the fact that Aja gave his flesh eating fiends a no nukes nastiness that clarified their repugnant ravenousness. But for those so-called sophisticates who bring their anti-dread baggage with them whenever they opine, Hills was a geek show glammed up with recognizable actors and overdone special effects. In fact, if one were to peruse every terror title released, over the last couple of years, they would see a similar set of descriptions used to undermine the genre’s very elements. “Too gory”, some will say, or “Not enough character development”, others will state. “Over the top” or “extreme” become the mantras for demeaning the decision to go for the throat, while “far too subtle” and “somber” illustrate when a critic feels the movie is making its case with mood and atmosphere alone.


It’s an unusual situation, one that becomes even more striking when you compare it to other cinematic categories. Comedies do get busted for lacking laughs, while dramas are frequently faulted for offering melodrama instead of reality, ennui instead of emotional impact. Action films can feel fake and underdeveloped, while family films are torn apart for failing to deliver the kind of whimsical delights their demographic demands. But in horror’s case, the cuts seem particularly cruel. If a slasher film is only trying to kill off one dimensional teens in as many imaginative ways as possible, doesn’t it live up to its expectations? If a monster movie delivers a beast that simultaneously scares and intrigues you, doesn’t that have some manner of viable value? Not every movie can be The Exorcist, Halloween, The Shining or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and yet you can find writers who’ve readily dismissed each and every one of these examples. So the current trend against the genre is not a new one – but the bias has become far more prevalent of late.


In fact, nowhere was the critic’s bile more inexplicable than in regards to the works of Glen Morgan. With only two major motion pictures under his belt (2003’s Willard and 2006’s Black Christmas) this former X-Files anchor has had the unfortunate luck of helming two major mainstream flops. Willard actually got some good notices, even though it failed to make a dent in the all important fiscal aspects of the industry. But last year’s remake of the Bob Clark classic was literally annihilated. It sits at 17% on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been taken to task for everything - from being unlike the original (unfair) to lacking depth and complexity (again, untrue). Nothing more than a slasher redux with an eye for detail and demented killer backstory, Morgan crafted a clever complement to Clark’s genre-defining shocker. And still, you could feel the verbal tar and feathering commencing all throughout the analytical flogging.


Yet what’s even more interesting about the entire situation is the number of critics who actually review these kinds of films. A recent release like Norbit can offer 111 different reviews, while a major motion picture like The Departed can see upwards of 200. But Black Christmas was discussed by only 47 critics. Hostel found 94 souls brave enough to take on its tawdry delights, while Silent Hill could only manage 78. Of course, this counts those who’ve waiting until DVD to discuss the film, so perhaps a better gauge of how much coverage the horror genre gets can be seen with the previously mentioned (and barely two weeks old) James Wan (Dead Silence) and Hills Have Eyes (the Part 2 sequel) titles. The 22% score for Silence comes from a mere 37 writers, while Eyes 2 gains it 13% from only 31. The importance of noting this is two-fold. First, it argues that only a small minority of the massive print and online community are even considering these films. If a potential pool of, say, 120 exists, only 25% are even bothering to address the release.


But it’s the second factor that’s even more disconcerting. It’s clear that, as a genre, horror is mired in a state of callous disregard. Critics who can’t get into free advance screenings obviously fail to follow up and pay to see the film, nor do they try and broaden their perspective on the artform by taking in such titles in their spare time. While they see dozens of dramas and several comedies per year, a horror film may only cross their path once or twice (and, again, if they don’t get to see it beforehand…), and without the effort to see it and properly contextualize it, there is no room for solid scholarship. A major monster effort like Slither can be easily stereotyped as a Troma film, creating a cynical shortcut to actually reviewing what’s on the screen. Similarly, blood and violence are so tied up in the continued juvenilization of our society that many critics can’t see past the PC pronouncements to respect gore or gratuity for its viable visceral power.


