Thursday, October 31, 2013

Movie Review "The Shining" by David Pretty

As I began to get acclimated to watching scary movies, I quickly realized that Friday the 13'th-type slasher flicks really didn't do a lot for me. What did petrify me, however, were spiritual threats: movies with ghosts, phantoms, specters and haunts. The first time I ever watched The Shining, I had no clue that I was about to get into. I certainly didn't expect to see my worst fears manifest on home video.

Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, a failed writer and recovering alcoholic. Forced to take odd jobs to survive financially, he applies for the winter caretaker gig at the Overlook Hotel. He accepts the assignment, despite being told that the previous caretaker went all banjo-kazooie during his stay and hacked his wife and twin daughters up with an ax. Um, okay.  

Jack totes his insecure wife Wendy (Shelly Duval) and their young psychic son Danny (Danny Lloyd) up to the hotel. Almost immediately, Jack starts to go a little whack-a-do. He gets writers block, snaps at his wife, obsessively throws a tennis ball against the wall for hours on end and then starts to exhibit signs of intoxication. This last bit is super-creepy since we've already been told that the hotel is completely devoid of alcohol. 

Meanwhile, young Danny starts to explore the hotel and pretty soon the setting itself becomes intolerably spooky. I don't know what it is, but deserted schools, hospitals and hotels all creep me right the fuck out. To make matters worse, Danny begins to see disturbing images just below the facade of reality, like psychic residue left over from traumatic events. The first time I saw that blood-tsunami pour through those elevator doors, I knew that I was in w-a-a-a-a-a-a-y over my head. 

But then it got worse, much worse. Via an amazing continuous Steadicam shot, Kubrick shows Danny driving through the deserted halls of the hotel on his Big Wheel. After an appropriately uncomfortable amount of time ticks by, he cuts around a tight corner and runs smack dab into two pasty, twin British girls who stare at him balefully and say:

"Come play with us, Danny.  For ever and ever..."

Kubrick then raises the terror level to fire-engine red by splicing in a few frames of the girls lying there all bloodied and hacked up. It's a truly ghastly image that's done absolutely nothing whatsoever to cure my irrational fear of kids. Especially kids with British accents.

Later, after Danny is found wandering around in a state of shock, Jack goes to investigate the ominous Room 237 just to prove that there's nothing in there. As he slowly inches his way through the suite, he eventually makes his way into the bathroom where he sees a gorgeous naked woman rising out of the tub. 

Needless to say, Jack is pleasantly surprised by his good fortune and also seemingly unaware of the ominous music by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind which is shredding the viewer's wits to ribbons. The woman silently steps out of the bath and then walks over to embrace him. Then Jack gets a fleeting glimpse of the woman's true appearance in the mirror. What follows is so supremely disturbing that I can't even bring myself to write about it.      

I distinctly remember shutting the movie off at that point just to exert some control over it. If you're anything like me, the temptation to turn on all the lights, locate your own baseball bat and rock back and forth in the corner will be overwhelming. Hopefully you'll also be as nutty as I was and forge on. 

After Wendy discovers that Jack's been writing a book only slightly more boring then the average Stephenie Meyer novel, he freaks out and tries to kill her. As she attempts to escape from the Overlook, the hotel's ghosts really start to come out of the woodwork. Kubrick then annihilates what was left of our frazzled nerves by showing a sordid, surreal, half-glimpsed costumed coupling going on behind a half-open door. Just thinking about this image and the teeth-jangling musical accompaniment always gives me chills. Only the "Fur and Loathing" episode of C.S.I. is more consistently disturbing to me.  

It's hard to believe it now but The Shining was almost universally panned when it was first released back in 1980, even by original novelist Stephen King. He thought that Kubrick had taken far too many liberties with the original source material. Interestingly enough, when King himself oversaw a T.V. movie remake back in 1997, the results were tepid at best.

The perspective of time eventually earned Kubrick's horror masterpiece a slew of accolades, forcing many a film critic to eat crow. King has since changed his opinion of the original film and I actually count myself among the reformers. At first I thought that Jack Nicholson went bonkers way too quickly and his manic performance was unintentionally funny. Although I still stand by that somewhat, I've come to realize that the film less about a Jack Torrance character study and more about our failure as human beings to learn from our mistakes.

