Friday, October 30, 2009

“Tell me your name, I'll give you a skull.”

As All Hallow’s Eve approaches, let’s take a look at something that explores just what Halloween is supposed to mean. Sure, it may be an excuse to watch another obscure cartoon, but when its got Ray Bradbury involved in adapting a novella of the same name, then 1993’s The Halloween Tree is all good.

Four kids get ready for Halloween then run out to their “leader’s” house to find an ambulance in the driveway and that their buddy has appendicitis and might possibly die. A note left by the kid tells them to start Halloween without them and they start to do so before seeing what they think is their pal running through some woods and into a creepy old house where weird stuff starts to happen. The owner of the house, a rail thin bald guy who talks like he’s insane proceeds to take them on a chase through space and time as they explore the reasons for why they wear their costumes in a move that borders on edu-tainment while searching for their pal who’s being tossed through time as well. Its all standard stuff, but then in the last several minutes, shit gets real with a price that has to be paid for helping their friend.

(Note, TV Tropes will be referenced here, particularly the Five Man Band entry)
Joe Pipkin: Clearly regarded as the leader of the group, he’s also the one stricken with appendicitis at the beginning and spends the movie as a ghostly figure running through time clutching a pumpkin that is suspiciously carved like his head. More or less the instigator of the whole plot.

Tom Skelton: Naturally, dressed like a skeleton, Tom’s the lancer, the number two who assumes leadership in Pip’s absence. His costume gets explained with a trip to the Mexican Dia de los muertos.

Ralph: The mummy, and the smart guy of the group with glasses and the socially awkward one, more or less. Obvious connection to ancient Egypt.

Wally: The big guy, dressed up like a generic monster/gargoyle. He’s actually a fairly shy and cowardly guy with confidence issues and a penchant for saying “oh my gosh” A LOT. Connected to the gargoyles of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Jenny: The chick, but also a really smart one. Obviously dressed as a witch, she gets a connection to Stonehenge and witches and trying to overcome a fear of heights. There’s some interesting subtext going on between her and Tom as they’re more or less the two “main” characters.

Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud: Leonard Nimoy plays the cranky, lanky and mysterious Mr. Moundshroud. At first he just seems like a creepy old bald guy who lives in a creepy house and has a creepy tree in his backyard that has jack-o-lanterns hanging from the branches like leaves. It turns out he’s got a pretty clear agenda when it comes to chasing down Pip to get that pumpkin back. The creepiness of the agenda becomes clearer by the end when he demands a price for Pip’s pumpkin. He is quite the cackling badass.

Directed by Mario Piluso and the Hanna-Barbera company, the animation is generally pretty good and gets the job done nicely. There’s even some ambitions camera angles, like a shot of someone jumping over a fence and the camera doing a vertical 180 following them as they go.

Adapted for the screen by Ray Bradbury himself (and also narrated by him). The story is largely the same as the original with few changes. The themes are the same and so is the end result. It’s a solid adaptation. Storywise, it starts off having that “edutainment” vibe, but by the end, it does a great job of getting a Halloween atmosphere that blends the cheery stuff with the dark undertones of the holiday.

The original score by John Debney is very good, especially the music that plays over the opening credits.

Nostalgia may have made me put this into this month’s rotation, but it actually is a pretty solid Halloween themed kids movie. And it’s a damn dirty shame that this isn’t on DVD yet. Though apparently it does air on Cartoon Network during the season. I just never know when.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

“Wahoo! There’s a pumpkin on your head!”

For some, It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown is their annual Halloween tonic that they’ve carried since youth. That was what Garfield’s Halloween Adventure was for me (or the original title of Garfield in Disguise, according to IMDB), made in 1985 when Garfield was still funny, it was a TV special in that grand tradition that seems to have died out by the late 90’s.

Garfield wakes up to the TV telling him that its Halloween, which gets him all excited because of all the candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy. He dresses up like a pirate (so does Odie) and they go out trick or treating. Wanting even more candy, Garfield & Odie commandeer a row boat but lose the oars then wash ashore onto a small island with a single house and a single old man who tells them a spooky story about ghost pirates.

Garfield: Lorenzo Music was the official voice of Garfield for a long time, and he did a great job with a character that was pretty much defined by being lazy and anti-social. Garfield likes food. Candy is free on Halloween to trick or treat-ers, therefore Garfield loves Halloween. Simple, but effective. Fun fact, Lorenzo Music was the voice of Peter Venkman on the animated Ghostbusters spinoff. When the movie Garfield was made in recent years, Lorenzo Music had died several years prior. So who voiced Garfield? Peter Venkman himself, Bill Murray.

Odie: Gregg Berger voices (well, barks) Garfield’s dumber but generally likeable sidekick. Odie basically plays second banana to Garfield’s greed, but he does get some moments near the end.

John Arbuckle: Thom Huge voices Garfield’s rather sad sack owner. He’s there at the beginning and doesn’t do a whole lot. More of a glorified cameo.

Old Man: C. Lindsay Workman gives an incredibly hammy performance near the end as a creepy old man who tells Garfield & Odie about a hundred year old pirate treasure and about the ghost pirates that will come back for it at the stroke of midnight.

Ghost Pirates: Okay, so they have no voices and they’re only in it for a few minutes at best. Still, these are ghost pirates and the animation on them is really cool. Ghost pirates are always badass.

Directed by Phil Roman (who I believe was also responsible for the Garfield TV series and the other shorts as well) the special is reasonably well animated. A lot of it is the standard animated fare of the rest of the animated Garfield stuff, but those Ghost Pirates man, those guys were really well animated.

Garfield was created by Jim Davis, and gets writing credit for creating the comic strip. The story is a fairly straightforward string of occasional beats of traditional Garfield-esque running gags, some witty banter, a couple of catchy songs and then all of a sudden, outta nowhere, some legitimately creepy ghost pirates almost kill our heroes.

Original music by Ed Bogas and Desiree Goyette, and with some sung by Lorenzo Music and some by Lou Freakin’ Rawls himself, the songs are incredibly catchy and well done, and also nice and brief, so they don’t get a chance to annoy you.

Okay, so Garfield’s Halloween Adventure isn’t exactly the most complicated thing on our list, but it’s a fun and very Halloween-y special that’s got a lot of nostalgia credit going for it. I mean, it was made back when people didn’t hate Garfield.

 Now the songs are stuck in your head.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

“I promised I wouldn't go *buy* a Ouija board. I borrowed one”

So, the big story this month was a low budget indie film made on a shoestring budget scaring the crap out of audiences and spreading a word-of-mouth viral campaign as to its genuine creepiness. Well, the movie was finished in 2007 but only released now, and delivers exactly what it says it would: Paranormal Activity.

Its 2006 and a young couple move into a modest modern apartment and begin experiencing…things. The boyfriend buys an expensive and fancy camera in the hopes of catching on film some of this paranormal activity (dun dun DUN!). The movie proceeds down a very creepy road as for the next 86 minutes of increasing dread, the couple get much more than they bargained for.

Micah: Micah Sloat plays our day trading “dude guy dude” type of guy. He’s a bit of a self absorbed douche who is perpetually antagonizing the…thing in the house to try and get good footage. Naturally, the entity obliges, but as a result, Micah fails at that most important element of relationships: two-way communication. He just doesn’t ever frickin’ listen to his girlfriend’s increasingly desperate pleas to knock it off with the camera and leave the…thing alone. On the other hand, if he wasn’t this stupid, we’d have no movie.

Katie: Katie Featherston plays the increasingly worried English Major girlfriend of Micah. Much more sympathetic than the dense Micah, it turns out that Katie’s been haunted by this thing for most of her life. She gets increasingly desperate to keep the…thing quiet as the activity grows increasingly hostile to them. She’s also a flawed character, being rather codependent on Micah’s approval of her decisions, which only helps to propel the tragedy builds up.

The Psychic: Mark Fredrichs is barely in the film as a psychic and ghost expert called in by Katie to help figure out what’s going on. He tells them that whatever’s in the house is not a ghost, gives them the number of a demonologist and proceeds to get out of dodge. It’s a major turning point in the film, though sadly the demonologist becomes a Godot-like character.

The Entity: The badass of the film exists as a creature made up entirely of sound effects, camera tricks and the occasional set of footprints. Clearly identified as a demon early on, the entity is much smarter than the two mortals and a real asshole who at times torments them just because it can.

The Camera: Yes, the camera is more or less a third main character. Its our eyes and ears into this disturbing suburban occurrence, and one that draws the audience in as a mute and helpless fly on the wall.

First time director Oren Peli really gets his mileage out of a minimal budget. The movie is tightly paced for the most part and the limitations of practical effects really forces the said paranormal activity (dun, dun, DUN!) to be rooted in stuff that is physically plausible. And its freaky as hell at maximizing a mounting sense of dread when the lights get turned off every night and the camera gets locked off onto a tripod. Also, the whole “handheld” feature is actually done well, since shots and frames are generally well done and a lot of the legitimate scares are done when the camera is locked off on a tripod. So, uh, bravo for not falling into the “its shaky so it must be SPOOOOOOOOOKY!!!” mentality.

