Latest Blog Posts

by Bill Gibron

13 Feb 2009


Do few genre filmmakers “get it” that when a true artisan comes along, their presence can be initially perplexing - especially when he or she is being asked to reinvent a classic of macabre cinema. So many fail - David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s awful The Eye, for example - that anyone managing to survive said re-imagining is rare indeed. That’s why Marcus Nispel is such a welcome anomaly. Not only has he been charged with reviving the fortunes of two “archetypal” motion picture monster franchises - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th - but he’s managed to make the recognized classics all his own. In fact, some might argue that his updates are just as good (or better) than the originals.

Nispel is an interesting career case. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, he came to America at age 20 to start a production company. Concentrating on commercials and music videos, he worked for artists as diverse as Faith No More, Simply Red, Elton John, and No Doubt. He won four MTV Video Music Awards and saw his Portfolio Artists Network expand their advertising reach with clients like Coca-Cola, Nike, Mercedes and UPS.  In 2003, Michael Bay was looking for a new face to take on his planned redux of Tobe Hooper’s grindhouse epic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Nispel, who had first tried to get into feature film directing with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s End of Days (he left the project over “creative differences”), was initially seen as an odd choice. Instead of going with a recognized horror name, Bay and company thought the cinematic novice would do the material justice.

They were absolutely right. With his trademark de-saturated color schemes, emphasis on atmosphere and tone, and a gore-drench brutality that the original completely lacked, Nispel made the story of Leatherface, his cannibal clan, and the unlucky teens that dared tread into his personal slaughterhouse domain an electrifying, terrifying experience. While paying homage to what Hooper and his beer-swilling buddies accomplished back in the Me Decade, he updated the premise for a blood and guts oriented post-modern crowd. Even cynical critics who normally dismissed fright flicks as the bastard step-children of the motion picture artform couldn’t deny that Nispel had forged something powerful and slightly sadistic out of what could have been a campy bit of nostalgia. The film became one of the Summer’s surprise hits and led to a less than successful origin story prequel.

For his part, Nispel went on to a pet project of his -Pathfinder, an adaptation of Nils Gaup’s 1987 film Ofelas. A contender for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, the original’s narrative was moved Westward, with Native Americans and Vikings taking the place of the Tjuder and Lapp tribes. With lead Karl Urban fresh from his turn as Eomer in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and a directorial dedication to authenticity and history, studios clearly thought Nispel could deliver something spectacular. As the April 2007 release date came and went however, it was clear that this tale of murder, revenge, and cross culture clashing would do little but die at the box office. For his part, Nispel took the failure in stride, sitting back and studying his options (like the long rumored adaptation of American McGee’s Alice for horror heavy Wes Craven).

So it was quite shocking to see Nispel’s name featured in the initial teaser material for the proposed update of the Jason Voorhees legacy. It appeared like a step backward, a desperation move by a filmmaker who failed when moving outside the fear factory. In addition, the Friday the 13th franchise, while fun and very much tied to the introduction and explosion of home video in the 1980s, was not the kind of “classic” that Chainsaw was. Perhaps from a purely cultural standpoint, but Sean Cunningham’s crude slice and dice definitely wasn’t finding a spot in the Museum of Modern Art (where Hooper’s film now sits). Indeed, it looked like for all intents and purposes that Nispel, finding no success to separate himself from murder and mayhem, came crawling back to the scary movie to save his career.

In truth, bringing this director back was a godsend. Of all the films that need careful reconstructing, Friday the 13th is definitely high on the list. It’s an oddball mystery, a tawdry take on And Then There Were None where we don’t get the joy of figuring out the killer’s ID until the fiend shows up and says “Hello.” Betsy Palmer is brilliant as cook turned psycho Pamela Voorhees, and her machete battle with last girl Alice is amazing in its broad scoped camp cravenness. But before that, we have to suffer through endless minutes of stalk and shock, with little suspense preparing us for Tom Savini’s autopsy level make-up F/X. Today, the hockey masked hacker known as Jason is considered a true horror icon. But that status definitely comes from the other 10 films the character has starred in. At first, Friday the 13th was not about the deformed boy. It was about his batshit mother.