Even though Nicholson's performance is kinda hammy, Shelley Duvall's pathetic and annoying Wendy is tremendously realized and little Danny Lloyd is a tremendous asset to the cast. This is in stark contrast to child actor Courtland Mead who was a crippling liability to the crappy T.V. movie remake. To round out the cast, Scatman Crothers is wonderfully comforting as Dick Hallorann. When he becomes mired in an epic panic attack towards the end of the film you know that shit's gonna get real post-haste.   

Indeed, The Shining is one of the most artistic, epic, psychologically-complicated and downright scary films ever to be unleashed on an unsuspecting public. It's impossible to take your eyes off the damned thing. Regardless of how late I start watching it, I never come close to distraction. Kubrick's superb eye always keeps me rapt, even during the slow build up at the start.

I gotta salute any movie that sends chills down my spine even by merely thinking about it. For its tremendous mise-en-scène, brilliant cinematography and eternally haunting, perverse imagery, The Shining scores top marks.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Movie Review: "A Nightmare On Elm Street" (2010) by David Pretty

Modern horror remakes have ranged from the surprisingly good (Dawn of the Dead) to the abysmal (Friday the 13'th). The, re-imagining, of A Nightmare on Elm Street falls somewhere in the middle. The biggest problem with the film is that there are so few innovations in the first half that you begin to wonder why it was green-lit in the first place.

We begin with Kris (Katie Cassidy) witnessing the suicide of her sleep-deprived, nightmare-plagued boyfriend. Soon her own dreams are plagued by the sweater-clad, beclawed human briquette known as Freddy Krueger (Jackie Earle Haley). Just like in the original film, Kris pulls a Janet Leigh in Psycho and our attentions are then diverted towards Nancy (Rooney Mara), an artistic, moody, withdrawn teenager who *Surprise!* is cursed by the same boogeyman. Bolstered by her similarly-haunted potential boyfriend Quentin (Kyle Gallner), the pair struggle to minimize the spiraling body count while attempting to unravel the dark secrets that link the victims together.

This version of Nightmare didn't exactly improve my low opinion of remakes. The plot is slavishly close to the original and many of the old nightmare tropes have been recycled. We get a slashing victim rolling around on the ceiling, a clawed glove breaking the surface of bathwater, a surprisingly-mobile body-bag occupant and the floor turning into goo underfoot. At least these sequences are strung together in a reasonably-competent manner and a respectable amount of tension is generated as a result.

But then, at the film's mid-way point, director Samuel Bayer and his screenwriters Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer finally begin to make some bold moves by screwing around with our perceptions of Krueger. As a result, Jackie Earle Haley gets more to do here than Robert Englund ever did in the original. We get flashbacks of him with the characters as kids and we're kept guessing about Freddy's motivations right up to the very end.

Although Jackie Earle Haley's showing here certainly doesn't eclipse Englund's, he definitely has the chops to give the role a unique and uber-creepy twist. In fact, the remake's performances compare quite favourably to the original. Understated and appropriately sullen, Rooney Mara's take on Nancy is a lot more even, despite the fact that she lacks the memorable charisma of Heather Langenkamp. Instead of narrowly avoiding "close calls" with Krueger or awkwardly wrestling with him, the characters experience a lot more genuine peril at the climax of this version.

Although the surfeit of jump-scares gets a bit tired after awhile, Samuel Bayer stages many of the scenes for maximum visual impact. Lord knows I'm not the biggest fan of CGI, but given the current state of technology I'm really surprised that the film-makers didn't come up with some new, creatively-unrestrained nightmare imagery instead of just reproducing set pieces we've already seen before. This is probably a blessing in disguise since the obligatory scene of Freddy's face emerging from the wall looks a lot less creepy then the original practical lighting effect. 

So, did we really need this version of A Nightmare On Elm Street? No, not really. But with its decent performances, harrowing personal confrontations and Jackie Earle Haley on hand to remind us why Freddy was scary in the first place, this version isn't completely without merit.

