Thursday, September 13, 2012

Nightmare in Wax (1969)

This is exactly the kind of schlock that used to get played on Creature Feature after midnight on Saturdays when I was a kid. I probably even saw it back then. It's got all of the elements of a B horror movie: a washed up Hollywood star (Cameron Mitchell in this one and so many others), spoooooky theremin music, lots of scenery-chewing, and a story so dumb it would only be convincing to a child. As a child, I might have seen it and been convinced.

The story is that someone is kidnapping Hollywood stars and drugging them so they remain paralyzed and then using them as figures in a Hollywood Wax Museum. Who's doing this? Former Hollywood make-up artist Vincent Renard (Mitchell), that's who! The movie lets us in on this secret five minutes in. About ten minutes in, they explain why: he was in love with an actress (Anne Helm), but the fat fuck producer Max Black (Berry Kroeger) also loved her and mutilated him with a flaming cocktail (in full view of an entire party of people who apparently didn't notice how intentional the attack was).

Well, old putty face probably could have kept porking the actress, but decided instead to work at the wax museum, which for no apparent reason allows him to work with a giant vat of boiling wax uncovered in the basement. In fact, that vat of wax, which is akin to big bubbling vats in classic schlock films, is the single best thing about the movie. Probably second place would go to the go-go dancers shaking their goodies to a hip band called the T-Bones about halfway through. Vincent trolls the go-go club for victims, Max trolls the club for pussy, and otherwise the scene has nothing to do with anything, but was probably a career high point for the T-Bones.

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!
The worst parts of the film are an idiot security guard who's here for comedic effect, and especially Mitchell's dialogue to the paralyzed victims, which just goes on for-fucking-ever. If this thing was shot in more than a weekend, they wasted time. Also, if these "wax figures" are alive, how long can they last until they starve to death? It's not like the guy is feeding them. Probably a crapping wax dummy would arouse suspicion anyway. Finally, there's a huge subplot in which two detectives try to solve this big mystery of where these actors are disappearing to- they don't suspect that it could be the batshit crazy, mutilated weirdo with a serious grudge against the studio who just happens to be putting up really lifelike figures of those actors in his wax museum almost immediately following their disappearances! Nobody even suggests that might be in poor taste! I mean, if there were two detectives on the force who weren't fictionally brain dead, the whole movie would have been over in five minutes.

Man, what a crappy movie this was!

Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

The first time me and my baby saw Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, in a drive-in, she said, "Ya know, it's too good to be a bad movie, but it's too bad to be a good one." I dunno. It's grown on me quite a bit since it was first released in 1986. To give you an idea what a different world it was back then, I first saw it in another drive-in (pre-sweetheart) on a double bill with Day of the Dead. No fucking shit. No way you'd see a bill like that today, when even the drive-ins are chains. (Me and my baby saw it during a closing show when our local drive-in got bought out by some idiots who show nothing but multiplex movies now).
It was about this point in its run that the Muppet Show got really weird...
Anyway, Texas Chainsaw 2 seems like a bit of a mess the first time you see it. Filmed under high pressure circumstances with the Golan Globus clock running down and a script being frantically typed out by L.M. Kit Carson and slid under a hotel room door, the movie sort of falls apart in the third act, which is dispiriting because Texas Chainsaw Massacre is basically a perfect film. The second film loses me though, nearly every time. At the point that Dennis Hopper is running around the abandoned theme park and screaming like an idiot and the film is recreating the dinner set piece from the first movie, I usually tune out.

The exact opposite of safe sex.
Okay, but let's go back a bit. The opening sequence, in which two yuppie punks in a car get chainsawed by Leatherface in a monster truck driving backwards over a bridge is just as awesome as the description makes it sound, even if the effects by make-up Elvis, Tom Savini, got chainsawed out by the MPAA (which make no fucking sense, Tobe, because the movie went out unrated). It's a really brilliant set piece that shows off Tobe Hooper's development as a director. In fact, the entire first act, in which Texas radio DJ Stretch (played with real spunk by Caroline Williams), investigates a series of chainsaw massacres that have been plaguing Texas for years with the help of Sheriff Lefty (Dennis Hopper, drunk as fuck, apparently), and runs afoul of the cannibal family from the first flick, is great. Even if the movie never bothers to explain that Platehead is supposed to be the brother of the dead hitchhiker from the first film, Bill Moseley still does a great, if not legendary, job in the role. Not to mention Leatherface pretending to fuck Williams with a chainsaw, one of the best sequences in the series.