In essence, as a ‘minority’ within the ‘majority’ of mainstream moviemaking, horror continues to suffer from a sort of reactionary racism. This isn’t arguing that every macabre movie made is worthy of praise (just take a look at Turistas, or the recent AfterDark Horrorfest for proof), but, equally, not everyone is worthy of condemnation. Sadly, this is the way it’s always been, and as most fright fans fear, it will remain this way for decades to come. If you ever wondered why, years later, a forgotten horror film is suddenly embraced as a forgotten classic, part of the answer lies herein. The knee-jerk reaction by the critical community to the very idea of a scary movie exposes an undercurrent of intolerance that is both unreasonable and unprofessional. All film should be judged on what it has to offer, not on the bias of those providing opinions. It’s time to review what’s on the screen, not what is in the minds of those who propose to know better. Apparently, they don’t.


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Thursday, Mar 29, 2007


Unlike previous weekends where cleaning out your closet or reorganizing your sock drawer would have provided more palpable entertainment fodder, the major cable channels are actually putting up some interesting small screen cinematic fare. Even the usually unreliable pay networks are digging out a few of their choicest motion picture nuggets. As summer slowly catches up to us, and the blockbuster prepares to dominate the pop culture dynamic for the next four months, the appropriately named boob tube will try to complement such commercialization with as many name features as possible. This doesn’t mean that every offering from now until August will be worth its weight in celluloid, but the SE&L selection for 31 March sure deserves such a status:


Premiere Pick
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. Gunn gives us 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 mindless mutant monster b-movies, 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. (31 March, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Rumor Has It


In reality, this is not a bad idea for a movie – a young woman, curious about her past, discovers that her family may actually be the inspiration for one of the ‘60s most famous works – in this case, the novel and film known as The Graduate. Unfortunately, first time filmmaker (and screenwriter) Ted Griffin was yanked from the director’s chair when fading superstar Kevin Costner found him wanting. In stepped the equally evaporating Rob Reiner, and together a motion picture disaster was fashioned. (31 March, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – Special Edition


In an obvious bid for some Lord of the Rings style revenue, Disney teamed up with late author C.S. Lewis’s multi-volume Christian allegory, and laid on as much CGI spectacle as they could. The result was a fairly well regarded hit. While Starz already premiered the film back in September 2006, the new “extended” edition bows this month. (31 March, Starz, 9PM EST)


Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic


She’s a very polarizing comedienne, one you either love, or loathe. In addition, her take on humor is either envelope pushing, or gimmicky for the sake of shock value. As it stands, this combo concert film will give you an opportunity to decide for yourself. But be warned – Silverman doesn’t stand by modern PC pronouncements. (31 March, ShowCase, 9:45PM EST)

Indie Pick
This Film is Not Yet Rated


It’s rare when any film, including a clever documentary, manages to make significant changes in the subject matter it focuses on. But after viewing this stinging denouncement of the MPAA and all its insular, self-serving trappings, current President Dan Glickman promised that the seemingly arbitrary way in which movie ratings are assessed will be reviewed. Not bad for a filmmaker – Kirby Dick –who just wanted to discover the names of those people sitting on the organization’s “concerned parents” board. What he got instead was a lesson in Hollywood backslapping, Washington D.C. style spin, and the truth behind the Tinsel Town tribunal’s veil of secrecy. With the wealth of revelations Dick presents here, Glickman will be doing a great deal of responding in years to come.  (31 March, IFC, 11PM EST)

Additional Choices
Dogville


Leave it to a foreign filmmaker – in this case, Dogma ‘95 founder Lars Von Trier – to take on the history of America and its unhappy Civil War/slavery narrative. In this first of a proposed trilogy, Nicole Kidman is a woman wandering West who ends up in the title town. With its unusual approach to production design (no sets, bare bones backdrops) Von Trier hoped to focus on ideas, not images. He mostly succeeds. (3 April, IFC, 10:45PM EST)

