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October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween! The Mike's 21 Most Loved Horror Films

Before October began, Stacie over at the fantastic Final Girl blog asked horror fans to send in lists of the 20 horror films they love more than any others.  Most who know The Mike know that he is a big fan of lists, but I won't deny that this was an excruciating task.  When I finally made all the cuts I could, I got down to 21 films that I just had to list.  And now, since it's Halloween, I'm gonna share that list with you.  (In alphabetical order, of course.  I'd be thinking till Christmas if I tried to rank these flicks against each other.)

(Of course, I had to cut one of them for the list I sent to FG, but I'm so not telling you which one it was.)
The Blob (1958, Dir. By Irvin Yeaworth.)
My love for The Blob is the worst kept secret on this blog.  There's not much about the movie that's really scary, and yes it's old and cheesy, and yes the teenagers are 47 years old.  But I love it because it's so incredibly fun, because it's a neat fusion of sci-fi, horror, and teenage rebellion flicks, and because I love blobs.
Candyman (1992, Dir. by Bernard Rose.)
This is probably one of the films on the cusp of elimination from the 20, but a recent revisit reminded me of how haunting the film is.  And it goes without saying that Tony Todd provides one of the most iconic killers in horror history.
Dawn of the Dead (1978, Dir. by George A. Romero.)
Romero's sequel to Night of the Living Dead is the ultimate horror epic.  Its focus on social commentary mixed with fantastic gore and a ton of zombie action never gets old.  And I love the score by Goblin, I don't care what anyone says.
The Devil Rides Out (1968, Dir. by Terence Fisher.)
Though my recent revisit of Horror of Dracula reminded me just how much I love that Hammer flick which stars Christopher Lee, The Devil Rides Out edged it out for the Hammer spot on this list.  Christopher Lee as a hero fighting a Satanic cult, with creepy apparitions and strange rituals?  YES PLEASE.
The Evil Dead (1981, Dir. by Sam Raimi.)
Depending on the day of the week, I could put any member of Raimi's dead trilogy on this list.  I went with the first, despite the fact it doesn't feature the slapstick Bruce Campbell I love, because it's so inventive, gross, and creepy.
The Exorcist (1973, Dir. by William Friedkin.)
Do I need to defend the choice of The Exorcist?  Probably not.  But I assure you, this isn't one of those "Oh, everyone loves it, I have to list it" picks, because I don't think there's a movie (except maybe Vertigo) that I find this emotionally gripping.
Frankenstein (1931, Dir. by James Whale.)
I've talked a lot about my disdain for adaptations of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but I'm more than willing to forgive the changes made by James Whale's film.  Karloff does much of the work to make this memorable, but the whole production is fantastic.
Fright Night (1985, Dir. by Tom Holland.)
Though it's not as popular as other '80s vampire flicks (The Lost Boys) or flicks by director Holland (Child's Play), Fright Night is the ultimate horror comedy of that decade in my eyes.  Roddy McDowell as Peter Vincent is the best tribute to classic horror ever put on screen.
Gremlins (1984, Dir. by Joe Dante.)
Speaking of '80s horror comedies, there's Gremlins.  Doesn't scare me a bit, but it's still wickedly entertaining.  And Gizmo is the cutest thing of...well, of anything that's ever been cute.
Halloween (1978, Dir. by John Carpenter.)
My favorite horror film.
The Innocents (1961, Dir. by Jack Clayton.)
One of the least known horrors that I love, and I can't figure out why.  I'd put it alongside the likes of The Haunting (also a great flick) as one of the greatest black-and-white creepers.
Night of the Living Dead (1968, Dir. by George A. Romero.)
I can't have Dawn of the Dead without Night, and I can't have Night without Dawn.  They're like Batman and Robin, only neither of them is lame and useless.  The original zombie masterpiece is still effective today.
Psycho (1960, Dir. by Alfred Hitchcock.)
I don't need to defend this one either, so instead I'd like to exclaim how surprised I am that more than a quarter of the films on this list come from the 1960s.  I've long thought of the '60s as one of my least favorite decades in film (I'm more of a '30s and '40s and '70s guy.), but the horrors of this decade obviously speak to me.
The Shining (1980, Dir. by Stanley Kubrick.)
Like The Exorcist before it, this one is an creepy, emotional epic.  There might be more scenes in this one that get under my skin than any other film.
Spider Baby, Or: The Maddest Story Ever Told (1968, Dir. by Jack Hill.)
Spider Baby plays like a schizophrenic, murderous version of The Addams Family, and I love it for that.  The cooky film, a swan song for star Lon Chaney, Jr., gets better everytime I see it.
Suspiria (1977, Dir. by Dario Argento.)
The nightmarish quality of the film, with rich colors and another haunting Goblin score, outweigh the flaws in plot.  The Citizen Kane of Italian horror.
Targets (1968, Dir. by Peter Bogdanovich.)
I've spent many moons trying to spread the love of Targets
 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, Dir. by Tobe Hooper.)
The ultimate grindhouse terror film.  Even if Franklin is super annoying.
The Thing (1982, Dir. by John Carpenter.)
Sci-Fi/Horror at its best.  Carpenter's paranoia-fueled film once grated me a small bit, but I've made peace with it over the years.
The Wicker Man (1973, Dir. by Robin Hardy.)
Easily the most subversive and unique film to make my list.  I've heard some say they don't even consider this a horror film, but there are few finales more haunting than this one's.  And, Christopher Lee.
The Wolf Man (1941, Dir. by George Waggner.)
To me, this is THE werewolf film.  Yes, I know An American Werewolf in London is amazing (Why isn't it on this list?  I honestly don't know.  Who made this list?  I want their head!), and it covers the same romantic/tragic ground with more action and comedy.  But I just adore Lon Chaney, Jr.'s turn as Lawrence Talbot and Claude Rains is irreplaceable.