Written by Oren Peli, the story is fairly straightforward, but effective since there is very little fat that weighs down the narrative. Dialog is serviceable and the people all speak like normal people (I wonder how much of it was improvised), but that’s also a negative feature. Most real conversations are generally boring and forgetful as they frequently are here.

The lack of a score really adds to the creepiness of the film. Also, mad props to the sound effects guys for making footsteps that bring dread with every heavy tread.

Paranormal Activity is a svelte and incredibly effective indie horror film. The grassroots word-of-mouth campaign that’s sprung up around it is quite impressive as well, but more so is the fact that the movie actually does deliver a chilling tale that is dollar for dollar infinitely more effective at using its budget to create legitimate scares more than most of the big budget, jump-cutting, glossy finished studio fare that you’re likely to see. And it is legitimately very scary. Its also still in theaters as of this posting, so its definitely recommended viewing, especially since going to see this instead of Saw VI would be a very RMWC approved way of supporting the little guy filmmakers as opposed to the franchise machines that crank out nothing but generic torture porn with increasingly ridiculous continuity snarls to ham fistedly tie together previous movies into a false continuity.

That’s right. It’s a RMWC Call To Arms to take back Halloween from Saw and give it back to the movies that legitimately celebrate the season! Sure, Saw VI opened up at number two to Paranormal which was in its third week (second of wide release) so let's keep up that momentum.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

“On a mountain of skulls, in the castle of pain, I sat on a throne of blood! What was will be! What is will be no more! Now is the season of evil!”

So Ghostbusters was good times, yeah? Spawned a spin-off cartoon show (that was awesome) and then in 1989, Ghostbusters II came out with a new supernatural threat that threatened the good innocent undeserving-of-calamity people of New York. So why isn’t it as well regarded as the first? I mean, besides being a sequel and the general stigma that they carry.

Several years after saving New York and then being sued into unemployment, the former Ghostbusters are working generally menial jobs but then a spike in ghostly activity and portents about the end of the world get the band back together as they have to deal with a Carpathian Warlord trying to come back to the land of the living. Hilarity ensues for 107 or so minutes.

Dr. Peter Venkman: Billy Murray’s Venkman has gone on to the logical job after the Ghostbusters gig fell apart, he’s got a TV show where he interviews various crackpots & kooks about their crazy paranormal theories. Still the deadpan snarker of the film, he’s mostly just trying to get back together with Dana.

Dr. Raymond Stantz: Dan Aykroyd is still the more “childlike” Ghostbuster in his enthusiasm. He’s the owner of an occult bookstore and even runs gigs in full gear doing kids parties. Still, Ray is the one that’s most eager to get back in business.

Dr. Egon Spengler: Harold Ramis is still Egon, who’s still been doing the mad scientist thing and hanging out in Ray’s Occult Books. Sadly, it seems like the thing he had going with Janine in the first movie is over.

Winston Zeddemore: Ernie Hudson is still Winston, and he’s been doing party gigs with Ray to stay in work. After the team reunites officially, Winston seems to be the one who gets the most development. He’s no longer the new guy, and he’s still got the down-to-earth view (compared to the other three), but he’s also a lot more active in investigations. And he’s able to stand up to a ghost train driving through him with minimal trauma. That’s pretty badass.

Janine Melnitz: Annie Potts comes back as the Ghosbusters’ snarky secretary when they get back in business. Except she’s not quite as mercilessly snarky this time around. That gets mitigated with a subplot of her and Louis babysitting Dana’s kid.

Louis Tully: Rick Moranis returns as neurotic accountant Louis, only this time he’s also called in to be the Ghostbusters’ lawyer during a trial, then he becomes their accountant. Pure comic relief in this film, he and Janine get it on comically during the babysitting scene.

Dana Barrett: Sigourney Weaver returns and is several years estranged from Peter and has a kid from another relationship, Oscar. Dana (well, Oscar, to be precise) becomes the target of the supernatural scheme of the movie.

Dr. Janosz Poha: Peter MacNicol plays completely over the top as the Eastern European director of an exhibit in a museum. Dana works for him and he’s got an awkward (and because he’s creepy, a rather hopeless) crush on her. He becomes the henchman for the bad guy, turning in a very Renfield-like performance (which is only natural, since he’d play Renfield himself Dracula: Dead and Loving It).

Jack Hardemeyer: Kurt Fuller plays a jerkwad of a mayor’s aide that is trying to keep the Ghostbusters from getting back in business and away from the mayor (its an election year, after all). He’s a smarmy jerk, but he’s just not quite as asshole-ish as Walter Peck.

Vigo, the Scourge of Carpathia: Played by Wilhelm von Homburg and voiced by the always awesome Max Von Sydow, Vigo haunts a painting of himself, and he’s a bad dude. Maybe not quite as big a threat as Gozer, but he is a palpable one, and powerful. And Venkman gets a lot of great lines at Vigo’s expense. He’s also got a connection to a river of emotion reactive slime that’s running under the city too.

Ivan Reitman returns as the director and the visual style remains the same (in a good way). The special effects are improved (naturally) and while it doesn’t quite reach the same level of awesome that seeing Stay Puft Marshmallow Man walking around, the movie does have the Statue of Liberty walking through the streets of New York while “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me” plays is a different kind of awesome.

Dan Aykroyd & Harold Ramis deliver another pretty good plot with solid characterizations and hilarious dialogue. Still, the problem with it is that its not quite as inspired as the first film’s. A lot of the great scenes are kind of similar to the first movie’s. Giant thing walking through the city. People possessed by paranormal forces. Asshole city official. Massive amounts of property damage to capture a few lower level ghosts. More of the same isn’t really a bad thing, but that’s also a source of criticism for not bringing enough new to the table.

Randy Edelman did the original score, which works but its kind of invisible in the film. Ray Parker, Jr.’s “Ghostbusters Theme” is still great, and then, because it was 1989, there was a remix done by Run DMC. Its kind of catchy in its own way, but its also…not as timeless as the original version. Also, the aforementioned "Your love keeps lifting me higher" song.

Ghostbusters II sometimes gets a bad rap as being an unworthy sequel. I respectfully disagree. It may not be as awesome and original as the, er, original, but its definitely entertaining and a solid, fun paranormal comedy.

Monday, October 26, 2009

“Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together…mass hysteria!”

Admit it. You saw the title quote. You saw the poster. You’re humming the theme right now. You know who to call. Hell, you’ve probably been wondering if I was going to put this movie on this month’s list. Well, after seeing Zombieland, 1984’s Ghostbusters was a very logical follow up (no, seriously, it is).

Three disgraced parapsychologists get some actual results in their research and find a way to capture and contain ghosts. With no academic means of income, they decide to go into business for themselves as the Ghostbuster (dun dun Dun!). After some initial success, one of them gets involved with a woman who’s apartment is turning into a conduit for a dark god to try and enter the world to destroy it. Hilarity ensues for the next 105 minutes.

Dr. Peter Venkman: Bill Murray is the deadpan, laidback, fast talking member, and totally not particularly enthusiastic about the venture as his colleagues. Something of a hustler, he’s generally the more decisive of the group. Nobody, and I mean nobody, can stand up to his low key scenery chewing performance, and for that, he is the badass of the film.

Dr. Raymond Stantz: Dan Aykroyd plays the eager, idealistic Ghostbuster who’s essentially the “heart” of the team. He also tends to screw up from time to time to help escalate the plot.

Dr. Egon Spengler: Harold Ramis plays the serious, stuffy big brain of the team and another source of deadpan delivery.

Winston Zeddmore: Ernie Hudson plays a guy who’s looking for work that the Ghostbusters hire. He’s kind of an everyman character who gets in over his head but manages to adjust to the weirdness pretty well. After all, he’s seen shit that could turn you white.

Janine Melnitz: Annie Potts is the sarcastic, extremely deadpan secretary that the Ghostbusters hire to take their calls and do paperwork. She gets some great banter with Peter and some intentionally awkward flirting with Egon.

Dana Barrett: Sigourney Weaver plays a classical musician who’s apartment happens to be located in a building designed to be a conduit to allow Gozer the Gozerian, an ancient Sumerian god, to enter New York City and destroy the world. She turns to the Ghostbusters, Venkman unrelentingly pursues her and then things get really weird for her.

Louis Tully: Rick Moranis is Dana’s neighbor, a neurotic anal retentive accountant and generally hapless schlub who gets swept up in the whole Gozer incident.

Walter Peck: William Atherton plays the smug, slimy EPA official who hates the Ghostbusters (well, Venkman definitely) and wants to see them shut down for good. This leads to…complications.