Nispel’s decision to redefine Jason as an animalistic predator is just one of the new film’s novel approaches to the material. This new Friday the 13th thwarts convention as easily as it embraces the standard slasher formulas. The opening 25 minutes are all film craft and corpses, Nispel showing off in ways that both shiver the spine and tweak the brain. By the time the title shows up, we’ve already experienced the death of his mother, the rise of Jason, and the set-up for the next part of the plot. Nispel’s greatest asset, and the one element that differentiates him from all other post post-modern horror filmmakers is his level of seriousness. He never treats the genre like a joke, or a lesser level of cinematic artistry. He sets up his scenes like old school masters would and he works the audience like regaled names in the category’s past. Sure, there’s still a by the numbers corpse grinding involved, but getting there is an exercise in polished, professional cinema, nothing more or less.

Indeed, the reason Nispel should now be number one on any studios classic horror remake list - an inventory now containing such noted names as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, and The Evil Dead - is that he won’t kowtow to fanboy lusts or messageboard mandates. He won’t cater to memory or excessive obsession. Instead, he will play the narrative exactly the way the material requires. As a matter of fact, the next update he should attempt should be Sam Raimi’s breakthrough demons in a cabin romp. The Evil Dead would be perfect for Nispel’s ominous ambience and sensational splatter rampaging. He would use the wilderness as an effective foil to the foolishness happenings within, and when the creatures start to emerge, he could really turn on the terror. Just like Leatherface and his family, Nispel could even make the entire thing into some sort of redolent look at society circa 2010 (or whatever date the studios decide to set).

Because of his complete confidence in his own vision, because he can take even the cheesiest chestnut from the macabre mindfield and turn it into something stunning, Marcus Nispel should be instantly tossed to the top of the horror heap. He should never have to worry about working. He should have a laundry list of potential projects to choose from. Even when he fails - and Pathfinder is nothing short of subpar - he shows a spark and originality that few filmmakers possess. Remember, both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th were predisposed to fail. Devotees just knew that anyone tackling these titles would come up incredibly short. That Nispel managed to match - and in the case of Jason’s journey, best - the previous offerings says something about his gift for gruesomeness. Clearly, when it comes to horror, he “gets” it. Any producer looking to jumpstart their genre franchise should “get” him as well.

by Bill Gibron

12 Feb 2009


It’s been said before but it bears repeating - when making a movie, casting is everything. You can have the best script, the most accomplished director, and a budget that allows for both to maximize their effectiveness, but in the end, it takes people in greasepaint and funny duds to make the material zing. Put the wrong person in the lead and audiences will abandon your vision. Have a hack surrounding your otherwise accomplished company and listen to the critical commentary build and build. Some performers are poison from the get go (Jennifer Aniston, Robin Williams, Hayden Christensen), while others can steamroll over the rest of the players with their inherent sense of self (right, Mr. Olyphant???)

So when Zack Snyder started announcing his choices for the upcoming big screen adaptation of Watchmen, fans were initially fearful. Without seeing the actors in full costume and make-up, their ability to essay these iconic figures remained questionable. Now, just a few scant weeks from opening day, there are still issues with who will portray Moore’s enigmatic figures. SE&L has decided to look over the main characters from the novel and compare their print personalities with the actors hired to highlight them. In some cases, the choices are excellent. In others, we see the possible flaws in Snyder’s thinking - and where his visual panache will have the hardest time meshing with Moore’s more human take on the material. Let’s begin with:

The Comedian/ Edward Blake Jeffery Dean Morgan (Grey’s Anatomy, Supernatural)

The Comedian is perhaps the most complex character in Moore’s novel. He’s a hero, a cad, a scandal, a psychotic, a symbol of the old guard and an ever-present burr in the side of his former compatriots. In the book, The Comedian is a war criminal, a rapist, a guileless self promoter, and a survivor. We have to care that he’s murdered, wonder who did the deed, and wish to see such “injustice” addressed. This means Morgan has his work cut out for him. While The Comedian can easily turn into a caricature of the corrupting influence of ultimate power, there has to be a nobility and a self-awareness to his actions. Also, the character is all over the time line. Morgan will have to play old, young, spry, and sinister - in essence, the hero your love to hate or the villain you hate to love. Luckily, he’s more of a sidelight than a constant main focus in the Watchmen narrative.