I think one of the problems with the film is that they actually had a sizable budget this time around, which might have taken away some of the hunger that fueled the first movie. The theme park set is great and the design is gorgeous, but you get the feeling that they shot a lot of things and cut out half of them. Hooper has talked about doing a director's cut to put back in some of the gore effects that he needlessly cut (given the movie was released unrated anyway), but it doesn't entirely cohere anyway.

Also, Lefty's a pretty thin character. He's the Uncle of the kids in the first movie and wants revenge, so he buys a big chainsaw and goes to get revenge. That's about it, really. Revenge is one of those themes that looms large in drama all the way back to Greek theater, but here it's just another element in the insanity. Once everyone gets to the abandoned theme park the film goes a bit crazy.

But, as my friend Aaron at the Zed Word blog pointed out to me this time I saw it, it's also really wonderfully demented nonetheless. Jim Siedow returns as the Chef who can't take no pleasure in killing. Moseley is great as Vietnam vet Platehead, whose metal head plate is financing this whole operation. Then you have Dennis Hopper running around and chainsawing the joint while screaming "I'm bringing it down!" And the effects by Elvis Savini are pretty frigging amazing. The film seems to just let these insane people act nuts, which would be good enough, but Hooper works in some of his favorite visual motifs, such as lots of weird lights everywhere and chases to nowhere. And there's even a sort of weird quest theme as well as a coming of age love story.

Which brings me to a sudden realization: if Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a near perfect horror film, maybe Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 should be seen as a near perfect midnight cult film.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

So, we've all seen this horror classic hundreds of times. What can you possibly say about it at this point? Thanks to the cool dementoids at London, Ontario's Vagrancy Films, I got to see it again on the big screen recently in all it's celluloid glory.

Out for a stroll
Well, the first thing is it really is a lot scarier on the big screen with that pounding mono soundtrack. I've known quite a few people who felt a bit let down when they first saw Texas Chainsaw. That title and that opening credits crawl make you think it will be the most gruesome thing you've ever seen and really the only bit of serious gore, arguably, is the chainsaw connecting with Leatherface leg at the end. It's totally different on the big screen, though, where the filmmakers are totally assaulting your senses for most of the running time. They really pulled out all the stops with this one.

It's also a bit like a fairy tale. The children shouldn't have wandered into that old house in the woods where the witches live and eat children. The girl has to fight to escape from them after they have her over for dinner and try to eat her.

Texas Chainsaw Assacre
It's also a bit like a found document- the cinema vérité look has been imitated dozens of times, but there really are scenes here that look purely accidental or totally off-kilter, while adding to the tone of the film. The scene with the empty lake is unnerving for no apparent reason, but it just builds to one of the best murder scenes outside of Psycho. And note the subtle current of eroticism that only adds to the tension before the climactic murder.

Nope. It's from "Hour of the Wolf"
Visually, TCM reminds me a bit of Ingmar Bergman's Hour of the Wolf, another horror film about a dinner banquet at a menacing house back in the woods. Bergman was fairly popular with this generation of horror filmmakers and was, in my opinion, the greatest horror director ever not to be recognized as one. Check out the scene in Hour where Max Von Sydow goes running through the fairy tale horror woods and compare it to the expert chase scene in TCM. At the least, the two movies would make an interesting double feature.

Everything about TCM is expert though. For Tobe Hooper, this movie must have been a mixed blessing because it was his first hit and wound up being an iconic horror classic. It's a damn near perfect film too. Even the crippled brother Francis, who is annoying as hell, works in this movie because he's just another element in gradually ramping up the tension throughout the film. There's nothing reassuring or comforting in TCM; it's like a vice that slowly tightens on the viewer. You can watch the movie several times without catching its skewed sense of humor.

The hills are aliiiive...
Has there ever been a better ending to a horror film than the iconic chainsaw dance in TCM? It's one the purest expressions of madness on film and a pique so fevered the film can go nowhere but to black.

For Tobe Hooper, though, the problem is you can only go down from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He's made some surprisingly great movies, with my second favorite probably being Eaten Alive, and there's a sort of visual continuity to all of them- he has plenty of shots of people running through the underbrush and disorientingly bright lights, for example. Many of his movies play like demented fairy tales. He's also particularly adept at filming madness and mania. Yet, he doesn't really seem to get the accolades that other genre filmmakers have. Maybe it's time for a serious reexamination of his body of work.

But end with Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's as self-assured a film as you're ever going to see, and if you see it on the big screen with a hushed audience, one of the scariest.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Unholy Rollers (1972)

It was sort of a thing for exploitation filmmakers in the 70s to try to capitalize off of trends that were popular with the young people they were trying to get out to the drive-ins to watch their movies. Hence there were flicks like The Van about customized vans and The Unholy Rollers about roller derby girls. This probably would not work as well today; it's hard to imagine Facebookin'! or Cell Phone Fever being nearly as cinematic.