Gozer the Gozerian, Gozer the Destructor, Volguus Zildrohar, Gozer the Traveler, Lord of Sebouillia: Our big bad evil god for the film doesn’t have a major presence until the end, but then you realize that Gozer is serious business, despite first appearing as a flat-topped female gymnast. That nimble little minx then manifests as a 100 foot tall Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, which is both ridiculous and awesome. Gozer’s even got a posse, Zuul and Vinz Clortho, that helps pave the way for Gozer’s coming.

Ivan Reitman brings a really good visual style to the movie. Filmed a lot in New York, the supernatural is treated as a mostly down to earth thing. People’s reactions to the Ghostbusters and their mission is usually bemused skepticism. The pacing is rock solid, and the movie is probably at its streamlined best when we get a montage of the Ghostbusters expanding their marketing, doing their jobs and then getting public reactions. Sure, its been done before, but its really done well here and it’s a great little touch.

Now, the effects are worth mentioning. They’re outstanding; merging puppetry, camera tricks and stop motion effects to great effect. Everything’s also done “pre-computer” which means no CGI, something that the cast & crew were quite proud of when I watched the commentary several years ago. And the ghost effects being played straight also worked in favor of the horror elements that were present. Admit it, you weren’t ready for the Librarian’s reaction to “Get her!” when you saw it the first time.

Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis & Rick Moranis caught lightning in a bottle. Out of work college professors decide to hunt ghosts in New York professionally. It’s a concept rife with potential, and the plot turns wildly through the course of the film, but it all works out in its favor. Dialog is incredibly quotable, made all the more incredible since much of it was improvised.

The original score by Elmer Bernstein is a very solid, atmospheric piece of movie music, definitely. However, that is completely overshadowed by Ray Parker, Jr.’s theme song, which manages to be both incredibly 80’s and incredibly timeless at the same time.

Like I was going to pan Ghostbusters instead of recommending it. It’s a modern classic that takes a solid idea and runs hand in hand with hilarious dialog, memorable characters, inspired visuals and they all frolic together in a cinematic happy place as anthropomorphic personifications of storytelling.

…What? They laugh, they cry and by the end of the day, they’ve all learned a little something about themselves.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

“Time to nut up or shut up!”

Bucking the usual trend of, well, pretty much every review here at Castle RWMC, Zombieland is only a few weeks old, not on video yet, and almost certainly still playing at a theater near you. Why this aberration from the norm, you may be fearfully asking yourself? Because I like unsettling you. Because I wanted to throw a zombie movie onto the pile. Because I wanted to keep up with this month’s theme of creepy carnivals. All right, it’s a theme park in this one, but a theme park’s a carnival that’s just put down permanent roots.

In a post-outbreak America Zombieland (dun, dun, DUN!), most of the residents are the slavering, infected and flesh hungry undead. A lone survivor, a paranoiac nerd who’s got a meticulous list of rules for surviving the undead hordes meets up with a jaded and very violent badass who’s turned zombie killing into an art and they travel cross country, looking for anywhere that isn’t a zombie infested hell hole. They run into a pair of non-zombie sisters with their own agenda and after a few twists and betrayals, end up traveling to LA, ostensibly looking for that zombie-free promised land. Hilarity ensues for 80 minutes.

Columbus: Jesse Eisenberg is one of those actors who always seems to be playing awkward nerdy types (like Michael Cera) but here, it works. He’s our narrator and POV character, and neurotic beyond imagination. Then again, his neurotic tendency to make a genre savvy list of survival tips makes a lot of sense and helps explain how a social reject is able to survive a zombie apocalypse. The plan, such as it is for him, is to get from Dallas back to Columbus, Ohio to see if his family survived.

Tallahassee: Never really figured any of the cast members of Cheers to be badasses, but that’s what Woody Harrelson is in this movie. He’s a surly, foul-mouthed survivor who’s turned zombie killing into both a hobby and high art. The downright maniacal glee with which he pursues both zombies and an ever elusive desire to have a Twinkie before they eventually expire is absurd, sociopathic, and even heroic. He is the unquestioned badass of the film.

Wichita: Emma Stone plays the older of two sisters who end up traveling together in Zombieland (Dun Dun Dun!). Survivors with trust issues toward anyone that isn’t them, Wichita is also the same age as Columbus, and yeah, the boy falls for a girl that is both pretty and pretty good with a shotgun.

Little Rock: Abigail Breslin is the younger sister, about twelve, and just as sharp and devious as her sister. Still, she’s still a kid and hasn’t really had much of an opportunity to have legitimate fun, and that is pretty much how we get to the showdown in the amusement park.

Director Ruben Fleischer delivers a bright, colorful, almost festive atmosphere to the action that juxtaposes nicely with the non-action road trip bits where our plucky survivors are just driving and driving through empty stretches of road interrupted by scenes of automotive ruin. The makeup on the zombies is appropriately disgusting and CGI mostly obvious when they flash Columbus’ rules on the screen during appropriate moments, but then the CGI also has a “weight” to it in the scenes that get played for laughs. Better explanation: Rule No. 1 is “Cardio” because running is important to surviving the zombie apocalypse. As Columbus is running around a parking lot chased by two zombies, “Cardio” flashes on the screen in the background and one of the zombies charges through the letters, knocking one over. Stuff like that.

Of special note are the beginning and end. We only get glimpses of the zombie apocalypse itself, and after a brief narration of the current status quo, and then we go into the opening credits, which feature slow motion sight gags of normal people running in terror from zombies during all kinds of situations. Its good times and really sets the scene.

Then there’s the climactic showdown in the theme park. Bright, colorful, and absolutely hilarious when you see Tallahassee jump into a roller coaster and take potshots at zombies, laughing as he goes. Why does he do this? Its funny, so does it matter?

The script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick is both incredibly genre savvy and wickedly funny. The movie blends the elements of zombies, buddy movie, road trip, occasional love story elements and rolls them all up into an effective comedy where you end up caring for all of the main characters. There’s also a cameo at the end of the second act that is simply too awesome for me to spoil here for those who haven’t seen it.

Sure, I suppose I could point out stuff like “where do they keep finding ammunition and gasoline” and other plot hole kind of elements, but really, this movie first and foremost bows before the rule of funny. They keep finding ammunition because that way they can continue to kill zombies in amusing ways.

The original music by David Sardy is, well, it gets overshadowed by the killer licensed soundtrack that starts with “For Whom The Bell Tolls” by Metallica blasting over the opening credits and just keeps going with amusing musical choices like Van Halen, Chuck Mangione, the Ghostbusters Theme, Hank Williams and the Black Keys. Its good stuff.

Zombieland is a hell of a lot of fun, and it shows in the work of the folks involved. It’s light in tone, but also tells a pretty solid narrative and things get wrapped up nicely. Its open ended enough for a sequel, but I’m not entirely sure that would be for the best. I saw it in theaters twice on opening weekend, so that’s a pretty clear recommendation to go see it.

Now, I know what you might be thinking. You might be thinking “but what about Shaun of the Dead?” After some introspection, I’ve decided that its not worth trying to split hairs over which might be the better zom com (Shaun is probably a little more tightly plotted). Instead, I would prefer to sit back and enjoy a world that has been able to create two solid zombie comedies in this decade.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

“To flee is life; To linger is death."

Young vampires in love. What could be more…heartwarming than that? Contrary to a certain bestselling series of disposable novels written in purple prose that shall remain unnamed, its like opening a really, really, really, really, really, really big can of bad things, and people die. 2008’s Låt den rätte komma in (Let The Right One In for us non Swedes) is just such a tender love story of twelve year old boy meets more or less twelve year old vampire girl. Then it gets…messy.

Oskar is a shy, retiring little twelve year old living in a suburb of Stockholm. His parents are separated and he’s the frequent target of bullies. One winter night, he meets a new neighbor, Eli, a young girl about his age with a few eccentric traits who’s moved in next door. They bond over a Rubic’s Cube and he hangs out with her a couple of nights. Meanwhile, her “legal guardian” (well, henchman) is murdering people in the park and draining them of blood for Eli, but he messes up when he almost gets caught one night and leaves the blood behind as he makes a break for it. Starving, Eli personally assaults someone one night, killing them, and some people start getting worried about the deaths. Things keep building up as Oskar & Eli start developing something a little deeper than a friendship.

Oskar: Kåre Hedebrant is our young protagonist. Shy and bullied, its easy to feel sympathy for him, but as the movie goes on, you also realize that there’s just something not right about that boy. He’s got a knife that he likes to stab trees with in a way of working out his frustrations, and he’s also an obsessive collector of news stories about murders and serial killers. And he’s twelve. After he meets Eli, the relationship that develops is quite tender, or rather, it would be if she wasn’t a vampire. He even starts up a Morse Code way of talking with her through the walls of their apartments. At Eli’s urging, Oskar eventually does stand up to the bullies one day, cracking one of them upside the head with a really long fiberglass-looking stick when they try to throw him in a frozen pond. It’s a cool moment of development for him as he makes the bully cry like a little baby, but its also rather disturbing watching the ecstatic look of glee that comes over him after he’s finally had a taste of causing actual pain to someone else. That boy just ain’t right, I tell ya.