 Tilt: up.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Movie Review: "Let Me In" by David Pretty

There should be an artistic review board that studio execs have to go before in order to gain permission to remake a good movie. In a perfect world, the only remakes would be films that showed a glimmer of promise but were tragically undone by bad performances, poor direction or lame special effects. In this scenario no iconic films would be sullied and we might actually end up with a few new modern classics! Seriously, get to know me, Hollywood!

Let Me In is the inevitable North American-ization of one of my favorite films from 2009: Let the Right One In. I loved how the original took the oldest, hoariest movie monster cliche and managed to craft a completely new and different take on the legend. All Let Me In really does is clarify the narrative to ensure that mouth-breathers don't get confused, spruce up the special effects a little bit and dispense with all of those pesky subtitles. Is it a bad movie? No. Is it a necessary movie? Frankly, I'd be hard-pressed to mount a convincing defense.

Just like in the original, Let Me In follows the tale of a young, habitually-bullied boy named Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Owen's going through a pretty rough patch right now: his parents are divorced, his alcoholic, God-fearing mother is literally anonymous and he's a constant magnet for abuse at school. One night, while sitting alone in a snow-covered playground, Owen finds himself in the company of the shoeless, enigmatic Ally (Chloe Moretz), who promptly informs him that "we can't be friends". Despite the off-putting introduction, the two alienated youngsters start to find solace in one another's company and they begin to bond.

Abby's cryptic insistence that she's "not a girl" soon starts to make sense after her world-weary guardian kills a local and harvests the resulting blood to feed his young charge. When her patron kills himself in a fit of guilt, Abby is suddenly forced to hunt, rather messily, for herself. Not long after Owen witnesses her feral side first-hand and must choose between a real world populated with human monsters or the shadow realm where real monsters pledge to protect him.

Director Matt Reeves, who helmed Cloverfield a few moons back, does a deft job moving the storyline along and crafting some memorable images. But his efforts pale in comparison to the lingering, haunting and unsettling minimalism and restraint shown by Tomas Alfredson in the original. The script also adds some superfluous exposition that makes this version feel longer despite their identical run times. I'd gladly take more scenes between Eli and her guardian in Let The Right One In versus an unnecessary prologue that the original managed to summarize with a few economic lines of dialogue.

Both of the kids give performances that belie their age. Although Kodi Smit-McPhee plays the perfect waif, his incessant helplessness gets a bit cloying after awhile. Kåre Hedebrant in the original seemed more weird than wilting. Chloe "Hit Girl" Moretz is also fantastic as Abby and she strikes the pitch-perfect balance between penitent, vulnerable, and downright rabid at times. Again, I still preferred Lina Leandersson's androgynous Eli in the original, since Owen became protective of her regardless of gender attraction. Leandersson was also more interesting in a tragic,weary "old soul" kinda way. This also served to underscore the troubling chronological age difference that separated the two.

Even the title of the remake seems to miss the point. I loved how the trappings of vampirism take on a thematic parallel to adolescence in the original. Oskar inviting Eli into his home is a great metaphor for the tough choices we all have to make as kids when we started to picking and choosing our friends from a limited and sometimes questionable pool of options. With Let Me In the entire scenario takes a step backwards into convention and cliche.

Now, don't get me wrong: this film is respectfully mounted and, if there was no predecessor, I'd probably heap mountains of praise upon its premise and execution. But with a perfectly good original out there, Let Me In doesn't come close to threatening its sire with obsolescence.

Tilt: down.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Movie Review: "Carrie" (1976) by David Pretty

Is there any wonder why horror film producers love remakes? Take Carrie for example. With a constant parade of cyber-bullying stories in the news lately, it seems like the perfect time to revisit this concept. Somehow I doubt that this "re-imagining" was green-lit for so noble a reason. Most likely it exists merely because the execs didn't want to come up with a new idea and the concept already has a built-in familiarity for audiences who crave such things.

For me, what it really boils down to is whether or not the original film warrants a remake. In certain situations, like the first Nightmare on Elm Street, there can actually be some room for improvement. So, the question then becomes, how well does the 1976 version of Carrie stand up?

Sissy Spacek plays the titular character, a mousy, pathetic shlub who seems to have been born with a permanent "Kick Me!" sign on her back. The film begins with an innocuous-looking volleyball game at Bates (!) High School during which Carrie's team-mates chide her for blowing the game. In case we haven't picked up on the film's premise thus far, we're about to be bludgeoned by it.