Memento Mori


It’s your standard Asian horror premise – the journal of a dead student brings death to whomever reads it – but there is more to Tae-Yong Kim and Kyu-Dong Min’s suicide scarefest than meets the eyes. In a country where discussions of homosexuality are highly taboo, the lesbianism theme presented here becomes a benchmark for future Korean scare films. If you like your terror on the suggestive and subtle side, this film is for you. (3 April, Sundance, 11:45PM EST)

It’s All Gone, Pete Tong


It’s the UK version of This is Spinal Tap  - read: a well meaning, sometimes hilarious mock-biography about a deaf DJ named Frankie Wilde. The Tap tie-in revolves around the actual nature of Wilde, who some say actually existed, but in fact turns out to be an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the filmmakers. Overloaded with bouncing electronica and dance music, along with a nice helping of standard Brit wit, this is a sleeper that deserves wider attention. (5 April, Sundance, 5:45AM EST)

Outsider Option
Below


In 2002, horror was reestablishing its footing. The Asian fad was in full swing, and remake fever was already sweeping the studio system. But along the fringes were filmmakers willing to take a risk by refitting the motion picture macabre into different, difficult settings. Beginning with the already creepy and claustrophobic backdrop of a damaged submarine during World War II, director David Twohy (best known for his work on genre efforts The Arrival and Pitch Black) used the appearance of the survivors from a sunken hospital ship as the keystone for amplifying the angst. When the supernatural spit hits the fan, the terror turns titanic. Some dismissed this movie as too much manipulative pomp and not enough scare circumstance, but as an exercise in mood, atmosphere and unyielding dread, this underwater dark house horror film is actually very effective. (4 April, IFC, 10:55PM EST)

Additional Choices
Sisters


In what promises to be the last series rerun before the start of new installments, Brian DePalma’s twin terror schlocker gets the Rob Zombie treatment. Practically bursting with those optical illusions – split screen, double exposure – that the director is famous for, this is a bloody good time for lovers of old school scares. (30 March, Turner Classic Movies, 2AM EST)

Xanadu


ELO’s Jeff Lynne must be SO proud – it’s his disco roller boogie musical misstep, for all the world to see. Olivia Newton-John was at the height of her power as a singer/star when she agreed to play a muse to Michael Beck’s disgruntled album cover artist. Her inspiration – open a trendy nightclub. It all goes downhill from there. Featuring The Tubes and Gene Kelly, though God only knows why. (3 April, Retroplex, 6:20PM EST)

Frances


1983 was Jessica Lange’s year. She had a major mainstream hit with Tootsie, and she starred in this fascinating bio-pic about the doomed Hollywood glamour gal Frances Farmer. To top it all off, she received an Oscar nomination for both efforts. Though she won for Dustin Hoffman’s cross-dressing comedy, this was by far her stronger work. It remains a performance of devastating dimensions. (5 April, Flix, 9:45PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Mar 28, 2007


You have to feel sorry for Glen Morgan. Here’s a director so desperate to bring some manner of meaning to the horror film that he literally takes his fright film’s failures personally. Case in point – 2003’s brilliant update of the killer rat epic from the ‘70s, Willard. Featuring the masterstroke casting of Crispin Glover in the title role, and reconfiguring the standard revenge motivations of the original to expand the psychological landscape of the characters, Morgan tried his darnedest to combine the best of all macabre mannerisms. Indeed, that film was the rare combination of the sinister and the shocking, the up front and the undercurrent. When it failed to find an audience, it devastated Morgan. As his hard earned efforts slowly faded from theaters, he fell into a deep depression. Convinced he would never direct again, he saw his chances at making the kind of creature features he craved slowly diminish.