Eli: Lina Leandersson is our vampire, a little girl who’s been twelve for a very long time. She’s not exactly happy about murdering people to survive, but she persists. Considering the actress is about twelve in this, she does an outstanding job of being both sympathetic, rather innocent and CREEPY AS ALL HELL. Seriously, Eli the vampire is just so damn creepy, especially if you start thinking about how a twelve year old girl was turned into a vampire long ago in the first place…well, there’s a lot of potential for squick here and the movie doesn’t discourage you. Hell, there are some scenes that fall into the “too much information” camp. Easily the badass of the film.

Håkan: Per Ragnar is Eli’s guardian and henchman, masquerading as her father. A rather creepy older guy, he’s been her Renfield for a long time apparently, but he’s starting to slip up, forgetting the blood from a victim one night, then getting caught before he can get started on another one. He gets points for commitment when he pours hydrochloric acid onto his face before getting caught to disfigure his identity to protect Eli. It messes up one side of his face royally and also makes him mute too. Then he goes the final mile by offering his own throat to Eli when she visits him in the hospital. The guy’s seriously messed up.

Jocke: Mikael Rahm plays one of the townsfolk who happens to be Eli’s midnight snack one night. However, a neighbor sees the attack (but not the details of the attacker) and that sets up a pretty fatal subplot for a few people.

Gösta: Karl-Robert Lindgren is one of Jocke’s friends and the guy who sees the attack from his window. He’s also the owner of rather a lot of cats, and cats, it turns out, really, really don’t like vampires.

Lacke: Peter Carlberg plays the, for lack of a better word, “hero” of the Jocke subplot. Jocke was his best friend and drinking buddy, so when he turns up murdered, he takes it personally, and as things go on, it really sucks to be Lacke as he tries to put a stop to the murders.

Virginia: Ika Nord is Lacke’s girlfriend who, after having an argument with Lacke, storms off to be jumped by a starving Eli. Lacke rushes to her aid and drives off the vampire (who’s identity he still doesn’t know), but surviving the attack only means that yes Virginia, there is a Dracula. Its actually pretty tragic how Virginia discovers that she’s become a vampire.
The direction by Tomas Alfredson really showcases a stark and desolate portrait of Sweden in winter. Colors are generally muted (except for blood of course) and shots are usually wide and feature only a few characters. The overall effect is one of unsettling loneliness and a bit of dread. Being a vampire movie, most of the action takes place at night, but its very well lit. Special effects are generally restrained. CGI is used when necessary, but sparingly. The scene where the cats attack Virginia when she enters Gösta’s apartment just comes out of nowhere to floor you with how violent it is. Hilarious, yes, but there’s no warning whatsoever of what’s coming. Most of the violence in the movie is like that. Sudden, brutal and brief, leaving you blinking in surprise after the fact and going “did that just fucking happen?” I mean, that climactic scene in the pool. That’s whole shot at the end is just…God damn.

John Ajvide Lindqvist adapted his own bestselling novel (well, in Sweden, at least, I don’t know about how well it sold here in the States) into the screenplay. Apparently, the novel is even more disturbing in its details than this movie. As it is, the movie balances the love story between Oskar and Eli on that incredibly narrow wire between “tender” and “thoroughly disturbing.” The way the movie ends, it really makes you question whether it was a good thing for Oskar & Eli to fall in love.

Of added note is how the movie handles the vampire tropes that we’ve all grown to know this month. A strictly supernatural state doesn’t seem to be the case here. Eli’s not undead. She breathes, and her condition is handled more like a sickness or condition instead of a mystical curse. However, most every other limitation on vampires is played brutally straight and we see just why they’re limitations. Sunlight? Yeah, first it starts to burn a vampire’s skin, then they go “FWOOM!” in a moment of sudden combustion. The Thirst? We see vampires go into severe hunger pangs, start to feel weak and basically begin to shrivel up. The old idea of a vampire being unable to enter a place without being invited is even shown in a truly sick scene as Oskar teasingly refuses to give Eli permission to enter his apartment asking what could happen. She does and after a few moments of her being silent, she starts bleeding. From EVERYWHERE. Then there’s the whole “animals can sense the unnatural nature of the, er, (not)undead.” Cats don’t like vampires. They VIOLENTLY don’t like vampires.

The original score by Johan Söderqvist is generally as sparse as the movie’s visual style, but at times a very lonely and haunting piano tune plays that is, again, both tender and creepy at the same time.

Let The Right One In is really, really good at what it does, and what it does is creep you out with a tender love story of two seriously messed up pre-adolescents. Hauntingly tender and completely messed up at the same time, it delivers a “less is more” element to the horror, leaving your imagination with the task of fleshing out various missing pieces. I can say right now that this is really not a movie for everyone, but for those who bring enough Vaseline for a thorough mindfuck by the end will find one really ballsy and experimental vampire movie. Naturally, there’s an American version on the way, but I just don’t know how it could compare to the bleak Swedish winter setting that is so unique to this film.

Friday, October 23, 2009

“It seems you have discovered your unpleasant nature.”

Welcome to a dystopian city where people go about their lives unaware that everything they do is closely monitored by…things that aren’t normal and a protagonist finds himself trying to piece together what’s going on while developing new powers. Now, if you’re thinking of The Matrix, well, not this time. This time its Dark City from 1998, a full year before The Matrix was released.

Our hero wakes up naked in a bathtub with a broken syringe nearby and a dead hooker in the other room (which is oddly enough, how a typical Saturday morning starts here at Castle--wait a minute, that’s not right) Then he gets a phone call from a guy who tells him some people, Strangers, are coming after him. He runs off into the night (clothed) and finds himself embroiled in a weird, film noir meets German Expressionism city where he finds himself a fugitive from both the law (he’s the main suspect for the murder) and from the Strangers, who are conducting experiments on people and he’s both resistant to their ability to induce sleep in people and is developing psionic powers like they have. Things proceed to get weird.

John Murdock: Rufus Sewell (who was the bad guy in A Knight’s Tale) is our amnesiac hero. At first, he doesn’t even know who he is until he gets his wallet and starts piecing together his identity and what’s going on. He’s pretty good and fairly competent at things too, and as the movie progresses he starts piecing together what’s going on and reconnecting with his wife and eventually developing his “tuning” ability (what the Strangers call the ability to shape reality with your mind) to a degree where he becomes quite badass. He’s also very, very interested in how to get to Shell Beach.

Inspector Frank Bumstead: William Hurt plays the policeman investigating the serial murder of several call girls (the last one being in Murdock’s apartment). A rather fastidious fellow, he’s very deadpan and serious, but is also one to ask important questions. Unfortunately, Mr. Dithers does not yell at him for being late to work after crashing into the mailman on his way out the door. That’s a different Bumstead.

Dr. Daniel P. Shreber: Kiefer Sutherland is in full mad scientist mode here. Yes, Jack Bauer himself in a decidedly non-Jack Bauer role. He’s a guy who knows a lot about what’s going on because he’s working with the Strangers on their experiments. He is, however, really interested in the developments that happen with Murdock, because he’s the only person to be able “tune” like the Strangers can. An interesting and shifting character.

Emma Murdock: Jennifer Connelly is John’s jazz lounge singer wife. She apparently cheated on him in the past and feels bad about it, but the details of which get deliberately muddled. She’s just trying to figure out what’s going on.

Detective Eddie Walenski: Colin Friels plays a cop who’s also managed to wake up during a tuning session, but unlike Murdock, he’s neither developed powers nor has he kept his sanity. Something of a Cassandra figure, he’s seen the reality of the city and its driven him over the edge.

Mr. Book: Ian Richardson is the (more or less) leader of the hive minded Strangers, who are all bald, pale and wear black. A grim-faced, sinister figure with a booming voice, he’s the real power behind the goings on of the city.

Mr. Hand: Richard O’Brien (from The Rocky Horror Picture Show) is the main Stranger who goes after Murdock. Something of a knife enthusiast, he gets injected with Murdock’s memories to better track him down. A thoroughly creepy fellow.

The other Strangers are mostly fodder material, aside from Mr. Wall, who’s teamed up with Mr. Hand, and then there’s Mr. Sleep, a little kid and a really freaky Stranger.
Directed by Alex Proyas (The Crow) the film layers on the grim, bleak and foreboding nature of the story. Owing a lot to Blade Runner, Metropolis and other films with similar themes, the film has a slick visual style helped by the fact that its always dark in the City, and there’s a very good reason for that. Fight scenes aren’t particularly flashy, but they are brutal and quick. The special effects are also fairly restrained. Tuning gets the lion’s share of the CGI with waves of “energy” representing the mental abilities, but also buildings will rise up and come down according to the whims of the Strangers, and it’s a really cool effect.