 

Rorschach/ Walter Kovacs Jackie Earle Haley (The Bad News Bears, Little Children)


It’s one of the few feel-good stories in Hollywood. Haley was a child star, an important part of Michael Ritchie’s comedic commentary on kids and sports. But after a turn in Breaking Away, he seemed to literally disappear. Oh, he worked, but appearances in Dollman and Maniac Cop 3 could not prepare him for a run at Oscar glory for his work in Todd Fields fabulous suburban primer. Though he lost the trophy to Alan Arkin, the rise in profile meant more meaningful jobs. Now he’s landed what is essentially the lead in Watchmen. Rorschach is our antisocial detective, hoping to figure out who killed fellow crimefighter The Comedian. In the process, his conspiracy theory oriented brain unravels a more meaningful cabal which could spell the end of all masked vigilantes. To call Haley’s hiring a genius stroke is an understatement. He’s a dead ringer for the character in the graphic novel, and has the right amount of world weary seediness to make truly take on Rorschach.

Dr. Manhattan/ Dr. Jon Osterman Billy Crudup (Almost Famous, Big Fish)

Since he plays most of his scenes in a CG-assisted body that would make Mr. Universe jealous, the actor essaying the only true superhero in Alan Moore’s world does have to worry about the role’s physicality. But Dr. Manhattan is an important part of the graphic novel’s theme (the concept of humanity failing to seek the help it so desperately needs), so whoever takes over the glowing blue mantle has to really deliver in that department. Crudup is an interesting choice. The trailers show his radioactive transformation into Manhattan, and his pre-nuked look is totally appropriate for the ‘50s era experimentation. In the few new scenes where we hear the character speak, Crudup puts on a slightly stilted, almost alien lilt to his voice, capturing the ethereal quality of the character quite well. How he manages during the more confrontational moments (as when Manhattan is accused of giving former colleagues cancer) waits to be seen.

Nite Owl II/Dan Dreiberg Patrick Wilson (Hard Candy, Little Children)

As one of the last remaining vigilantes still geeked up and ready to rumble with his self-created technological crimefighting wonders (the Owl Ship), Dan Dreiberg is the heart and soul of Watchmen. He’s the reason to care about the fate of these former heroes, and his efforts - along with those of Silk Specter and Rorschach - help uncover what’s really going on. Wilson seems like a decent selection, his ability to slink between bad guys (Candy) and victim (Lakeview Terrace) indicating an excellent range. Besides, he was wonderful in Todd Fields’ film and has extension stage training. This will definitely help in those moments where Nite Owl must don the cloak and take to the skies once again. Wilson is also an excellent example of an audience window. His wholesome looks and Everyman characteristics could make his Drieberg Watchmen‘s most valuable player.

 

Silk Spectre II/ Laurie Juspeczyk Malin Akerman (The Heartbreak Kid, 27 Dresses)

This is a tough one. Akerman survived the horrid Farrelly Brothers remake of the Elaine May/Neil Simon comedy, and has found additional fortune as the bubbly blond bimbette skittering around the outsides of the typical RomCom. Seeing her dressed up as Silk Specter, however, shows some inherent limitations in her onscreen persona. Unless the trailers are taking some of the more meaningless moments from her performance and accenting them for now, she just doesn’t look like superheroine material. Her costume wears her, not the other way around, and Snyder can accentuate her movements with as much slo-mo stylization as he wants and she still seems…stiff. Along with the casting of the original Silk Specter, and to some degree the choice of Ozymandias, this could be Watchmen‘s biggest let down - or greatest surprise.

Ozymandias/ Adrian Veidt Matthew Goode (Match Point, Brideshead Revisited)

Without going into detail, this is perhaps the most important role in the entire Watchmen saga. Adrian Veidt is more than just an ex-masked avenger. He’s a corporate superstar, an entrepreneur who took his stint as a crimefighter and, post-Keene Act, turned it into something much larger. He harbors secrets. He’s power mad without being obviously so. He plays to the publicity and loves the limelight. That’s why Goode seems like an odd choice. He was wonderful as the weak and spineless son in Brideshead, and other roles have concentrated on his vulnerability and weakness. Maybe Snyder sees an inherent cowardice in Ozymandias and wants Goode to play to those tendencies. But for fans who imagined some beefy blond superstar as the egotistical avenger, this version seems strange. Oddly enough, the only other actor previously considered for the part was Jude Law.