With this revelation, just part of the insightful bonus features offered on Dimension Films DVD release of Morgan’s 2006 Black Christmas (yes, another remake, this time of the 1976 underground cult classic) we gain a new perspective about what drives an artist like Morgan. Long noted for his work on The X-Files TV series, as well as his writing/producing credits on the Final Destination franchise, this is a man who clearly holds genuine genre credentials. But he takes things so personally, from criticism to complements, that it’s hard to believe he can maintain a successful show business career. Even his wife, actress Kristen Cloke (who co-stars in Christmas and adds her own two cents to the “behind the scenes” material) laments the toll each film takes on her man. His is a concern bordering on the obsessive – meaning every decision, creative or commercial, weighs heavily on his frequently shrugged shoulders.


This makes his continued career choices all the more puzzling.  Beyond the initial reaction of “why God, why?”, remakes face several uphill entertainment challenges. Perhaps the most difficult one to overcome remains the lingering legacy of the project being pilfered. When a Michael Bay announces he will produce an update of the classic Texas Chain Saw Massacre masterwork by Tobe Hooper, the various indisputable images associated with the film rise from the genre grave like emblematic zombies and immediately start stalking the artistic landscape. Their presence is palpable, their ability to be ignored almost impossible. Then there is the redux that reduces the original concept to a mere stepping off point. In the case of John Carpenter’s terrific take on The Thing, the notion of a monstrous creature from outer space stalking a group of polar explorers was twisted into a glorious celebration of geek show gore.


As for Bob Clark’s classic seasonal scarefest, Black Christmas, the stakes get raised even higher. Hitting theaters a good four years before John Carpenter would prove that the slice and dice dynamic had real financial teeth, Clark’s ideas were radical and, for the most part, unrealistic. He wanted to make a mad killer movie without ever contextualizing the fiend. His Billy would have no past, no present, no motive and most of all no backstory. He would simply exist as an object of terror for a group of holiday minded sorority sisters. Even worse, the murderer would be made even more enigmatic with the use of POV techniques. Billy would never be seen. Instead, the audience would view the world through his sick, twisted eyes. With an ambiguous ending and the introduction of elements (a dead girl near the lake, the oddball boyfriend played by Keir Dullea) that hinted at horror but never paid off, it was as if Clark had anticipated the formulas and stereotypes that would mar the genre in the decades to come, and subverted them before they even started.


Morgan makes no such aesthetic choices. Instead, he develops discernible visual (eyes) and metaphysical (family) themes. Then he tosses all of his deep rooted musings into a good old fashioned splatter fest, turns the entire enterprise sideways, and sprinkles in a little Scream style self-referential irony to polish off the presentation. This makes his version of Black Christmas simultaneously old school and new jack swinging, a gloriously goopy retread and a brilliant post-modern comment on the sticky state of cinematic terror. Certainly fans will feel cheated if they go in thinking that Morgan is making his own genre-redefining joke. Black Christmas does occasionally feel like a spoof that forgot to be funny, or better yet, a surefire schlock shocker that occasionally meanders over into satire. It’s this uneasy tone that tends to throw your typical fear aficionado. With the recent J-Horror fad, overloaded with tradition and superstition, and the current violence porn paradigm that prioritizes cruelty over cleverness, cinematic terror supposedly must contain a laser-like, singular focus.


But Black Christmas isn’t interested in a mere one note dynamic. Morgan intends for his film to be as much a character study as an extravaganza in evil. By making his Billy – now given the last name of Lenz – a wholly rounded work of perverted parenting, by giving him a disturbing yellow jaundiced pallor and a tendency toward incest and cannibalism, the typical motion picture murder ideal is definitely in place. But Morgan wants to argue that only monsters begat monsters, and he provides his freakish fiend with a mother so heinous that even Norman Bates would holler, “Damn!”. During the flashback portions of the film, Morgan finds the proper balance between disturbing personality tweaking and fudged up familial fright. Once we leave that scenario, our patience rewarded with a wonderful Grand Guignol joke, the slasher material can seem a little underwhelming.