The script by Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer delivers a solid, thoughtful and efficiently told story. The movie moves well and while it doesn’t exactly blaze any new trails in the speculative fiction genre, it handles the material with deftness. Dialog is generally standard, except the Strangers have a peculiar verbal tic of ending sentences with yes, which is a pretty simple and effective way to separate them from the humans (aside from, you know, looking like bald freaks).

The original score by Trevor Jones is an appropriately moody and somber affair that fits the material well.

While Dark City shares a lot of themes with The Matrix (like the whole reality should be what you make of it, not what others make for you) it does present things in a much more thoughtful, methodical manner. Again, more film noir thriller than Kung-Fu spectacular. Boasting a solid cast, a fun trippy concept and some pretty freaky villains, Dark City is a worthwhile addition to the dystopian city genre and there is a director's cut that I've heard is superior.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

“But tonight, we shall hurl the gauntlet of science into the frightful face of death itself.”

After that…enlightening excursion to the 21st century, we return to the 20th because we’re not done with Frankenstein. Not by a long shot. 1974 threw Frankenstein into the loving comedy embrace of Mel Brooks. Should be a great way to burn away foggy residue of the previous movie.

An American scientist receives word from a German visitor that he has inherited his family estate of Castle Frankenstein in Transylvania. Somewhat reluctantly, the young Frankenstein (dun, dun, DUN!) travels to Transylvania where he encounters a hunchback and attractive woman as his support staff, then discovers his grandfather Victor’s notes. Resolved to follow in his grandfather’s bootshteps bootsteps in the name of SCIENCE, he begins his fateful journey into Mad Science. Hilarity ensues for 106 minutes.

Frederick Frankenstein/Fronkensteen: Gene Wilder turns in a fantastic role as the young Frankenstein (dun, dun, DUN!) who wouldn’t be out of place in a regular Frankenstein sequel. Torn between scientific ambitions and other obligations, he’s our Hero and essentially the straight man to a lot of the comedic antics. Wilder’s great, what with being able to switch rapidly between sane and ranting, and his comedic timing is just spot on.

The Monster: Peter Boyle is the Monster/Creature. He doesn’t show up until about halfway through, but when he does its great. Under a lot of makeup (that includes several zippers, including one on his neck) he really plays with the childlike intelligence and quick rages common in these films. He certainly looks the part for a big monster, but he’s also really, really sympathetic when he starts making infantile whimpers and whines. He gets a crowning moment of awesome during the musical number, because if anything can help make the Monster classy, it’s a tux and top hat. Uttin’ on uh riiiizzzz, indeed.

Igor (pronounced Eye-Gore): Marty Feldman plays the scene stealing henchman with a wandering eye (and hump). He’s basically the funny guy to Wilder’s straight man, and he just hams it up gloriously, frequently breaking the fourth wall and mugging to the audience. Not only that, he’s also the henchman seen this month with the biggest self-preservation instinct. He’ll point out the dangerous looking electrical switches, but he’ll be damned before he switches them on not knowing what they’ll do. The film’s biggest comedic badass.

Inga: Teri Garr is great as Frankenstein’s beautiful blonde assistant who starts falling in love with him. Speaking in a hilarious German accent, she’s more or less the middle character between Frankenstein’s seriousness and Igor’s zaniness.

Frau Blücher [horses whinny]: Cloris Leachman hams it up incredibly as the mysterious caretaker of Castle Frankenstein who lures Frederick to his grandfather’s private study. And yes, the running gag that happens whenever anyone says Blücher [horses whinny] is both brilliantly done and not played out past its effectiveness.

Elizabeth: Madeline Kahn is great as always as Frederick’s prudish fiancée. The resulting love triangle gets only slightly complicated as the Monster abducts her soon after her arrival in Transylvania.

Inspector Kemp: Kenneth Mars is the runner up for badass of the film as the badly mutilated police inspector that is totally lifted from Inspector Krogh, right down to the fake right arm and constantly shifting accent. Except here its turned up to eleven. He ends up spearheading the inevitable angry mob (quite literally).

Blindman: Gene Hackman in a very small cameo under a big wig that makes it hard to realize its him. The whole scene he’s in is an outstanding parody of the hermit scene in Bride of Frankenstein.

Mel Brooks = Good Director. Nothing new there, but visually the movie is tremendously faithful to capturing the old school look and feel of the black and white monster movies. Hell, most of the lab equipment props were those used in the original Frankenstein. Sight gags are great, camera angles are completely appropriate and even iconic, and the whole visual look has a flow and energy that’s infectious.

The Story and script by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks is outstanding (it was slightly more Wilder’s baby than Brooks’), both in that it’s a fantastic parody of horror films, but can also stand on its own as legitimate Frankenstein movie. The plot would totally work as a normal sequel to the series, and that’s really where the strengths of the story lie. The movie knows exactly when to play everything completely straight and without gags to sell the mythos its trying to build. The lightning storm reanimation features a great Mad Scientist speech by Wilder and then a dramatic, totally serious moment where the creature is infused with life. The punch line only happens several minutes later after the major moment is passed (and works great), but again, the movie pays homage to the most truly iconic elements of the Frankenstein series, lifting a lot of scenes and characters from previous films. The little girl, the shot of Frankenstein telling Igor to get his head down at the cemetery gates, and the scene where Igor gets “Abby Normal’s” brain are all from Frankenstein, the hermit, Elizabeth’s name (also in the first film), haircut and hiss at the end are from Bride, Igor’s name, the Monster being directed by music and the Inspector are all lifted from Son of, and the brain swapping plot point and even the enormous (door) knockers are from Ghost Of. Wilder & Brooks did their freakin’ homework on this one but also made it their own, and it shows in the overall quality.

John Morris turns in probably the most iconic Frankenstein soundtrack since Bride of. There is one theme that is constantly repeated throughout in various permutations according to the mood of the scene; a sweeping, somewhat gypsy-like and moody piece that’s just great. And there’s also that “Puttin’ on the Ritz” musical number that’s just awesome in its absurd inventiveness.

Young Frankenstein is top tier Mel Brooks we’re dealing with here. A fantastic cast, rock solid direction and a greased lightning slick plot and pacing unanimously click to make a hilarious monster movie that’s also incredibly faithful and respectful of the genre it pokes with a stick. This is parody at its finest.

Blücher [horses whinny]

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

“It appears we may have a problem of some magnitude.”

Stephen King. Yeah, that’s one name to pay attention to when it comes to horror. When he’s not also writing prison dramas about hope and freedom… Speaking of Shawshank, the director of that movie, Frank Darabont, adapted King’s The Mist for the big screen in 2007. This should be good, right?

In a small Maine town not too far from Portland, something…happens and a mist descends upon the townsfolk. A group of people in a grocery store end up trapped inside when the fog rolls in and…things try to get in. Actually, it’s a variety of things, and we get a spread of some kind of tentacle monster, giant wasp things, bird things, spider things and more things that try to get inside. Turns out the survivors have found themselves inside a 1950s Monster Movie, where a “What hath SCIENCE done?!” theme gets merged with a “Lord of the Flies” like plot about societal collapse in the face of chaos and some really annoying fundamentalist lady.

Oh geez, its another one of these “Too many Characters, not enough development” kind of deals.

David Drayton: Thomas Jane is our Hero, an artist with showbiz connections, but he’s also a local to the town and has a son, Billy (played by Nathan Gamble). He doesn’t really like his neighbor, loves his wife and promises his son that the bad things aren’t going to get him. He’s our Point of View character for the disaster as well, and becomes one of the leaders of the survivors (at least until another faction pops up). He’s alright, but the character’s a bit flat.

Brent Norton: Andre Braugher (he was the general in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer) is David’s neighbor, a lawyer, out-of-towner and black. He & David don’t really get along, but they do bond a little after the storm in the beginning that knocked trees down that crushed David’s boat house and Brent’s Mercedes. After the disaster, he organizes a group to go for help and they’re never heard from again. No, seriously. We don’t find out what happened to them, if they made it or not, though its probably assumed that they got eaten because the one guy who went out at the same time as them and had a rope tied around his waist most certainly did get eaten.

Amanda Dunfrey: Laurie Holden is a local who’s husband is out of town. She more or less becomes a protective figure for Billy Drayton, and is one of David’s faction. She has a generally high opinion of humanity.

Ollie Weeks: Toby Jones plays one of the supervisors in the grocery store and one of the crew who really rises to the occasion, helping organize the survival efforts and generally being competent (and handy with a revolver). He also reminds me of Billy Quizboy from The Venture Brothers show (make of that what you will)

Jim: William Sadler (who’s been in Shawshank and The Green Mile) is a local blue collar Joe who’s disbelief in the things out there early on help get a bagboy killed. Later, he snaps and abandon’s Drayton’s faction for another one. Has a friend named Myron who’s even less developed as a character.