Nite Owl/Hollis Mason Stephen McHattie (300, Shoot ‘Em Up)

As the inspiration for Wilson’s character, and a member of the old guard that fostered the Comedian’s corrupt ways, McHattie will be an interesting choice as the original Owl. Now the owner of an automotive repair shop, it will be curious to see how much of his backstory is offered by Snyder. Hollis Mason has an interesting arc, which is very important to the overall narrative. Still, one could easily see his material pushed aside for more modern forward motion.

Silk Spectre/ Sally Juspeczyk Carla Gugino (Spy Kids, Sin City)

Here’s the biggest risk in the entire Watchmen casting process. Fans of the comic know that Sally Jupiter (aka Sally Juspeczyk, and mother of Silk Specter II Laurie Juspeczyk) is one hard-edged, arrogant shrew. She’s all burlesque queen beauty and tawdry tales outside of the crimefighting arena. Imagine someone like Debbie Reynolds meshed with Blaze Starr and you get the idea. While no one is doubting Gugino’s beauty, she’s way too young (all of 37) and too vital to be this fallen, broken down ‘broad’. Snyder will have a hard time making this click.

 

 

by Bill Gibron

11 Feb 2009


How did he do it? How did Zack Snyder go from motion picture no one (well, he did direct a Michael Jordan documentary short and a Morrissey video) to helmer of hits like Dawn of the Dead and 300? Even better, how did he become the kind of Hollywood heavyweight capable of getting the long dormant Watchmen movie out of development Hell and into theaters? Better men than him - Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Greengrass - have tried and failed miserably, each one claiming that Alan Moore’s graphic novel was practically “unfilmable”. Yet here we are, less than four weeks away from the movie’s release, and the buzz is so thick both in and outside the industry that Warner Brothers and Fox actually went to court over who actually owned the rights (and the resulting profits).

Snyder’s story is nothing new. He’s not some wunderkind who dropped out of the directing tree and hit homeruns all the way down. No, he was an art school savant, earning his wings as a creator of commercials and a star cinematographer. When Universal was looking for someone to jumpstart their horror genre remakes, Snyder was brought in to take on one of the more forbidding projects - a new twist on George A. Romero’s classic zombie film Dawn of the Dead. With a script from Troma trained outsider James Gunn and a modern feel to both the moviemaking and the monsters, Snyder unleashed his unique, hyper-stylized vision of Hell on Earth. With rapidly moving members of the living dead, and bloodshed o’plenty, the film was a box office bonanza.

Aside from the violence, which gets ramped up beyond all possibility of survival, Snyder understood the inherent hopelessness of an all out zombie apocalypse. Sure, there was the external threat of flesh eating fiends, but society cannot survive for long outside its classified comfort zones of instant gratification and material want. Romero emphasized this element to a fault in his brilliant cultural commentary. Snyder pays it lip service, but also acknowledges the need for humanity to scrape and claw its way back to the consumerism womb. The sequences inside the mall are claustrophobic and creepy, as if something horrific is just around the food court, hungry and unable to control its voracious appetite. That said creature could be a frazzled security guard or a distraught father accentuated the already palpable horror.

Success allows for a little artistic license, even for a newcomer, and Snyder picked a whopper for his feature film follow-up. Enamored of Frank Miller and the masterful Sin City, the comics writer’s take on the Spartan battle at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. became the foundation for 300. In order to convince the studio to make the film, Snyder scanned the entire graphic novel into a computer. Adding simply animation and a voice-over narration, he proved the movie could be made. A year later, he was still tweaking the CG-aided action to match his vision of Miller’s brutal universe. With very little hype and even less expectations, 300 hit theaters in March of 2007, and the rest was history. A surprise blockbuster, it put Snyder in the position of handpicking his next project. The choice, as we now know, would be as controversial as consistent with the filmmaker’s fearlessness.