Roller derby, however, is back in force. Our local team, the Hammer City Roller Girls, are kicking all sorts of ass, and trend-chasing acting robot Drew Barrymore has made a recent flick about roller derby with less bare breasts and more of a female empowerment message than the old flicks- sort of "roller grrrl" let's say. Roger Corman 's version, Unholy Rollers, takes a totally different approach. Here, there's less in the way of female empowerment and more in the way of female dis-enshirt-ment.

The story concerns Karen (Claudia Jennings), a spitfire worker in a dog food canning plant who starts a fight with her pawing boss and quits, putting her and the kooky gearhead couple, played by Candice Roman and Alan Vint, who live with her and screw all day into a predicament. In order to do something with her life, Karen joins the Los Angeles Avengers, a successful roller derby team run by some sleazy managers and popular with a crowd that's out for blood. Much of this is played for corny Mad Magazine style laffs and the team isn't exactly noble, but Karen's supposed to be out-of-control. Too much success. She shoots a gun at people from the back of a boyfriend's motorcycle, and yells at her teammates a lot, and then finally loses her marbles and starts smashing everybody like the Hulk. Because she can't put the team first, they strip her nude in a bar and trash her new car!

The movie never goes too long without displaying some female flesh, staging a roller derby sequence, or having Jennings freak out. The derby scenes are pretty well shot, if a bit badly lit, and edited by a young Martin Scorsese in a way that packs in a lot of action. There's also a great supporting cast, with exploitation luminaries like Collins, Jennings, Betty Ann Rees and Roberta Collins in prominent roles.

The big problem with the movie is the main character is a loony asshole for most of the flick. Jennings plays Karen as a chick who takes no shit, even when people really aren't giving her any. We get some indication of why she's this way when the film introduces her lower class mother, but suspect Mom is right when she calls her daughter crazy. Her character doesn't really change much over the course of the film- she's raging pissed at the beginning and out-of-control pissed at the end. It's more a story of lunatic empowerment than anything else. Definitely worth seeing if you're a derby fan- again the derby scenes are pretty good, although the Avengers only ever seem to take on one other team!- or a fan of exploitation actresses though.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Superchick (1973)

As we all know from popular mythology, stewardesses are like sexual buccaneers, sailing the skies in search of sexual conquests, with a different partner in every port. Whether or not this is true (and, oh lord, do I wish it was!), Superchick has fun with the idea. Granted, it's corny as hell, and in no hurry to get to a plot of any sort either.

The story plays as a sort of picaresque with stewardess Tara B. True (television actress Joyce Jillson), as a sort of harlot-in-disguise. By day, she dresses as a sort of frumpy stewardess. By night, she's got a different man in every city: a rich surgeon who's afraid of germs and barely touches her in New York; a beach bum playboy (Tony Young) in trouble with the mob in Miami; a teen idol pop singer (played by Timothy Wayne Brown) in Los Angeles. These are the main men in her life, but she also has a date with a friend of the pop singer that ends in a drug bust, a fling with a pervy old Hollywood actor (played with real relish by John Carradine), and does her part for America by fucking a marine in the airplane bathroom. Incidentally, she's also skilled in karate and beats up some bikers and the mobsters who want to make her a hooker.

I've noted before that brief period in the early 70s when a good-natured sort of free love was popular in the culture and exploitation filmmakers quickly realized the exploitative potential for stories about hip, swinging, sexually-promiscuous young women. The films have an appeal today, when hardcore porn is freely available, because they have a sex-positive message and actually seem to really like their female main characters. Tara, not surprisingly, gives the obligatory speech at the end extolling the virtues of a young woman living in the moment and making love to whoever she wants to; you can almost imagine the horny filmmakers chomping their cigars and panting, "right on, sister!" in the background.

It's interesting how the virtues of these movies come with time. Superchick is a goofy movie with subpar Borscht belt style jokes and really slow plotting. Nevertheless, it's also got an easy going positivity about female sexuality and a strong female lead, which aren't exactly easy to come by in our supposedly more enlightened age.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981)

Well, everybody has to start somewhere and James Cameron started with a film about flying piranhas, which when you think about it is actually a lot cooler than the one about blue, alien cat-hippies. Unfortunately, the execution leaves a bit to be desired and it's not really clear how much of Piranha Part Two: The Spawning Cameron actually shot. But, it's nice to see that our most pretentious living filmmaker started with crap about flying piranha fish.