Dan Miller: Jeffrey DeMunn (who was ALSO in Shawshank & The Green Mile) is the last one into the grocery store, having survived an attack by…something during the initial rolling in of the fog. He’s on Drayton’s side the whole time.

Irene Reppler: Frances Sternhagen is an old schoolteacher and generally a badass granny. She calls out the annoying character on her shit and also uses a lighter and a can of insect killer as a makeshift blowtorch. The movie’s badass, easily.

Private Jessup: Sam Witwer is a young army guy who knows a little bit about what the army was doing up at the base (messing around with other dimensions, though its not a surprise by the time we find out).

Sally: Alexa Davalos is a cashier in the store and ostensibly Private Jessup’s love interst, but aside from two scenes together, you could’ve fooled me.

Mrs. Carmody: Marcia Gay Harden is an odd case here. On the one hand, she’s easily the most animated character of the film, chewing scenery and ranting like a crazy person, so its obvious the actress was having fun on set. HOWEVER, she’s also annoying as all hell what with her being a ranting Christian Fundamentalist who is utterly convinced that the mist is a sign of the end times and my God does she turn into a broken record and you just wish someone would put a bullet in her. She ends up forming another faction that challenges Drayton’s ideas, and becomes the Villain, more or less. But she’s not really a good villain because there’s no nuance to the character, nothing to make her sound like a charismatic demagogue that can take advantage of the chaos to spread her ideas. No, she just comes off as a two dimensional, haughty, condescending crazy pants, and I find it incredibly difficult to believe that within two days she could assemble a tremendous following. A week, maybe (if I’m feeling generous) but not two days.

I hope you like gray, because this movie delivers a lifetime supply of it on your doorstep. A wall-to-wall gray fog settles in over the town, and that’s both a tonal strength, I suppose, but also a weakness. On the one hand, sure a solid curtain of gray helps add an oppressive gloom to things, but its not scary by any means. Its not even creepy when compared to the layered fogs that show up in older horror films. You know, the kind that form a three foot blanket across the ground and swirl lazily back and forth. The monsters are generally well done CGI, but they’re all pretty gray as well. Character death scenes are generally brutal and a welcome break from the overall slow visual pace of the rest of the movie, but there’s nothing at all particularly scary about anything going on. I will say that I appreciate the movie’s lack of jump cuts, though. At least it didn’t take the easy way out in that regard.

Novella by Stephen King and screenplay by Frank Darabont. Not having read the story, I can’t say for sure, but the way everything goes, I’m sure it probably works better on the page than on the screen. On the screen, its just a big boring take on a 50’s monster movie with some heavy handed “social commentary” about societal collapse and demagoguery and so on. Its not fun in a cheesy way, and it didn’t convince me that this was “serious business.” The pacing was glacial, the characters two-dimensional and the dialog was generally forgettable, despite having a pretty decent cast. And as for the twist ending, I won’t spoil it, but I will say that anyone who’s read even a little bit of speculative fiction (sci-fi) short stories won’t be surprised at all. That twist is as common as rocket ships and laser rays in sci-fi short stories.

The score by Mark Isham is inoffensive and forgettable. There is, however, one song that gets some “serious business” moments near the end, “The Host of Seraphim” sung by Lisa Gerrard and Dead Can Dance as a car is driving away from the grocery store into the fog. The song is basically a woman wailing and coupled with the slowish movement of the scene, just comes off as incredibly cheesy and super serious to the point of absurdity in how I reacted to the music is in the scene with a disbelieving laugh.

I, uh, really didn’t like The Mist. At All. Actually, no, it went past “not like” to “actively dislike.” It’s a boring movie and I called the “What hath SCIENCE done?!” theme really early on (pretty much from the moment I saw military trucks). The ending, while not entirely foreseen, wasn’t a surprise either because, again, similar things happen a lot in these kinds of stories. A real disappointment of a movie, since Darabont's work on The Shawshank Redemption was really, really solid. This…this isn’t a badly made movie by any means, but its just so boring that I can’t even muster an entertaining form of rage to criticize it mercilessly. Now, I have heard that the DVD had a cut of it in black & white, and that probably would’ve helped the movie out a lot, but that’s not the movie that was watched.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

“I shall slip unnoticed through the darkness... like a dark, unnoticeable slippy thing.”

MirrorMask? That’s not a horror film! Well…no. Its not. Technically. But it is a cavalcade of weirdness from two of the masters of the modern form of the gothic and the creepy. And really, isn’t October supposed to be a Cavalcade of Weirdness anyway? It also ties into the unofficial theme of this month, which happens to be carnivals/circuses. So sit down, shut up and soak in the weirdness of 2005’s Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s MirrorMask. I promise its got nightmare fuel.

A girl who’s family owns a small circus is dissatisfied with her life and verbally takes her frustrations out on her mother. During the next performance, mom takes ill and has to go the hospital. Feeling guilty about things, the girl worries about her mother, then enters a bizarre dream world which is a lot like Alice in Wonderland on even more drugs and where everyone, everyone wears strange masks as their faces (well, except Helena). She goes on a search for a Charm that will prevent the destruction of this strange new world, meets an unreliable, snarky companion and generally has an ADVENTURE! of trippy proportions. And then you’re left wondering if it really was just a dream or not, which, if you've read any of Gaiman's novels, you will recognize as a common theme.

Helena Campbell/Anti-Helena: Stephanie Leonidas is our young hero, a rather likable, rebellious girl. She’s a capable juggler and an obsessive drawer. Her mouth is what gets her in trouble in the first place (more or less) but other than that, she’s a perfectly normal lass. Anti-Helena, who’s only seen in glimpses here and there, is a bratty princess from the Shadow Kingdom that’s causing all this trouble for the “dream world” when she escapes (and is also the real Villain)

Morris Campbell/The Prime Minister: Rob Brydon is Helena’s dad. A loving father and husband, he’s also in charge of the circus. The Prime Minister in the “dream world” is a worried member of the Queen of Light’s court that is trying to find the Charm. The PM provides quite a bit of exposition.

Joanne Campbell/Queen of Shadows/Queen of Light: Gina McKee pulls triple duty playing three characters. The first is Helena’s mom who falls sick and has an operation done on her. The Queen of Light is in a dormant state during the story (a metaphor for the mom being sick) and the Queen of Shadow is trying to find her lost daughter so that she can smother her with love. Adversarial, certainly, and also someone that vomits up black goopy stuff that can turn into bats or spiders or other generally creepy stuff.

Valentine: Jason Barry is the roguish, tricksterish juggler that through circumstances ends up linking up with Helena. Part trickster and part fool, the fast talking Valentine is often a voice of cynicism and prudence on the quest (he certainly has no interest in dying, or in being a waiter). He’s also quite badass, especially in the moment where the tower that he’s been talking about all movie finally gets dealt with. He is a very important man, after all.

The Librarian: Stephen Fry (the voice of the HHGTG in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy among a billion other things) in a very small cameo role as a creature made up of books that provides some background exposition on the dream world.

Dave McKean is an artist first and foremost, and the art direction of this film really goes nuts with the visuals. The scenes in the carnival have an incredible energy and quickness to them, and then the scenes in the dream world are just…well, I really doubt you’ve seen anything like them anywhere else. The effects were done by the Jim Henson Company and it involves a lot of CGI, but all of it is presented in a hyper-stylized way. In the dream world, everything is filtered in such a way that there is a flickering effect on the screen, particularly the edges. It almost comes across like an old home movie reel (if that makes sense). Costumes are outlandish, the backgrounds are even more so, and the GCI creatures are both imaginative and freaky. The monkey birds are mostly comical, until you see them moving around in one hell of an impressive chase scene, and the sphinxes, little cats with wings and human faces bolted on are really creepy when you see a lot of them. And then there’s the scene with the clockwork women--, no, I won’t go into that. Needless to say, its probably the most surreal and just plain creepy scene in the whole film, and even knowing that now, if you see that movie, you won’t be ready for just how messed up it is.

Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean came up with the story, with Gaiman doing the real writing chores. The story is a fairly standard tale of going to a different and strange world and having to perform a quest to save everything. However, like in music, it’s the singer, not the song that really matters. The story is well paced, highly symbolic, and chock full of Gaiman’s offbeat sense of wit and humor. It also gets points for making the circus and employees of it not at all creepy or unlikable in any way, and for Helena and her parents being a fairly well adjusted family. Sure, Helena & her mother argue, that’s typical. So’s trying to apologize for it later and hand drawing a get well card. Honestly, it’s a breath of fresh air in contemporary cinema.