If anything, 300 surly symbolizes Snyder’s desire to expand the language of film and the comic book genre in general. Similar to Sin City in that it takes direct inspiration from Miller’s designs, the accented realism achieved and the level of cinematic experimentation were indeed eye popping. What was most impressive, though, is how Snyder kept the emotional level so intense. We care about King Leonidas, his attempt to save Sparta, and his good lady queen who suffers significant humiliation in order to provide his army some hope. That none of it matters in the end is part of the film’s heartfelt heroics. We understand the battle may have been in vain, but the meaning of what these men went through clearly stands out among the washboard abs and bulging muscles.

Many felt 300 was all pizzazz and little passion. That’s why an uproar occurred when it was announced that Snyder would make Watchmen next. After all, treading into such nerd nation volatility demanded an equally histrionic response. The filmmaker said all the right things - dedication to the source, adulation for Moore, a desire to make a definitive version of the material, an attention to detail, etc. When the casting news hit and the teaser trailers sprang up, the intensity of discourse leveled off. Soon, Snyder was seen as the messiah, a man harboring the greatest comic book creation into its rightful place in motion picture history. Even as The Dark Knight bagged a billion dollars worldwide, many still believe that Watchmen will set the tone for all graphic novel adaptations to come.                                                                                                                       

So far, his gamble appears to have paid off. Few can argue that 6 March is becoming a destination date for film fans and early, early, early takes from Kevin Smith and various Ain’t It Cool News spies indicate that Snyder may have actually created a motion picture classic here. There are those, like Movie City News’ David Poland, who wonders if the movie will make any money outside the dedicated followers and already hip demographic. There are also concerns that, no matter what kind of reception the film receives, it will be viewed solely on terms of the money it makes, and not the aesthetic merits of what Snyder created. Hollywood wants - nay, NEEDS - this movie to be huge. If the director merely succeeds in being faithful to Moore’s masterwork, a lax box office will spell disaster for Snyder’s upcoming plans (and there are many).

Clearly, this is one filmmaker whose gone from lucky as Hell to damned if you do/don’t. No one expected 300 or Dawn of the Dead to be a monster. Now everyone believes that Watchmen needs to be just as popular or, somehow, Snyder has failed. How he went from over achieving newbie to set in cement vanguard will be something for cinematic scholars to argue over for decades to come. And even if he never makes another film, Snyder will always be remembered as the man who tackled Alan Moore, and managed to live to tell the commercial tale. When it finally hits theaters in less than four weeks, Watchmen‘s already inflated legend will finally come down to Earth. Whether it’s a crash or a cushioned landing, remains in the hands of the man who made it. Zack Snyder has defied convention before. Here’s hoping he can do it again. 

by Bill Gibron

9 Feb 2009


A watch works on balance. It’s a combination of mechanical function and a jeweler’s sophistication. Old world craftsmen strove to create art within the springs and gears of a gentleman’s timepiece, forging a lasting symbol to that most immortal of elements - the passage of eternity. Take one apart, and the various components confuse as to their import and purpose. Yet when moving together in synchronized control, tension and fluidity forced to perfectly coexist, the universe is kept in check. Alan Moore’s amazing Watchmen graphic novel is a lot like the noble chronometer. In the book, the title refers to a band of rogue vigilantes, the masked avengers inspired by comics to become the guardians of justice and the scapegoats for a society gone mad. But as a work of literary triumph, it’s a series of seminal sections that, when combined, create one Hell of a majestic whole.

The story is told in twelve chapters, each section involving many layers, asides, subplots, suppositions, and conflicting character beats. The main thread sees famed hero The Comedian killed, and a former fellow crime fighter, Rorschach investigating. He believes that the current cultural climate suggests a possible plot against all masked heroes. He fears for the safety of such unusual champions as The Nite Owl, Ozymandias, Silk Specter, and the only one of them with true super powers, Dr. Manhattan. After looking to a past nemesis for answers, Rorschach is framed for murder and arrested. Then the all blue doctor decides to leave Earth to its own devices and takes up residence on Mars. Nite Owl and Silk Specter hope to free Rorschach, and with his help, discover the truth about the Comedian’s death, who was responsible, and what it might have to do with the possible end of the world.