Next up is a gauzy, dreamy-looking shower scene in which teenage girls flounce around in slow-motion in various states of undress. Accompanied by schmaltzy, florid music, the audience might mistake what they're watching for some sort of 80's sex romp or a European soft-core porn flick. Especially when we see Carrie diligently scrubbing away between her legs with a bar of soap.

Just as we're beginning to feel vaguely titillated, director Brian DePalma clobbers us with a right hook of pure, unadulterated trauma. Carrie starts bleeding profusely but has no idea that she's menstruating. So naturally she freaks out, begs her peers for help and gets nothing in return except revulsion and scorn. Led by the creatively-vicious Chris (Nancy Allen), the rest of the girls start chanting "Plug it up! Plug it up!" and pelt her with tampons and pads until she's curled up naked in a fetal position in the shower. It's one of the most jarring scenes of teenage cruelty ever committed to film.

Our beleaguered heroine still has a few guardians, including her gym teacher Miss Collins, played by Betty Buckley. She rescues Carrie from this indignation, punishes her attackers and then does everything in her power to inspire confidence in the girl. Also, Sue (Amy Irving) has a crisis of conscience over her roll in the incident. Eventually she persuades her artsy / jocky / pinball wizardy boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) to take Carrie to the Prom in an effort to make amends.

Carrie's allies have their work cut out for them. Her home life is totally hellish, what with mother Margaret (Piper Laurie) keeping her sealed up in a vacuum of self-hatred, abuse, repression, fundamentalism and guilt. Also, Carrie has no idea that Chris and her male bimbo boyfriend Billy (John Travolta) are working diligently on a revenge scheme that makes the plot of your average E.C. horror comic book look like an episode of My Little Pony.

But then Carrie discovers that she's not so helpless after all. With the onset of her belated period, odd things start to happen. During the locker room assault a light fixture overhead suddenly explodes. When the Principal calls her "Cassie" one to many times, his ashtray (?) flips off his desk. A kid takes a header off his bike when he makes the mistake of shouting "Creepy Carrie! Creepy Carrie!" at her.

Although the quality of writing in Stephen King's original novel is questionable at best, he certainly came up with a gut-wrenching scenario. In fact, the story of Carrie is downright Shakespearean. After our girl uses her powers to pacify her mom, she ventures out to the Prom and experiences an almost dream-like moment of bliss. Unfortunately, because of the actions of one insecure, spoiled, jealous little bitch, Margaret's paranoid prediction that "They're all going to laugh at you!" is tragically fulfilled.

And that's when all hell breaks loose. Carrie snaps, unleashing the full extent of her telekinetic powers on friend and foe alike. It's a powerful sequence that gets even more intense when our traumatized protagonist drifts home in a daze.

So, did this version need to be remade? Some may argue "yes" merely because Carrie often looks hideously dated. Notwithstanding the stereotypically-hilarious 70's-era hair styles and fashions, there are plenty of other things on display here that will have probably have viewers under the age of thirty shaking their heads with incredulity.

For example, the "good" gym teacher, Miss Collins, slaps Carrie in order to snap her out of her hysteria and then belts Chris right in the sass-hole when she mouths off. Perfectly acceptable back then, but nowadays, she'd be dragged away by the cops. As if she hasn't suffered enough, Carrie inhales a lungful of second hand smoke while she's sitting in the Principal's office. Kids are permitted to climb twenty or thirty feet into the rafters of the High School gym in order to hang Prom decorations. 

So, does this really warrant a remake? Um, no. Especially when you consider how awesome everything else is.

Although Brian DePalma has been accused of stealing techniques made famous by other film-makers, he certainly can't be accused of making a boring flick. Film buffs will notice the use of Bernard Hermann's musical stings from Hitchcock's Psycho whenever Carrie uses her mental powers. Also the neon-soaked cruising scene featuring Nancy Allen and John Travolta evokes shades of pal George Lucas's American Graffiti from three years earlier.

In much the same way that Stephen King used a lot of gimmicky diary entries and newspaper clippings in his original novel, DePalma goes a bit nuts showcasing his own virtuosity. Indeed, the film has some pretty bizarre tonal shifts. Not long after the repugnant shower scene we get an odd montage showing Betty Buckley meting out detention period calisthenics to Carrie's attackers like a drill sergeant, all to tune of what sounds like "Baby Elephant Walk".

