Day 28: The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

October 29, 2012

Director: Dan O’Bannon

Starring: Don Calfa, Clu Gulager, James Karen, Thom Mathews, Beverly Randolph

Runtime: 91 minutes

I’m surprised at how much comedy has creeped into the movies I’m discussing. I realized that another of my favorites is a horror-comedy: Return of the Living Dead, a re-imagining of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It actually refers to Romero’s movie as based on real incidents, and says that things happened differently, but that the basic idea of the dead returning to life was in fact real. This film not only changes the story behind the appearance of zombies, making it the result of a government experiment gone awry, but also pictures zombies as fast-moving, unkillable killing machines (destroying the brain won’t work).

SPOILERS FOLLOW

It starts with three men working at a medical supply warehouse. Frank (James Karen) is training new employee Freddy (Thom Mathews), while their boss, Burt (Clu Gulager) leaves early to start the 4th of July weekend. Frank makes the mistake of showing Freddy some U.S. military canisters that mistakenly got shipped there—canisters that contain the chemicals that originally brought corpses back to life, as well as one of those corpses. Of course, the canisters rupture, spilling the chemicals all over the warehouse, and reviving the corpse.

ROTLD punk crew

The teenage 80s crew of stereotypes that faces off against the zombies in ROTLD.

Chaos ensues as they call back Burt to try to cover up what happened, and destroy the zombies (besides the one from the canister, a body stored in the warehouse for shipping to a medical school has also revived, along with split dogs, and a wall of preserved butterflies). They go to Burt’s friend, Ernie (Don Calfa), who works at a mortuary and has a crematorium. Burning the bodies would seem a sure-fire way to get rid of all the evidence—except that the ashes come down on a graveyard, and aided by some on-cue rain, revive all of the graveyard’s inhabitants.

While this plays on a lot of zombie movie tropes—a group of people trapped inside a building, with fruitless attempts to escape, and living people who are slowly turning into the living dead (Frank and Freddy breathed in the chemical), there’s also much departure. As already mentioned, the fast-moving zombies are different than the usual lumbering kind, and these zombies won’t die: even if you cut them into pieces, the pieces will still come after you. The comedy also offsets the usual solemn bleakness of these kinds of films. The cast is diverse—three older men and an eclectic group of 80s stereotypes looking to join their friend, Freddy. No single character is of central importance—it’s more of an ensemble piece—and everyone adds their own layer of charm and fun. The ending, while fairly nihilistic, ends things with a detached, morbidly tongue-in-cheek final image of a zombie emerging as one of the songs from the movie’s deathrock/punk soundtrack blares into life. The soundtrack is one of the most fun things about the movie, as it changes the whole feel of seeing a horde of zombies descending on their victims.

Some of the effects are pretty gruesome, but there’s so much off-beat humor that nothing is really unsettling. The greatest scenes are where we see the zombies attacking in hordes, overpowering anyone who tries to help the isolated characters (ambulances, police), and we see them spreading out to attack surrounding areas, suggesting they could quickly spread through the world if not unchecked. There were a number of sequels, but none of them manage to quite capture the quirky spark of this horror-comedy classic.

Ernie & zombie woman

Ernie talks to the torso zombie woman about what it’s like to be dead, and why she wants to eat brains.

 

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Day 27: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

October 28, 2012

Director: Wes Craven

Starring: Ronee Blakley, Johnny Depp, Robert Englund, Jsu Garcia, Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, Amanda Wyss

Runtime: 91 minutes

So despite my statement in the Scream post that I wouldn’t be doing another Wes Craven movie, I decided to do A Nightmare on Elm Street. After re-evaluating its classic status, I decided there’d be so many profound….OK, really, we’re doing this movie for a film class, and I decided it would be just easier to re-watch this and write about it.