But for anyone alive when names like Voorhees and Myers jammed the pop culture zeitgeist, Black Christmas will be like the return of a slightly insane best friend. Though the girls featured as victim fodder are given a few more post-modern dilemmas vs. their early ‘80s slut and slaughter counterparts, Morgan is more concerned about the stalk and the stab than the starting point. Even adults Andrea Martin (the only member of the original Christmas cast returning here) and Cloke are kept at arms length, reduced to being the bearers of constant warning when things start getting dangerous. There are some sensational kills here – icicles through the eye, glass unicorns through the head (a nice homage to the first film)  - and a real sense of atmosphere. As he describes his efforts in the DVD EPKs, production designer Mark Freeborn strove to make the sorority house it’s own creepy character. Thanks to the way it was situated and shot, he managed that near impossible feat rather well.


All of which begs the question of why Black Christmas was met with such harsh condemnation come holiday season 2006. Granted, there were better horror films during the year, landmark movies like Silent Hill and Hostel. In addition, the timing for such a release seemed a bit off. Bob Clark’s version had just been given a stellar new release on the digital format, so many people were just learning about the film, and were perhaps unprepared for it to be so quickly ‘remade’. But the best answer is obviously the simplest. Like Willard, Morgan clearly made a movie that only a certain selective sector of fans could really appreciate. Mainstream reviewers, who more or less avoided the movie because of the clear horror bias that exists within the critical community, would have you believe that Morgan is the second coming of Ed Wood with this effort. They tore it apart in ways that seem too severe to merit real analytic concern.


Of course, this must make Morgan feel twice as bad. For someone who takes every artistic effort he makes as seriously as possible, such sweeping dismissal is hard. And let’s get one thing straight – this Black Christmas is not the original. As one of the actresses says in the DVD bonus material, this is more a movie “based on” Bob Clark’s creepfest, not an exact duplicate. With its jaunty retro vibe, ample arterial spray and aggressive narrative drive, this update acts as a perfect complement to the ambiguous thrills provided by its namesake. It’s not a flawless film, and one could argue that its more fun than frightening, but it is not the full bore flop the rest of the world would have you believe it is. Instead, it’s a statement of one man’s desire to take terror in a decidedly different direction. If he has to suffer for such a stance, so be it. After all, nearly all creative types endure the pain of production for their art, don’t they?



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Tuesday, Mar 27, 2007


There are two important stories surrounding the 1985 Stuart Gordon film Re-Animator (or if you go for the full blown ballyhoo treatment – H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator). The first one is the narrative up on the screen, a balls-to-the-wall horror comedy which redefined both the gore film, and the outsider cult classic. But the second, and equally endearing tale, is the one involving a Chicago theatrical director, his decision to make movies, and the uphill battle he faced bringing his vision to the silver screen. In the days before DVD, this latter saga would have been saved for an extensive print interview, or a several article series in which various members of the cast and crew were interviewed to get their side of the story. Now, thanks to the digital revolution, we don’t need endless column inches to learn how junior mad scientist Herbert West became a genre icon. We just need to wait for the eventual merchandising concept called the ‘special edition’.


Re-Animator definitely remains a doorway film. It argued that horror and comedy could coincide effortlessly, and that the nastiness of gore could easily be sidestepped by keeping one’s vivisected tongue firmly in cheek. The outrageous and frequently over the top narrative, centering around medical school students (and lovers) Dan Cain and Megan Halsey and the terrors they experience at the hands of haunted newcomer Herbert West, was bloated with unbelievable moments of sheer cinematic audacity. Yet thanks to fresh faces Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton, and Jeffrey Combs, director Gordon managed to balance the insane with the scientific rather well. He also tried to keep things as physiologically realistic as possible. When you consider that the main storyline centers on using an experimental formula to revive the dead – and the zombie zaniness that eventually occurs, - there are also a lot of super schlock theatrics as well. Pouring every ounce of his energies into pushing the limits of acceptable arterial spray, Gordon gave bloodhounds voluminous vein juice the likes of which they hadn’t seen before.


