Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Light housecleaning

Just tidying up a tiny bit in here. Like a lot of bloggers I'm now on Facebook a lot (unlike a lot of bloggers, I am not really involved with Twitter) and so the old website has been fairly neglected. I do want to keep posting about scary movies, though -- damn it, I like them, and I like reading what other people have to say about them! So the blog will be staying alive.

At right is now a full archive of all my movie posts over the years! Not all of them are scary, but most of them are. My goodness I have seen a lot of movies. (This feeling is a nice contrast to the way I usually feel looking at, say, my Netflix queue: "my God, I haven't seen ANYTHING. Will 'Whispering Corridors' never get here?") I have also consolidated my "Friday the 13th" liveblog, a gimmick cooked up in honor of a Final Girl blogathon, into a single post for anyone who might be interested in that sort of thing.

I'm working on the blogroll... there's a slew of gorgeous horror blogs that I regularly read and want to add, but being me I'm dithering about whether they should get their own section, or just go under "People" or is that too many people, or what. Also, it feels strangely quaint to even be thinking about a blogroll.... very 2002. Dither dither. I might update the layout too, although I'm hoping the ancient Blogger layout will just come around the other side and be all cool and vintage. No?

Anyway, that's what's going on. Also, "Whispering Corridors" just arrived, so stay tuned if you're into that.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A farewell to arms

(Normally I would ask someone to smack me for that subject heading, but it's OK because of "Evil Dead 2.")

There's a pile of classic horror in my Netflix queue, and last night I kicked it off with Tod Browning's "The Unknown" from 1927, starring Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford. (In the Chaneyesque spirit of transformation, Crawford in this movie pretty much looks like every other 1920s actress, with her sleek bob and narrow lips. I would never have recognized her.) I first read about this movie in David J. Skal's wonderful "Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween"; Skal is fascinated by Browning, who of course also directed the carnival classic "Freaks" as well as a little something called "Dracula." In "The Unknown," Chaney plays Alonzo the Armless, a Madrid circus performer adept at throwing knives and lighting cigarettes with his toes, and smitten with Crawford's sexy Nanon. But Alonzo has a secret -- two secrets! Not only is he not really armless, but he's hiding in the circus because he's a notorious criminal, and the armless act is the perfect way to conceal his distinctive double thumb -- which leaves a notable mark on all his strangulation victims. The armless act is also useful because Nanon has a particular horror of grabby men, and she finds Alonzo appealing because, as she shyly tells him, "You're the only man I can turn to without fear." Circus strongman Malabar (played by Norman Kerry, Raoul from "The Phantom of the Opera") scampers around after Nanon with his arms out, but she will have none of him.

Like every movie monster, Alonzo is brought down by his affection for the beautiful woman, in a series of utterly unbelievable and awesome plot twists. A secret midnight surgery is performed! A dramatic change of heart takes place! The climax involves a pair of rampaging horses on treadmills! This movie just has to be seen to be believed.

I don't suppose it's necessary to say that Lon Chaney is amazing, but you just can't take your eyes off him, whether he's making eyes at Nanon or grouchily kicking his feet up to light himself a cigarette. When he realizes his evil (and insanely elaborate) scheme has backfired on him, the camera never leaves his face as he passes through heartrending shock, grief and rage, finally ending in deranged, mocking laughter. "Look!" says the oblivious Nanon: "Alonzo is laughing at the way things have happened!" You're laughing in disbelief too, but Chaney makes you feel for the man. My dashing Spanish hat is off to him. Netflix this, people.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

In which most of the cast melts

Wikipedia's article about "The Devil's Rain" (1975) has an arresting opener: "The film is remembered primarily for its over-long and drawnout ending, in which most of the cast melts." Yes, yes, but check out the cast: William Shatner. Ernest Borgnine (as a Satanic priest who occasionally morphs into the Beast himself!). Ida Lupino, whoever that is. Tom Skerritt. Eddie Albert. John Travolta, even! It was a lovely choice for the Final Girl Film Club and I am so happy to have resurrected the blog in time to join in.

The plot concerns a family -- brothers Shatner & Skerritt and their parents, who do not survive the movie for long -- and the Secret Book it is concealing from Satanic preacher Borgnine. As Borgnine tries to get the book back, he seizes the souls of various family members and replaces them with waxen-faced, empty-eyed cultists. Yipes! The souls themselves evidently go into a little sort of aquarium, in which it is always raining. I had not envisioned hell as being particularly rainy, but whatever. Eventually there is a Confrontation and the promised melting takes place -- there goes the wax, I suppose.

Director Robert Fuest (who ended his feature-film career with this movie) also made "The Abominable Dr. Phibes," which I watched a couple months ago and quite enjoyed. The films have a few things in common: a glacial pace, hammy leading performances and an epic sense of composition. Set largely in a ghost town with a creepy New England-style chapel ("This doesn't belong here"!), this movie has some gorgeous vistas of sunlit mountains and wind-blasted trees. The scenery doesn't help the movie much, but it's nice to look at while you're waiting for something to happen.

My favorite thing about this movie is the crackling chemistry between Shatner and Borgnine as they face each other down on that ghost town's main street, each vying for dominance of the screen. Every look says, "No, I can overact more!" and these men are serious. They purr, hiss, snarl, arch their backs, strut, and eventually just launch themselves at each other. These two need to be in every movie. They could power a town glaring at each other.