This re-watch didn’t improve my opinion of the film much. I still think it’s more silly than scary, and much of the acting is just downright bad. It’s obviously borrowing elements from Halloween: the small mid-western town, a human-turned-bogeyman killer stalking teenagers, ineffectual adults (although there’s more of a parental presence here), and even a scene in English class where the discussion relates to the killer. Halloween is an already a copy of Psycho, so now you have a copy of a copy, which was one of the problems with these slasher films.

Of course, Nightmare diverges in significant ways from Halloween and other slasher films. For one thing, Freddy kills in your dreams, which allows for some creepy dream sequences. And the blurring between dream and reality adds a somewhat disturbing element. The adults have larger roles than usual—the focus in slashers usually on teenagers—and they, in fact, are responsible for a crime that has brought Freddy down on their children, whereas it is usually teens who responsible for the past crime that sets the killer in motion (like the neglectful teenagers in Friday the 13th who unleash both Mrs. Vorhees and Jason on generations of teens to come).

Freddy & Nancy

Freddy (Robert Englund) menaces Nancy (Heather Lagenkamp).

POSSIBLE SPOILERS FOLLOW

After starting with Tina’s (Amanda Wyss) nightmare, we get a another couple of brief scenes that set character, and some humor, thanks to Glen (Johnny Depp in his film debut), but then we get a gruesome scene of Freddy mutilating Tina. This is perhaps the most effective and unsettling scene of the movie—the way Tina thrashes makes the murder look like a rape, the way her body rises in the air and is pulled to the ceiling (we can’t see Freddy since he is attacking in her dreams) adds a surreal quality, and her macho boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri) can only watch helplessly.

From there, Tina’s friend, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) tries to figure out who the killer is, and why her and her friends are having nightmares of the same guy with a burned face, red and green sweater, and knives for fingers. Although Nancy, like Laurie in Halloween, is the innocent, virginal girl, Krueger’s pursuit of her has a pointedly sexual dimension, with his clawed hand coming up between her legs in the bathtub. The deaths of the male characters, meanwhile, has no such element, and they don’t involve the same intensity of violence. (This would change in the sequel, in which the killings have a homoerotic, sadomasochistic dimension.) We don’t even see Glen’s death, just see him sucked into his bed, followed by a ridiculous amount of gushing blood that sprays all over the room. I found myself laughing heartily at that geyser of blood, and really wonder why anyone would think it was scary. It’s not like the river of blood sequence in The Shining which, although I think is a bit dated now, is more unsettling and well-crafted than this.

I’m sorry but I don’t the teen actors to be that convincing. I don’t like Johnny Depp now, and his performance here is tolerable at best. Heather Langenkamp is also tolerable, but a bit melodramatic, and doesn’t have the same nuance of character that I feel Jamie Lee Curtis captured in Halloween. Robert Englund does a great job as Freddy, mixing the right amount of camp and creep, even when he has to deliver some really awful lines. (“I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy!”) His taunts and witticisms set him apart from the silent, detached killers of other slashers, and he just does bizarre things that are supposed to freak you out (like cut off his own fingers).

Ultimately, I still get more laughs than chills from this movie, and the sequels only up this factor. If it weren’t for Englund’s performance, I think Freddy could have become more of a low-budget joke than a horror icon, and he certainly deserves his place among Michael, Jason, and Leatherface as a modern horror icon. I have to admit against fan and critical opinion that I actually like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which takes the blurring of dream and reality to a whole new level, as Freddy actually comes to life to menace the cast and crew of the original Nightmare, with Langenkamp, Craven, Englund, and Saxon playing themselves. I also thought that Freddy vs. Jason was more fun than I had expected.

Nightmare

No running in the halls, Nancy!