Iain Ballamy’s original score for the film is a lot like Bruno Coulais’ score for Coraline; through a combination of different-than-the-normal instrument combos, it achieves an otherworldly quality. Here, the opening scene has a circus band setting the precedent for the rest of the movie. Various forms of saxophones dominate the soundtrack, along with some electric bass and various electronic additions among other instruments. The result is a really unique sound that’s hard to describe.

Alice in Wonderland by way of a Venetian Carnival, that’s probably a more apt way to describe MirrorMask.
Its festive, thought provoking, trippy, creepy, funny and a feast for the senses. Its very much an indie film, and the art style will no doubt turn some people off, but for the adventurous among you, this spiritual successor to Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal is definitely worth a viewing.

Hmm, the trailer doesn't really do the film justice.

Monday, October 19, 2009

“Kill my trusted old assistant? Why, no. I'm going to repay you for betraying me.”

1944 saw the return of Boris Karloff to the Frankenstein franchise but not as the Monster. WHHAAATT? Well, yes. This movie, a monster mash by the name of House of Dracula, put Karloff in the Mad Scientist role and threw a whole bunch of misanthropes and malevolents at the screen.

A mad scientist, who was imprisoned 15 years for trying to put a human brain into a dog’s head, is freed from his prison during a freak storm that breaks the walls down. He and his hunchbacked cellmate escape and murder the proprietors of a traveling carnival/circus thing (what is it with carnivals being repositories of weirdness this month?), travel to the town of Reigelberg, unleash Dracula from his coffin to have some revenge on one of the doctor’s enemies and then move onto the next town (without Drac) Frankenstein, where they find the Wolf Man and Monster frozen in ice, revive them, find Dr. Frankenstein’s notes somewhere in the House of Frankenstein (Dun, Dun, Dun!!) and then travel to Visaria ((which, I’m assuming relates to Vasaria from some of the other late period Universal Horror films) to continue the doc’s multipronged scheme of revenge and Mad Science.

Dr. Gustav Niemann: Boris Karloff is thoroughly badass as the frightfully amoral Mad Scientist. He’s introduced at the beginning by reaching his hand through the narrow window of his cell to strangle his jailer for the purpose of getting chalk out of the guy so he can draw formulas on the walls of his cell. That’s pretty hardcore SCIENCE right there. Then when he gets free, he’s just so methodical and cold in his plans, adapting quickly and ruthlessly to new situations. His delivery is great, and he’s actually a pretty cool villain. I mean, he screwed over Dracula and got away with it.

Daniel: J. Carrol Naish is the unfortunate hunchback who falls in with Dr. Niemann. He’s obviously not right in the head, has some freakish strength, but really, he just wants a normal body and to be loved by the gypsy woman that he rescues along the way. He’s quite sympathetic and does an all right job of it. Poor henchman just can’t get a break.

Lawrence Talbot/The Wolf Man: Lon Chaney Jr. is quite fine in his signature character. Apparently there’s a Wolf Man Meets Frankenstein movie where just that happened and both creatures somehow ended up frozen, Captain America style in the basement of the House of Frankenstein (Dun, Dun, Dun!!). He gets thawed out by Niemann, who wants Frankenstein’s journals. Talbot helps him on the condition that Niemann find a way to cure the curse of lycanthropy, since it sucks to be Larry Talbot every full moon. Talbot’s sympathetic, sure, but he’s also incredibly impatient about finding a cure.

Dracula/Baron Latos: John Carradine (yep, he’s been in at least a few Universal Horror films) is all right as Count Dracula, but he doesn’t do a whole lot. Niemann pulls the stake out of his skeleton’s chest, Drac’s back and agrees to wack someone for the doc in return for protection of his coffin, but when Drac meets his target’s granddaughter in law, he goes back into standard Dracula procedure (hypnotizing and seducing a beautiful woman with the intent of violating her later) which, as things turn out, ends in a near-dawn chase scene where Niemann tosses Drac’s coffin out onto the road and Drac sees the sun. So, Dracula’s actually kind of a chump in this film.

Ilonka: Elena Verdugo is the gypsy woman that Daniel falls in love with. She actually shares a moment with Daniel when she sees his hump for the first time but still wants to be friends, but its obvious from the get-go that she’s not interested in Daniel the same way that he’s interested in her. She’s also rather flighty, immediately taking to Larry Talbot when he joins up with the doctor’s crew, and this of course just eats away at poor Daniel.

The Frankenstein Monster: Glenn Strange is the monster but as in the later House of Dracula, doesn’t really do a whole lot. He was also frozen Captain America Style, but for some reason the event left severe tissue damage to him and he’s sick and immobile for most of his screen time.

Burgomeister Hussman: Sig Ruman (who was also, get this, the leader of the Nazi villains in the Marx Brothers’ A Night In Casablanca: Heinrich Stubel) is the kindly burgomeister who long ago helped sentence Niemann to prison. Dracula kills him as a favor to Niemann for setting him free.

Karl & Rita Hussman: Peter Coe & Anne Gwynne are Hussman’s grandson and granddaughter-in-law. A standard couple for a monster movie victim thing, they’re not very interesting, but they’re also not in the movie long before the action moves to a different town.

Inspector Arnz: Lionel Atwill plays a police inspector with a striking similarity to Inspector Krogh from Son of Frankenstein, except without the fake arm. He’s a friend of the Hussmans and it was a nice character nod to Atwill’s earlier portrayal of Krogh, but the movie just kind of tosses him in as a glorified cameo and then moves on.

Professor Bruno Lampini: George Zucco is the friendly carnival guy who picks up Niemann & Daniel. Then he makes the mistake of not wanting to go where they want to go.

Strauss & Ullman: Michael Mark & Frank Reicher are two of Niemann’s old enemies from Visaria. Niemann kidnaps them and plans to put their brains into the bodies of the Wolf Man and Monster. Now, a special note about Michael Mark. He’s been in a bunch of these Frankenstein films. He was a burgher in Son of and Ghost of, and more importantly, he played Maria’s father in Frankenstein. Like I said in that review, the scene where he’s walking through the village with his waterlogged daughter in his arms with a stunned and broken look on his face is just so amazing and painful at the same time.

Erle C. Kenton, Universal’s go-to guy for 1940’s monster mashes. Visually, there’s nothing really wrong with the movie, but there’s not a whole lot that its got going for it either. The visual effects of Dracula transforming from bat to human aren’t as great as in some other films, but the way Karloff is generally lit is usually very good, so I guess it evens out. The ending with the quicksand is also a pretty cool scene.

Curt Siodmak (story) and Edward T. Lowe Jr. (writer) throw a bunch of monster movie tropes at the screen and some are interesting. Dracula’s just kind of wasted in his appearance, and Larry Talbot is doing his thing trying to find a cure for his condition, but the stuff with Dr. Niemann (and his slightly silly, rather disturbing backstory of trying to put a human brain into a dog’s body) is pretty solid and the stuff with Daniel at least tries to be a little different. I’m of two minds about the Dracula section, because while on one hand it shows just how ruthless and dangerous Niemann is in that he can screw over Dracula, it also introduces us to a bunch of characters that don’t have any bearing on the rest of the story. The whole part feels like a digression rather than a major part of the film. Still, I don’t fault the film for trying, and the overall pace of the film moves at a steady clip that doesn’t waste a lot of time.

Hans J. Salter & Paul Dessau deliver a standard, sweeping score that works well. Not much more I can say.

House of Frankenstein is an odd film (like a lot of these 40’s era Universal films are, I’m noticing). Not quite up to par with the original films in the respective franchises being mined, but still offering some good performances, interesting situations and the fun novelty of being a monster mash film (and monster mashes never get old). If you have the Legacy Collection box set (and I do recommend these sets because you get a lot of classic movies in each), yeah, check it out. As far as the must-see Frankenstein films, I’d say see Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein, the other two are optional.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

“Your father was Frankenstein, but your mother was the lightning!”

A Frankenstein movie without Boris Karloff? Believe it, reader. 1942 brought another sequel, and this one was linked to the previous films, though The Ghost of Frankenstein had a big job filling the big, clunky shoes of its predecessors.

The villagers finally get fed up with Castle Frankenstein, and with Ygor, who’s managed, like Rasputin, to survive things that should have killed him in the last movie (i.e. bullets). The angry mob blows up the castle, hoping that Ygor would die in the blast. After the explosion, Ygor digs the Monster out of the dried out sulfur pit he was knocked into and decides that its time for a road trip to find another scion of Frankenstein in a different village to cure the Monster, who’s still in a weakened state. They make their way to Vasaria (aha! So that’s where the name of the region in House of Dracula comes from).

Upon entering town, the Monster wanders off and tries to befriend a little girl who’s lost her balloon, but this of course ends in two casualties (not the little girl this time) and the poor wretch gets arrested because poor Monster just can’t catch a break. The Dr. Frankenstein of Vasaria, a son of Heinrich and brother of Wolf, an expert in “diseases of the brain” is called in to examine the creature and then, thanks to Ygor, is drawn into examining the Monster.