Actually, that's just my second favorite thing. My real favorite thing -- spoiler-- comes after Shatner tumbles before Borgnine's maniacal, goat-horned splendor and becomes a cultist himself. Shatner's face becomes waxen. His eyes are blacked out. His expression is vacant. Three years after "The Devil's Rain," this face will become famous...

And then, of course, at the end, everyone melts. And melts. And melts. It's actually pretty creepy looking; I could sort of sympathize with Fuest, thinking "no, THIS one is the most horrible; I have to get THIS in too." I also thought about the "Chubby Rain" scenes from "Bowfinger"; surely they were inspired by this film.

While the faces are melting, you can contemplate the film's remarkable tagline: "Heaven help us all when The Devil's Rain." What is this even supposed to mean? How could one edit it into coherence? I occasionally get sentences like this from reporters, and I just take them out, but I guess the poster would look silly with no words on it at all. What can you expect from a movie in which Borgnine, in an exciting Puritan-era flashback, addresses a crowd of underground satanists as "thee"? That's a singular pronoun, silly! (Spoiler note: This flashback ends with Borgnine's character being burned at the stake, except instead of being tied to it, he sort of lounges next to it as if it were a hitching post. What a badass!)

There is much fun to be had here on many levels. Make yourself a nice big pitcher of martinis (two pitchers if a friend is over), kick back and enjoy the face-melting fun. Heaven help us all when The Final Girl Film Club!

Thursday, September 03, 2009

'Halloween is a powerful trigger point for you'

*opens windows, blows dust off blog... coughs violently, having briefly forgotten powerful allergy to dust*

um. Hello! Is anyone still here? Lord, this place looks as bad as the old Myers house.

Well, it has been a lovely summer break, but here in LA the days are growing shorter, the shadows are beginning to lengthen and the fragrance of wood smoke is in the air -- ok, that would be due to the immense and horrible fire continuing to burn above the city. Still, summer is clearly drawing to a close, meaning horror-movie season is about to return. Of course, around here it never really stops.

Rob Zombie's "Halloween" remake was so ballyhooed -- I had mixed feelings about it but thought it was an interesting exercise, if nothing else -- that I felt bad for this one, sneaking into theaters without any advance reviews or any love. And then I heard Margot Kidder was in it. So the ever-patient Art Boy and I gave it a shot, and WOW. It's a hoot and a half, people. It's bizarre, sure, and it's hampered by awkward Rob Zombie dialogue, and a lot of it doesn't make any sense, but it is *never* boring. And it looks great. It's got the same gorgeously worn, lived-in patina as all Zombie's movies, making it feel beautifully raw, almost "Texas Chain Saw Massacre"-style. I had to run out for a minute when a dog got killed (I had to pee anyway, so it worked out) but otherwise I was just glued to the screen.

What helps a lot is that Zombie's not remaking a classic this time. The action starts, like the first "Halloween II" did, later the same night, with Michael reappearing to wreak some hospital havoc. But things move forward fairly quickly, and from then on, it's an entirely new movie. It's a huge relief to bid the specter of Jamie Lee Curtis farewell and just enjoy the performances on their own terms. Yeah, performances -- I kinda dug Scout Taylor-Compton as Laurie this time around. The girl is a great screamer! And Brad Dourif is quite subdued and heartbreaking as the long-suffering Sheriff Brackett, to whose little town Death is about to return. All he wants is to protect Laurie and his daughter, but we all know how well that's going to go. (The girl who plays Annie, inexplicably allowed to survive the last film, is fine, but it's hard not to think about Nancy Loomis and how great the first sequel would've been with her.) And of course Malcolm McDowell is back as Dr. Loomis, chewing the scenery even more maniacally than before.

Most of the action takes place a year later. Laurie is living with Annie & Sheriff Brackett, who are both incredibly protective of her and feed her healthy breakfasts even after she keeps them up nights screaming in her sleep. Her therapist (Margot Kidder!) helps her work through her grief over her parents and cautions her that she'll have a lot to deal with, emotionally, as Halloween rolls around, bringing the first anniversary of Michael's massacre. Laurie still doesn't know she's Michael's biological sister... but Dr. Loomis, who has once again morphed into a self-obsessed celebrity author, is about to come out with a tell-all book that might destroy Laurie's peace of mind forever! Oh noes!

Well, the movie doesn't build up much tension about that. And you're not really afraid of Michael, either -- he'll show up and stab someone every few minutes, but that's just what he does. Yet somehow this movie just never stops being entertaining. Rob Zombie's slices of domestic life are, once again, a hoot; as Laurie sulks around the Brackett house in her black T-shirt and eyeliner, with her Alice Cooper posters, you imagine Zombie thinking wistfully "Here's the daughter I never had." Malcolm McDowell is, of all things, the comic relief -- snarling at interviewers and reluctantly sharing talk-show space with Weird Al Yankovic (whom he addresses as "Mr. Weird"). Yes, there's Weird Al. There's also Sheri Moon Zombie as a ghost, leading a white horse. What is up with that? This movie makes no sense. And yet it is never boring, right up to the "Psycho"-inspired finale. It's the perfect summer slasher film. I can't believe I'm saying this, but don't miss it.

Another reluctant admirer is over at BloodyDisgusting.