Day 26: Re-Animator (1985)

October 27, 2012

Director: Stuart Gordon

Starring: Bruce Abbott, Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, David Gale

Runtime: 95 minutes/86 minutes (unrated cut)

Although H. P. Lovecraft’s stories don’t adapt well to film, the best attempts at adaptation use the materially very liberally. (Although a straightforward adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness would be pretty awesome, I think, if done well. Director Guillermo del Toro has been trying to make a film version for years, and apparently James Cameron was interested in being producer at some point, but the project unfortunately seems to be stuck in Hollywood limbo.) The basic premise of Lovecraft’s novella Herbert West—Reanimator, originally serialized in 1922, is retained: a brilliant but mad scientist named Herbert West reanimates several corpses that run amok. But there are major differences, and this is one of the few cases, especially for Lovecraft, in which the film version is better than the original.

For one thing, it eliminates the racism that taints the original story, in which part of the horror is supposed to be evoked by an ungainly African American zombie. It also puts a more humorous spin on the story. Lovecraft himself thought poorly of the work because of the demands serialization placed on him (ending with a cliffhanger, starting with a recap of the last episode). However, it is notable as being one of the first depictions of zombies as animalistic killing machines, reanimated by science rather than magic.

One of the strengths of this film is Jeffrey Combs, who plays West, a character whose monomaniacal and ruthless pursuits leave us few reasons to sympathize with, yet Combs somehow makes the character endearing, perhaps in his nerdy brashness, and striking the right balance between pathos and camp. (Combs would go on to play similar roles: West in two sequels, another scientist in a Lovecraft adaptation, Brian Yunza-directed From Beyond; he would play Lovecraft himself in the horror anthology Necronomicon; and had several Star Trek roles.) The other actors do a tolerable job; his friend Dan (Bruce Abbott), who helps with West’s experiments, is the unnamed narrator from the Lovecraft story. At least he gets to have a girlfriend in the film, Megan (Barbara Crampton), although she is put through hell in the movie.

Jeffrey Combs

Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) reveals that his reanimation agent is made of the stuff that’s in glow sticks. (Seriously, that’s what they used.)

SPOILERS FOLLOW

But the only other presence rivaling Combs is David Gale, playing a professor and West’s enemy. He is perhaps even more ruthless, certainly more malign, than West, and when he becomes a reanimated headless corpse, things only get worse. (In the sequel, his role gets crazier, batty even.) He recruits a zombie army to lead against West, similar to the character in Lovecraft’s story, but instead of an army major bent on revenge (in the story), he is in the film a megalomaniac who perhaps helps us to root for the obsessive West.

Producer Brian Yunza produced this and directed the sequels, and has served as director, producer, and writer for a number of campy low-budget horror and sci-fi films. Although fairly low-budget effects, and done with a campy feel, they are nonetheless entertaining. John Naulin, who did the makeup effects, studied actual photographs of cadavers, and said they used the ridiculous amount of 24 gallons of fake blood. The sequels, Bride of Re-Animator and Beyond Re-Animator only amp up the absurdist gore-inflected horror comedy.

Headless Corpse

Dr. Hill’s (David Gale) headless corpse menaces West.

 


Day 25: The Prophecy (1995)

October 25, 2012

Director:Gregory Widen

Starring: Elias Koteas, Virginia Madsen, Viggo Mortensen, Eric Stoltz, Christopher Walken

Runtime: 98 minutes

Like The Exorcist and The Omen, this is a religious horror film, but instead of Satan or his kin being the enemy, the antagonists in this film are new rebel angels, led by archangel Gabriel (Christopher Walken). Supposedly foretold in an apocryphal 23rd chapter of Revelation, these rebel angels, angered by God’s favoring of humanity, will show their devotion to God by sending humanity to a “new heaven,” which will essentially be another hell.

Walken, always maniacal and scary, is perfect as Gabriel, using his angelic powers (making people unconscious with the slightest touch, creating spontaneous fire, and controlling the unfortunate bodies of the newly reanimated dead) to thwart the efforts of the good angels and the humans who uncover Gabriel’s plan. Detective Thomas Dagget (Elias Koteas), like Gabriel, is a wayward soul. He had almost become a priest, but left the Catholic Church and became a detective after horrific visions of the angelic war came to him. However, his loss of faith comes about through trauma rather than arrogance, so unlike Gabriel, he’s able to find his faith.