The original Piranha was a Roger Corman produced Jaws rip-off that was helped along quite a bit by being directed by Corman protege Joe Dante, a director with a real flair for the campy, cartoony, and comedic. Dante injected a weird, anarchic sense of humor to what could have been just another Jaws clone (one of many for Corman) and created a cult classic. He established the sense of humor that has carried over to the Piranha remakes, although with less of a focus on T&A as the new films.
A piranha fish with wings

The sequel was directed by James Cameron, another Corman protege, and retains some of the sense of humor of the first film, while not being particularly funny. There are some goofy characters at the beachfront resort setting of the film, such as a Jewess who falls for a nebbishy dentist, an older woman who wants to screw younger men, and a dork who gets cockteased by some cunty women, but as you can tell from these descriptions, most of the comedy is pretty lame and unfunny. The producers supposedly shoehorned this stuff into the film against Cameron's wishes, although the movie needs comedy, which isn't exactly his strong suit anyway if you remember the lame, unfunny shtick with Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2. He's no Woody Allen. Luckily, piranha that can fly don't really need a punchline.

"I can fly! I can fly! It's off to Neverland!"
Anyway, it's a beachfront resort and people start getting killed by piranha fish that fly out of the water and bite their necks. The piranha with wings were created, naturally, by the military as "the ultimate weapon." In every movie in which the military tries to design the ultimate weapon, it always goes wrong, which is supposed to warn us of the dangers of aiming too high in designing weapons. Why not go for making the most mediocre weapon you can? They're less likely to go awry. Also, at what point in the military LSD research was someone in Army intelligence high enough to suggest that sticking wings on piranha would make the ultimate weapon, or was the brass high enough to agree to that? Finally, would someone please make the war movie in which the terrorists in Iraq are defeated with flying, carnivorous fish? Wouldn't that have made The Hurt Locker a much better movie?

Anyway, the military boat full of flying piranha went down off the coast, but the military doesn't seem too concerned with getting it back. Meanwhile, at the unfunny shtick resort, there are a few serious characters, namely  Anne (Tricia O'Neil), the scuba diving instructor, and her son Chris (Ricky Goldin), who are living there following her separation from police chief husband Steve, played by Lance Henriksen in the Roy Scheider role. This is an early appearance for  Henriksen, grizzled actor extraordinaire, if not America's leading bard of grizledry, and he does a decent job. He's clearly still in love with his wife who is shtupping a young biochemist who knows what's really going on here. Meanwhile, their son goes out with a hot chick in a boat and has to be saved from the rampaging piranha. Oy!

"Excuse me, you're holding up the line!"
Trouble is the fish don't really rampage all that much. Cameron apparently started as a special effects director on the film and there are some pretty neat scenes of schools of piranha attacking underwater, random people getting bitten on the neck by the fish, and one pretty great "spawning" scene of the tourists being assaulted by flying piranha on the beach, but otherwise it's not exactly thrilling and the direction is so inept that there's never any sense of danger. It's also frequently dumb- in one ridiculous scene Henriksen  can't figure out how to pick up his kid with the helicopter he's flying and decides to use a nearby boat instead, which means one thing- jumping out of the chopper and letting it crash into the ocean nearby, killing the kid instantly. He couldn't just use the skids to pick them up like in every other movie?

Cameron has said the producer, Ovido Assontis, was constantly hovering over him, questioning his every decision, and that he eventually had to break into the editing room to cut his own version of Piranha Part Two: The Spawning, which is also floating around, so to speak. Supposedly, the main bone of contention was the comedic scenes, because clearly a flying piranha movie should be played very seriously. Also, they fought over the color of the scenes shot from the piranha point-of-view- Assontis wanted the silly hot pink in the film, while Cameron wanted red- clearly an important plot point. Luckily for us all, Cameron would eventually make a few good movies, earning him the chance to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on his dream of dopey CGI cartoons about blue, hippie cat-aliens.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

I guess I'm the dissenting view here.

Fangoria's review of The Cabin in the Woods ends by telling us that horror fans will absolutely love the film, something I've found to be true with my horror fan friends. Certainly, I enjoyed it quite a bit, and will likely pick up the DVD. The review also tells us that some reviewers will mistakenly call it a "horror spoof," when it's really not. Let's be honest, it is pretty funny though with plenty of extended comedy bits. I agree that it's not spoofing or making fun of the genre. But, let's also be honest about this: it's really not a horror movie. It's more like a sporadically frightening comedic fantasy. It's definitely very clever and well worth seeing, but let's not get carried away with comparing it to the great horror films because, while it's pretty great, it's still not a horror film. Or, at least, it's not horrific.