And it is indeed these moments of corpse grinding that maintain Re-Animator‘s current mythical status. From exploding eyeballs to carved up cats and a finale with more naked members of the living dead than in any alt-porn title, Gordon explored every parameter of his anarchic autopsy based atrocities. One sequence in particular still gives geek show fans the giggles. While describing it in mixed company would be quite unfair (as well as spoiling one of the film’s best ‘gags’), let’s just say that a headless ghoul with a co-ed crush tries to get busy with a certain decapitated body part. It’s sexual splatter at its tastiest. Yet there are those who find the claret and comic asides much ado about nothing - new. In fact, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 would eventually trump Re-Animator in most film fans minds. The narrative weight and cinematic invention of Raimi’s gonzo gorefest surpasses anything this Lovecraftian lunacy has to offer.  There are even those who prefer Gordon’s far more serious take on the author, his follow-up film From Beyond.


But that’s the beauty of a film like Re-Animator – and a perfect illustration of the value of DVD. In a format that proposes the possibility of contextualizing each release, to supplement and complement any film with a wealth of additional information, even those who are only slightly smitten with a particular motion picture can find reasons to rejoice. In the case of this latest Anchor Bay version of the title – there have been at least two other repackagings previously – the must-own moment is a brand new documentary, a talking head retrospective that finds almost all involved back to discuss their participation in what has become a fervent cult phenomenon. Indeed, the great thing about Re-Animator Resurrectus is that the entire cast is present, including all three leads - and that’s a real rarity in the world of digital distribution. Most reviews you read make a point of noting who decided not to participate in a bonus feature reunion. But in the case of this latest home video reincarnation, all are present and accounted for.


So is Gordon, and his big burly teddy bear appearance belies a past overflowing with hubris and misguided principles. All throughout the interview, we hear a man remembering his overblown conceits, his desire to use the experimental theater he ran in Chicago as a stepping off point for this new kind of horror experience. Wife Carolyn Purdy-Gordon is on hand to keep things in perspective, explaining the reactions people had to her husband’s ideas, and making sure to note when Gordon got a little out of control. For balance, the cast then comes along and argues for the filmmaker’s fascinating connection to the material. They praise his care and concern, his desire for rehearsal time and his mischievous personality on set. It’s a delicious dichotomy, and one that enhances what many would still consider to be a standard, if slightly unhinged, horror film experience.


In fact, what most DVD manufacturers fail to understand is that, aside from an ardent fanbase desperate for a specific title, newcomers to something like Re-Animator will base their interest level solely on the extras and bonuses provided. Even with its regal reputation and obsessive devotees spouting its magnificence all over the web, with messageboard debates heating up and taking sides, when it comes to spending that hard earned green stuff, most people react with their head first, and their gut second. So if they really aren’t interested in a whacked out comedy centering on a group of doctors experimenting with corpses, you’ve got to give them some kind of value for their fiscal confidence.


And nothing cements a shill more successfully than getting two tales for the price of one – in this case, the film itself, and the story behind it. Certainly, those in the know will argue that reissuing a movie several times – also known as the notorious industry practice of ‘double dipping’ – lessens the overall worth to a targeted audience. But with new fans flocking to the medium every year, choice keeps a title alive and viable for anyone unfamiliar with its entertainment elements.


The same could be said for Re-Animator‘s enduring qualities. People love it because it defies expectations, tweaks the standards we except in a horror film, and puts the living dead into scenarios only the sickest of fans have ever dreamed of. It barrels backwards into its terror commitments and uses slapstick and satire to lessen the blow of its unbelievable gruesome extravagances. In a time when the MPAA was asking movies to moderate their levels of violence, Re-Animator went whole hog (and unrated), filling the screen with more body parts and killer intestines (???) than a dozen of the more derivative slasher epics. Love it, loathe it, like it, or merely shrug your shoulders and wonder what the big bloodletting deal is, but there is do denying that as a symbol of why some films endure while others quietly fade away, Re-Animator has a couple of significant stories to tell. And thanks to the dimensions of DVD, we now have access to both fascinating tales.


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