Besides the parallels and confrontations between Gabriel and Thomas, there’s a lot going on in this film. There’s some creepy interaction between one of the good angels and a young girl (but that’s only, according to some reviewers, if you’re too American and see sex in everything), Native American culture and rituals (it’s a bit odd that Native American magic helps to save the idea in what is ostensibly a Christian story—making me wonder if the writer was trying to be more ecumenical in his metaphysics), and a Lucifer (Viggo Mortensen) who is almost as creepy as Gabriel, actually working for Gabriel’s downfall (seeing his new heaven as competition).

Critical reception to this has been mixed, and I don’t think it’s aspiring to anything profound. But it’s good if you like something with a supernatural bent rather than a psycho-slasher, plodding monster, or mundane ghost story.

Christopher Walken

Scary Christopher Walken as rebel archangel Gabriel.


Day 24: Bloodsucking Pharaohs in Pittsburgh (1991)

October 25, 2012

Director: Dean Tschetter

Starring: Jake Dengel, Shawn Elliott, Susan Fletcher, Jane Esther Hamilton, Pat Logan, Beverly Penberthy, Joe Sharkey

Runtime: 89 minutes

OK, this one may be hard for some people to find. I’m not even sure where I got it (maybe at the local sci-fi/horror independent video store Incredibly Strange Video that went out of business a few years ago?). I only got it because of the ridiculous title and the fact that it is set in Pittsburgh (near my hometown). It is actually shot in Pittsburgh—anyone familiar with the city will recognize certain locations, especially in the Lawrenceville neighborhood.

The title pretty much tells you all that you need to know. It’s an over-the-top movie that doesn’t take itself very seriously. Sometimes the humor falls flat, but other times it made my sides ache with laughter. I’m not even going to try to accurately recount the preposterous story; something about young victims getting their organs removed in strange, heinous ways. Two cops (Jake Dengel and Joe Sharkey) are pursuing the killer, but one of them has some hang-ups about blood (which his fellow cops exploit to comedic effect at crime scenes). He must confront his inner demons to stop the real life one!

Introduce into all this some mystical ancient mummy-like curse, which takes our intrepid detectives to “the Egyptian part of town” (you may wonder whether Pittsburgh really has an Egyptian part of town; no, Pittsburgh does not), and a chain-smoking wife who bears a striking resemblance to Anubis (Beverly Penberthly—personally she is my favorite character), and get equal parts gore and laughs. Oh, there’s also a great scene with enraged Police Chief “Buzz Saw” Ryan (played by none other than Don Brockett, a Pittsburgh actor who played Chef Brockett on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, as well as zombies in a couple of the Romero Living Dead movies) nearly kills our hapless officers.

By the way, although the effects are somewhat corny, they don’t look that bad thanks to the fact that they’re done by Tom Savini. So there you have it—no masterpiece, but enough going for it if you’re looking for something low-budget and fun.

Anubis

“I am Anubis!” Beverly Penberthy as Erma.


Day 23: Jeepers Creepers (2001)

October 24, 2012

Director: Victor Salva

Starring: Jonathan Breck, Justin Long, Gina Philips

Runtime: 91 minutes

Let me start by saying that I am surprised at how many horror movies I am covering made in 2000 or after. Perhaps this shows that I am not as “old school” as I thought. I think it may also just have to do with the fact that some of these I’ve seen more recently, and so they’re easier to talk about.

Anyway, Jeepers Creepers divided a lot of horror fans when it came out, since it tried to be a mash-up of the slasher subgenre (which seemed slated for resurgence with the success of the Scream films and American Psycho), and the monster subgenre (which seemed to be dormant). But whether effective or not, I think this aspect of it makes “The Creeper” one of the more interesting of villains in recent years.