Most of the reviews I've seen thus far have gone out of their way to avoid discussing the main "secret" of the movie. The problem is that's also the whole premise of the film, so it's hard to discuss The Cabin in the Woods at all in any serious way without disclosing its secret. Here's what I'm going to do: I will openly discuss the whole movie, including secrets, after the following picture. If you do not want the "secret" given away, stop reading at this point
Sexy girl about to make out with a stuffed wolf's head.
Okay, Cabin in the Woods is about four college friends who go to a creepy, old cabin in the woods for vacation. They consist of the brainy, virginal Dana (Kristen Connolly), the alpha male athlete Curt (Chris Hemsworth), his slutty girlfriend Jules (Anna Hutchison), the brainy love interest Holden (Jesse Williams), and the stoner comedic relief Marty (Fran Kranz, who steals the film). If this setup sounds totally familiar, it should. The movie is more more self-aware and arch than it lets on at first. Unfortunately, once it informs the audience that the filmmakers know just how cliche all of this is, it doesn't stop letting us know for about an hour. It's more annoying than Scream in that way.

See, (and this is where you should not be reading if you haven't seen the movie), a shady, high-tech, governmental organization is manipulating everything that is happening inside the cabin from a bunker below, which includes using hormones and other drugs to manipulate the kids into being more virginal, slutty, brainy, alpha male, or foolish. Why? Well, okay, I won't give that away, although it's worth noting that everything does make sense in the end in a way that's pretty satisfying and more than a bit Lovecraftian. The point is, while we're watching the kids go through standard horror movie plot mechanics, the underground bunker is also watching them and commenting upon those plot twists. In other words, it's really fucking meta.

A bit too meta. I spent the first hour of the film really wishing I could be engaged by the storyline, but unable to do so because of all the cutaways to the N.A.S.A. types in the bunker. Most of their scenes were pretty funny- there's a great bit in which they're all betting on what monster will attack and kill the kids- but it's hard to be scared when the movie keeps pulling you out of its main storyline to remind you how cliche that storyline is, and to subtly mock the idea of being scared by this sort of thing. I mean, we all know that certain horror movies can be totally idiotic in their plot points- why don't the kids ever listen to the creepy old local who warns them not to go into the woods? Why do they always split up and make it easier for them to be picked off one-by-one? But, you know, one way to address the problem of cliches is to use them and comment on them frequently, while another would be just not to use them at all. 

Now, okay, to be fair, this movie is really not as annoying as Scream for one good reason- the commentary on the cliches, in this case, comes wrapped up in a serious storyline that the movie commits to wholeheartedly. As the Zed Word review puts it: "the meta-story is not delivered with that dull post-modern sense of ironic detachment. The Cabin in the Woods commits to its world and its story. It has heart (and plenty of guts to go along with it)." Okay, fair enough, and totally accurate. If you're familiar with the work of Joss Whedon, who wrote an produced, this isn't a surprise- Buffy the Vampire Slayer was also a commentary on horror conventions, but a totally serious work of storytelling in itself. Whedon commits to his imaginative worlds and the dude really is a cut above the average fanboy.

The problem is that he's a really funny guy too. The main storyline, in which zombies of dead frontier fundamentalists stalk and kill the kids gets scary at times, and we understand that they're always in genuine peril, but it's still a little bit too funny. Then, in the third act (and, oh god yes, does this film have three very clear-cut acts), the shit really hits the fan in a series of scenes that will have horror fanz jizzing (or jilling) in their pants. It is very clear that these guys are serious fans of the genre themselves as there are plenty of inside baseball references. But it's also a hell of a ride. For me, the third act payoff made the movie, while the first two acts verged on killing it.

No surprise that the slut was my favorite character.
My advice would be this: the first and second acts should have been compressed into one act, while the third should have been a full hour of the movie. That would have been mindblowing. Also, while I'm okay with horror movies made by horror fans, the market is totally saturated with them in the post-Tarantino years. I often wonder why so many horror movie reviews laud this fact: "Don't worry- this one was made by real horror fans!" Um, great, but The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby were made by filmmakers with a more developed and well-rounded sense of art, life, and the world than just being really up on the genre- I'd choose them over Hatchet in a second. Furthermore, I sometimes like horror that's a bit clueless about anything but scaring us. Fear is best when it's primal and subconscious and, to get to that place, you have to turn off the self-awareness. Horror filmmakers need to stop thinking of horror films as being movies first and foremost and start drawing from the horrifying world outside of movies. That way they can get back to scaring the living shit out of us.

Don't get me wrong- this is one of the smartest and funniest movies I've seen in some time. And genre fans will love it. But, I feel like people going to see horror movies do want to be scared, and so that's the main question. No, it's not scary for the most part. Funny and thought-provoking, but not scary.