Even stranger visions await. Later on in the movie, DePalma inter-cuts scenes of Carrie tentatively trying on lipstick with footage of Tommy and company ad-libbing about tuxedos. Then he really fucks around with us by cranking up the film speed for a few seconds, making it sound as if we're listening to the banter of a pack of chipmunks. The first time I saw this I felt compelled to check the tracking on my VCR.    

The really weird thing is that these odd moments actually kinda work. The tonal shifts are so strangely jarring that the audience gets lulled into a false sense of security. Some of these sequences are so light-hearted it's difficult to reconcile them with the brutality that follows. At times I feel like shouting "Hey, you can't have a disco tuxedo montage in the same movie as an attempted child murder!"

For the most part, DePalma's tactics work very, very well. When the camera starts to spin around Carrie and Tommy during their slow dance we experience her dizzying feelings of being caught in a magical whirlwind. I'm also a big fan of the high P.O.V.'s, notably the continuous crane shot which slowly follows the rope up to the ceiling where we see the precariously-balanced bucket and the oblivious but still happy couple off in the distance. This same shot is revisited later when Sue sneaks into the dance, uncovers Chris's scheme but is powerless to intervene. The use of slow-motion here is downright agonizing.

Around that time, DePalma was regrettably enamored with split-screen and I still maintain that this technique damages the illusion instead of propagates it. Sorry but splitting Carrie's rampage up between two separate screens might have been fine in theaters but on home video it lessens the scope and the visual impact. In spite of this, when Carrie finally snaps it's pretty powerful stuff. The music goes dead, the entire screen become awash in blood-red lighting, the back of the stage catches on fire and Carrie, now wide-eyed, gaunt and drenched in gore, slowly and methodically drifts down the stairs into a nightmare of her own design. The effect is supremely chilling.

The picture is made even better by its two stellar leads. At the beginning of the film, Sissy Spacek is so clueless and meek that you almost feel like slapping her yourself. But then, when you meet Piper Laurie as Carrie's batshit-crazy, socially-retarded mom everything starts to makes sense and you immediately start to feel terrible for her. Frankly, both of these women deserved more then Academy Award nominations, they deserved to win. Chalk that injustice up to anti-horror film prejudice, I suppose. 

At first we're not entirely sure if Sue is being sincere in her reparations, but Amy Irving pulls off contrition and genuine sympathy. So much so that you begin to feel protective of her as Tommy starts fall for Carrie in spite of himself. Speaking of William Katt, beyond looking like the love child of Dee Snider and Leif Garrett, his mutable feelings for Carrie come across as totally convincing.

The film is rounded out by some miraculous minor casting. As Chris Hargensen, Nancy Allen exudes bitch-on-wheels menace, but with a complex hint of vulnerability and self-consciousness. In his first screen role, John Travolta is perfect as Chris's meat-heated, easily-manipulated boyfriend. Even though she's a tad slap-happy, Betty Buckley is both matronly and perhaps a tad bi-curious as Carrie's guardian angel Miss Collins. Finally, minor scream-queen P.J. Soles delivers the first of many vacant, annoying, wing-nut characters, which she'd eventually perfect in John Carpenter's Halloween.          

Above and beyond the film's dated aesthetics and a few odd stylistic choices, Carrie is one of the best plotted and acted horror films ever made. As such I implore you studio execs to please, please, please keep your greasy mitts off of good movies like this.

C'mon, there's gotta be some obscure horror films out there that had good ideas but a lousy execution? Why dontcha re-make those instead, ya vultures?

         Tilt: up.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Movie Review "A Nightmare On Elm Street" (1984) by David Pretty

While the original Nightmare on Elm Street is justifiably considered to be a horror classic, it's also far from perfect. Sandwiched between Wes Craven's mid-career clunkers like The Hills Have Eyes Part II, Deadly Friend and Shocker the first Freddie flick is tainted somewhat by the same shlocky qualities that characterized some of those other films.  