POSSIBLE SPOILERS FOLLOW

The focus of the movie is limited mostly to two college student siblings, Darry (Justin Long) and Trish (Gina Philips), coming home for spring break. On their way driving through rural Florida, they begin to be stalked by the Creeper (Jonathan Breck), who drives an old antique car. During this time, you learn a little about Darry and Trish, though not much. You start to see some of their insecurities, and although not special or terribly sympathetic, you get the impression they are fairly typical college kids who care about each other, even if they don’t always get along.

Before we even see The Creeper, some good suspenseful scenes lead us up to his appearance, making good use of his menacing car. There is a scene in a drainage pipe that will put anyone with the slightest bit of claustrophobia on edge. We see that the Creeper has collected and mutilated a number of bodies, but only gradually after that, as he zeros in on Darry and Trish, do we start to see that he is not quite human. They go to a psychic (Patricia Belcher) to find out what he/it is; she tells them some disturbing info, but nothing quite useful.

Like in Halloween, the killer looks human, partly through disguise, but has supernatural powers of mysterious origin, and can’t be killed. He also stalks his victims before killing them. Unlike Halloween, though, there is no psychosexual aspect to the killings; he is attracted, for whatever to someone’s particular scent, so he’s more animal than human.

The first half of the film is in the slasher style, with the violence more threat than real, but the second half seems to turn into a whole other movie. It turns into a monster movie, with a lot of violence and gore, and it gets more predictable. Still, I think there are some eerie images that make it more than just a creature rampage. By the end, it seems apparent that there’s no stopping the Creeper, and I found myself asking: what the hell is it? A demon? Some mutated or cursed man? There’s a sequel which doesn’t do much interesting, but there’s a third film coming out next year, which is supposed to be the final installment, so maybe it will answer some questions.

By the way, I feel that I must mention that the director, Victor Salva, has a had short directing career because of acts of child molestation he committed back in 1989 (when Salva was 29). Like with Roman Polanski, some people will refuse to watch his films because of this, so I figured I should mention it. Apparently he only spent 15 months in prison (he was sentenced to 3 years)—this seems ridiculously low for child molestation. He claims to regret what he did and has been trying to redeem himself and help others since getting out of jail. See this article:

http://articles.latimes.com/2006/jun/11/entertainment/ca-salva11

Jeepers Creepers car

Trish and Darry are menaced by The Creeper’s 1941 Chevy COE.


Day 22: Phantasm (1979)

October 23, 2012

Director: Don Cascarelli

Starring: Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm

Runtime: 89 minutes

While we’re on the subject of bizarre films about inter-dimensional travelers, we might as well talk about Phantasm. This gem cult classic has perhaps gotten even less attention than Hellraiser, with even less gloss and artistic posturing. Don Cascarelli, who by the way apparently not only directed, but wrote, produced, and did the cinematography and editing for the film, seems to have one purpose: be as surreal and outlandish as possible.

I wouldn’t even know where to start with trying to talk about the political and social implications of this film, although I’m sure you could say something about xenophobia (does every film about invaders—whether from another planet or dimension—reflect anxiety about foreigners?), or the backlash of conservative religious and cultural values of 70s films, since it deals with the taboo of tampering with dead bodies (and some have argued for the rise of religious-oriented horror of the era like The Exorcist, The Omen, and The Wicker Man).

I won’t even try to attempt plot summary either. Figures and images are more important: two brothers, one in his twenties, another in his early teens; Reggie, an ice cream vendor with long hair and a guitar; floating mechanized balls that slice people’s heads off; mutated dwarves; and a tall, ghoulish-looking undertaker known as The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), who is harvesting dead bodies to reanimate as slaves; and a white room that opens up into some hellish alternate dimension.

Not sure what else I can say…the plot, acting (except for Scrimm), and artistic value here aren’t well developed, but for sheer surreal tone and bizarre imagery, the infamous head-slicing scene with the sphere (which almost cost the film an X rating), and hearing Angus Scrimm shout “Boooy!!!” make this film worth it.

The Tall Man

The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) adds some class to the film.