Alan Moore has a right to be pissed, especially when it comes to the big screen interpretations of his pen and ink masterworks. He has seen such stellar titles as From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and V for Vendetta turned into less than successful dilutions of his ideas. While often matching the visual panache of the artists Moore pairs with, these films find little of the prosaic magic the man offers with his words - and Watchmen appears to be no different, at least from this prerelease arms length appraisal. As a book, it’s a beautiful puzzle, a complicated set of strategies and storytelling devices driven into each other with skill, intelligence, and a sheer force of personal resolve. How Zach Synder will recreate that element in his otherwise faithful version of the tome will be telling indeed.

But there’s more to Moore than simple words. Watchmen is a work of definite ideas, of contrasting geek nation knowledge superimposed over the old Joseph Campbell concept of heroes. Moore makes it very clear, right from the beginning, that we are dealing with a world so paranoid, so bereft of options either diplomatic or rational, that a glowing blue man with unlimited control over matter gives the US the perfect “God and Country” power trip conceit. It’s like reliving the Cold War except that America has aliens as well as nukes. Similarly, the internal fabric is shredding since masked vigilantes are no longer allowed to prowl the streets (by government edict). Moore stresses the differences between the two, using the frailty of humans as the underlying message about the state of the planet and the ineffectualness of individuals like the heroes.

For support, Moore tosses in parts of a proposed autobiography, an incomplete edition of the Right Wing rag The New Frontiersman, a few clippings about the character’s past, and most intriguing, a Tales from the Crypt style funny book featuring a sensationally sick story about a sailor, a shipwreck, and a rescue raft made out of dead, bloated corpses. Of all the material utilized by Moore, this is the most unusual and confusing. We initially see the storyline as a comment on the desperation of man. But as the narrative takes nastier and nastier turns, some of Moore’s message gets lost. In the end, he seems to be suggesting that, no matter how hard it tries, humanity is destined to destroy himself by his own insane hand.

In fact, much of Watchmen is a cleverly disguised anti-nuclear arms race rant. The Nixonian US with its McCarthy-esque ideals, the ineffectual Europeans with their roll over and hide mentality, a still vital Soviet Union relying on Communism as the “great alternative”, and existing within them all, a group of people who used to run around in handmade uniforms, their desire to protect the people perverted by a newfound love of power, popularity, and publicity. Only Dr. Manhattan seems centered and stalwart - and he’s a human A-bomb waiting to go off. Within Moore’s multilayered argument, we see that the pursuit of goals doesn’t necessarily lead to the achievement of same, while showboating strength (and preserving those who can back it up) turns into something very sinister.

But Watchmen is also about characters, about unique individuals with everyday problems that seem to pale in comparison to their alter egos’ grand designs. Moore sets the stage for films like The Dark Knight here, digging deep into the psychology of someone who used to save lives as a career. Most intriguing is Nite Owl (otherwise known as Daniel Drieberg). A fan of ornithology, he becomes the winged crusader when the original hero retires. He still longs for the days of flying in his Owl Ship and acting as the face of justice. Of course, now such actions are illegal, and without them, Dan is lost. He even takes up with Silk Specter partially out of attraction and partially out of a need to reconnect with his crusader past.

All of the ex-heroes here have issues. Rorschach is horrifically antisocial. The Comedian appears to be a wet dream for anyone in love with jingoistic patriotism and Soldier of Fortune magazine. Even the ethereal Dr. Manhattan can’t avoid the sting of losing the one he loves - even if he can foresee the break-up happening before it actually does. Such striking contrasts and intricate narrative devices make Watchmen a magically read (even for those of us not used to having illustrations along with our text). It also makes it a potential problem come movie sign.

Synder and company must find a way to keep the story shuttling along while bringing the depth and diversity that Moore managed on the page. If they can do it, then Watchmen will be more than just a great graphic novel. It will be that celluloid rarity - an adaptation that does the source material proud. If it fails to fulfill its promise, it will be yet another reason why Moore hates film. It’s all a matter of meticulous management and clever creativity. Like the balance of a great timepiece. Like the work of Alan Moore.

by Bill Gibron

9 Feb 2009


//Mixed media
//Blogs

Indie Horror Month 2016: Diving into 'Reveal the Deep'

// Moving Pixels

"In Reveal the Deep, the light only makes you more aware of the darkness

READ the article