Dr. Ludwig von Frankenstein: Sir Cedric Hardwicke is our Dr. Frankenstein du jour, and an expert on the brain. He really just wants to live quietly as a man of science in his village, but when Ygor comes calling, he finds himself staring at his family legacy in the face, haunted, you might say (quite literally at one point), by the Ghost of Frankenstein (dun dun Dun!). I have to say, compared to Rathbone and Clive, this is a much blander Dr. Frankenstein than before.

Dr. Bohmer: Lionel Atwill (yes, as a completely different character than what he was in the last movie) is the more morally questionable doctor of the film. He used to be Ludwig’s mentor, but after a miscalculation during an operation in the past, Bohmer’s been something of a disgrace to the scientific community. Or something like that. Bohmer gets called in by Ludwig to try and destroy the Monster, but Bohmer refuses, since he claims it would be murder. Eventually, Bohmer gets wrapped up in events that go horribly, horribly wrong by the end of the movie, and honestly, he’s a more interesting character than Ludwig.

Elsa von Frankenstein: Evelyn Ankers is Ludwig’s daughter and a nice girl who’s seeing a local prosecutor. She’s just kind of there a lot of the time and frequently wanders haplessly into danger.

Erik Ernst: Ralph Bellamy is Elsa’s love interest, a guy who’s really devoted to the idea of law & order, but he’s also kind of a dick, like when he’s trying to interrogate the Monster during a court hearing and he tries maybe three questions before he gives up on the interrogation and concludes that the Monster’s just a crazy guy and needs to be shipped to a mental institute (right before Ludwig shows up to conduct his professional examination).

Dr. Kettering: Barton Yarborough is the poor unfortunate doc who gets clobbered by the Monster when Ygor & he come calling on the Frankenstein residence. Still, dead doesn’t mean dead necessarily, and Ludwig finally determines to give the Monster a good and proper brain to help fix him; Kettering’s brain.

Ygor: Bela Lugosi returns as the creepy, broken-necked hunchback. He’s still really good and the film’s badass, but just not quite as good as he was in Son of Frankenstein. He has different ideas as to who’s brain should be put in the Monster, though. His own.

The Monster: Lon Chaney, Jr. is in the big shoes this time, and he gives a pretty good performance. There’s not a whole lot of subtlety in the Monster this time, given his deteriorating brain, but he tries to bring some subtlety to the role.

Erle C. Kenton (who also directed House of Dracula and seems to be Universal's go to guy for late period horror movies) does all right in terms of visuals, but there’s not a whole lot that pops out of the movie as a whole aside from the angry mob blowing up Castle Frankenstein in the beginning and the Monster’s arrival in Vasaria. The visual pacing’s all right, but the distinct lack of much going on in the second half of the movie until the climax hurts it as well.

Scott Darling and Eric Taylor tie into the previous films nicely, what with carrying over with the sulfur pit and Ludwig going through Heinrich & Wolf’s journals, but the character’s just don’t really pop out compared to previous films. There’s no Pretorius, no Fritz, no Krogh, no real personality for the Monster. We do have Ygor though, and that works fairly well, but the rest of the characters are just…there.

Hans J. Salter’s score is good in that sweeping old school Hollywood style. Nothing bad, just nothing truly memorable.

I will admit that I didn’t really like The Ghost of Frankenstein. It wasn’t that it was a badly made movie, but really, it wasn’t populated by truly memorable characters that leave an impression on the viewer. I’ve seen worse, but this one’s just…kind of boring.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

“One doesn't easily forget, Herr Baron, an arm torn out by the roots.”

Boris Karloff would play the Monster one last time in a Frankenstein film, a movie that would load up on a big name cast with Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill joining the fray. So how does 1939’s Son of Frankenstein hold up compared to the first two?

A man and his family travel by train to the region of “Frankenstein” (I guess that’s how they work things into the “Baron von Frankenstein” thing they had in the last movie). He’s a scientist too, and the local burghers give him a cold welcome when he arrives. Why? Because, he is the Son of Frankenstein! (Dun, Dun, DUN!!) So the new Baron Frankenstein moves into the family castle, then he meets a crazy old hunchback who knew the old doctor and the Monster, bringing the new Frankenstein to the doctor’s ruined lab and an underground tomb where the Monster lies asleep, sick with some…malady or something. After some prodding, Ygor convinces Frankenstein that this looks like a job for MAD SCIENCE!

Meanwhile, the townsfolk are getting antsy and the local police inspector starts to ask questions as to what the new Baron is getting up to.

Baron Wolf von Frankenstein: Basil Rathbone is not a name I automatically associate with horror films, but here he is, the main character in a Frankenstein film. Amusingly, he expresses his disdain that the Monster is being referred to in uneducated circles as “Frankenstein” himself (well, I got a kick out of it at least). He does a really interesting job, too. At first, he’s more concerned with moving in and being a good family man, but when Ygor shows up, wheels start turning in the Doc’s head, as they often do in these films. The lure of Mad SCIENCE is just too good to pass up, and Rathbone tries to juggle trying to figure out how to “cure” the Monster with keeping the local authorities from snooping in places where they don’t belong. He never really goes into full villain status, but as the movie goes on, its great seeing Rathbone dangling wildly over the precipice of madness with only his fingertips still clutching desperately to sanity.

Elsa von Frankenstein: Josephine Hutchinson is Wolf’s concerned wife. She’s not a particularly interesting character, unfortunately.

Peter von Frankenstein: Donnie Dunangan is Wolf’s son, which also makes him the Son of Frankenstein (Dun, Dun, DUN!!). The kid’s not in it all that much, but he gets moments where he can be really annoying in a “pwecious” sort of way.

Benson: Edgar Norton is Wolf’s assistant/butler guy. Poor, poor Benson. Being an assistant to a Frankenstein is practically a death sentence, as Benson here proves.

Inspector Krogh: Lionel Atwill puts in a very interesting appearance as a local police inspector with a very valid reason to hate the Monster. When Krogh was a kid, the Monster ripped his right arm out during a rampage. Now armed with a fake arm that he has to move around with his good hand, his childhood dreams of becoming a general went out the window and he got stuck as a small town cop, so yeah, I’d say it’s a good reason to not like the Monster. Krogh, aside from a German accent that slips up occasionally, is one of the most interesting characters in the movie, and in terms of wanting to protect innocent folk, is the movie’s actual Hero.

The Monster: Boris Karloff one last time, except this time he’s traded in his ability to speak for a sweater vest. Its… actually disappointing that he can’t speak anymore. Anyway, the Monster isn’t much of a major player in this film. He’s sick during most of the film, and when he’s up and about, he’s more or less being controlled by Ygor. Still, there is a great scene where the Monster confronts Wolf in the lab and they both look in a mirror (this is after Ygor told Wolf that the Monster is effectively his brother) and the unspoken realization is that they are both Sons of Frankenstein! (Dun Dun DUN!!!)

Ygor: Bela Lugosi is the film’s true villain, and turns in a fantastic performance. Ygor apparently knew Henry (or the more Germanic Heinrich as the movies are calling him now) back in the day and Ygor himself has had a sketchy past. He was arrested and executed for stealing bodies, except they didn’t do a great job when they hung him, since he survived getting his neck broken. Now disfigured, Ygor is the town’s crazy old man who’s been sending the Monster to kill off the burghers who convicted him. Lugosi’s creepy and sinister performance, done in a haggard accent and covered with a beard is outstanding and barely recognizable as Lugosi. The film’s clear and creepy badass, especially because he upstages Karloff.

Directed by Rowland V. Lee, the film goes for a big, almost staged look, though it looses some of that Expressionist feel that the first two had. Visually, its not bad at all though, and Frankenstein’s new lab in the ruined tower and located above a sulfur pit (because apparently it was the site of Roman Bath once upon a time, or something) is probably the most interesting new visual location in the franchise. The pacing of the film does feel a little slow though compared to the last two.

Wyllis Cooper handled the script this time, and doesn’t hold back on the wild ideas that a fertile ground like this provides. As Wolf is examining the Monster, we get all sorts of meta-science gobbledygook about how the Monster’s physiology is no longer that of a normal human’s and so on. Dialog is generally pretty good, and I really liked the cat & mouse thing that Krogh and Wolf had going when Dr. Frankenstein was really starting to crack from the strain of trying to hide his experiments.

The score by Frank Skinner is okay, but doesn’t match Waxman’s excellent work in the last film. It’d be just mean to try and compare the two.

Son of Frankenstein is not a bad film by any means. However, its rather long for the time period, and it definitely feels like it. Still, there’s a lot of good stuff in here, especially the performances by Rathbone, Lugosi and Atwill. I just wish there was more for the Monster to do in his own movie.