One of the most effective ways a horror movie can build tension is with a spooky soundtrack. Now, granted I know it was the Eighties, but Nightmare's hideous synthesized score has to be one of the worst I've ever heard. Occasionally it's offset by a genuinely-eerie, note-spare piano riff heralding a dream sequence, but it always seems to get trampled by what sounds like a possessed keyboard locked on "demo".

The performances are also pretty scattered. Although charismatic and cute in an unconventional Eighties sorta way, many of Heather Langenkamp's line readings are pretty bizarre. On those rare occasions in which she gets a chance to convey frantic horror and panic she acts as if she's trying to find her way out of an Ambien stupor.

Also distracting is her physical inability to keep her mouth closed during every scene single she's in. I'm being serious here: just watch the film and count how many times she just stares slack-jawed off into empty space. I'd suggest making a drinking game out of it but I don't want anyone to die from alcohol poisoning.

It's really amazing how her performance veers between overwrought, understated, absent, self-conscious, and then inexplicably spot-on at times. Clearly she isn't completely terrible since she still manages to generate a ton of sympathy for Nancy. And let's face it, Heather Langenkamp is a helluva lot more genuine, interesting and easy-to-relate-to than the interchangeable, immaculate-looking and decidedly forgettable starlets that populate today's modern horror films.

Ronee Blakley, who plays Nancy's mom in the film, also gives a pretty baffling turn. I seriously hope that Blakely was a method actress and her poor showing can be blamed on the prodigious vodka bottle that she's frequently seen taking a belt from. What else could explain those endlessly-distracted deliveries and the oddest emphasis choices since Bela Lugosi played Dracula?

Mercifully, the film does have some strong showings to make up for this. As expected, John Saxon is quite good as Nancy's protective cop dad. It's actually kind of a pity that Amanda Wyss buys the farm so early since she's a pretty capable actress and I can't help but wonder what she could have done with the lead role if she'd been given a chance. And then there's L'il Johnny Depp, replete with pompadour, cut-off jersey and alligator-tagged dress shirt, who displays an instinctive aptitude for his craft even at the ripe old age of twenty. 

Finally, Robert Englund proves that less is more when it comes to our main man Freddy Krueger. Compare the fleeting sightings of our favorite ethereal bogeyman in the first Nightmare film to future entries in the series. By the time we were subjected to the notoriously dreadful "Power Glove" bit in The Final Nightmare, he'd become about as scary as your average pervy uncle. They don't even seem like the same characters.

But here, in his debut appearance, Freddy doesn't crack wise like the boogeyman equivalent of Jack Parr. Instead he's a fleeting, barely-glimpsed, super-creepy malevolent force of nature who's sense of humor is decidedly coal-black. In fact, the character only begins to lose his impact when Craven makes the mistake of showing him full-body, awkwardly wrestling with Heather Langencamp in the film's denouement. Things get even goofier when Freddy falls victim to Nancy's Home Alone-style booby-traps, apparently cobbled together with MacGyver-like speed and efficiency if we're to believe the film's ludicrous time line.

The thing that makes Freddy and the Nightmare films so great is how the film-makers can really screw around with the concept of reality. Since necessity is the mother of invention, some horror flicks can really benefit from having a microscopic budget. But with the first Nightmare on Elm Street I can't help but feel that Craven's lack of funds prevented him from realizing some really epic set pieces. This sort of surreal, unbridled creativity would have to wait until 1987's Dream Warriors.

To make matters worse, 80's-era horror film directors could never have anticipated the future proliferation of high-definition home video, which is mercilessly cruel to the props, makeup and effects of the time. In spite of this, Craven did manage to come up with some pretty cool and disturbing imagery. As long as you don't hit the "pause" button, Freddy's "extend-o-arms", the "tongue phone" gag and Nancy becoming mired in her home's mud-like steps are all super-creepy.

Pity the cynical, cash-grab 2010 remake did nothing except substitute contemporary-looking, interchangeable mannequins in the lead roles in a misguided effort to make the story more appealing to modern audiences. So many more interesting things could have been done. I highly suggest that fans re-visit the original Nightmare on Elm Street, without the rose-colored glasses provided free of charge to every fourteen year old kid who watched it back in the day. You'll be amazed by how much potential a modern remake could have exploited.

Tilt: up.