There are about 8 billion films I wish I could put on this list too, but today this is what I've got.  Who knows what next Halloween will bring?

October 30, 2010

Locus Focus - Haddonfield, Illinois. October 31, 1978. HALLOWEEN.

When Enbrethliel from Shredded Cheddar - one of my very favorite bloggers, even if her wisdom often leaves me feeling like I've never read a book the right way - asked me to take part in the Scary Settings challenge that is being offered as part of her ongoing Locus Focus feature, I was more than happy to oblige.  The challenge, as it was put to me, was to post about one of my favorite scary settings in a film - and it left me searching all over for answers.  Part of me wanted to use one of my beloved Hammer films, with their Gothic haunts, or one of my favorite haunted house films, like John Hough's The Legend of Hell House.  Another part of me wanted to take the post somewhere crazy, like Perfection, Arizona; or the Monroeville Mall, or even the vast reaches of SPACE.  But when I slowed myself down and started to think about some of my favorite horror films, I quickly realized that the setting of my favorite horror film was one that I really loved.

The town of Haddonfield doesn't seem too imposing when one starts to look at John Carpenter's Halloween.  It's pretty simple, actually.  There are quiet streets, white houses with decks, an old school building with a chain link fence, and plenty of stop signs (not stop lights).  This is small-town America at its core, and it reminds me that most horror films - slasher films, specifically - don't have a great handle on what small-town life really is.  There's something about other slasher settings, like the dark woods of Camp Crystal Lake or the picturesque houses of Elm Street, that doesn't seem genuine to me.  And even though I know Haddonfield is not genuine itself (all filming occurred in an L.A. suburb), Carpenter seems to have created a honest-to-goodness small town in Halloween.
More than the images presented, Haddonfield is distinguished by what we come to think about the town.  Everyone seems to know everyone, and family names are tossed around instead of individual names.  Laurie's babysitting for the Doyles and Annie's babysitting for the Wallaces, Mr. Riddle might be watching from the back yard, and the Mackenzies' house is a last resort.  And then there's that Myers house - abandoned after a tragedy, that sits as a dark spot on the town's reputation.  I'm sure the hive mind of the community recognized this, because all we hear about the Myers house is that it's a ghost house.

Besides that abandoned house, what's so scary about this town?  Ask Laurie Strode, our heroine who is played by the young Jamie Lee Curtis.  Laurie is considered one of the ultimate "survivor girls" in horror, but watching one day of her life in Haddonfield makes me think that she wants to do more than survive - she wants to escape.  She's a bookworm with a poster of James Ensor on the wall across the room from her Globe, and she's definitely not interested in school dances or cheerleading. Laurie also doesn't show much interest in anyone aside from her token friends Lynda and Annie (she can't avoid everyone, I guess) and the children she babysits, and she emotes frustration with them often throughout the film.  (If you tried to keep track of how many times she dismisses an idea from one of her friends or one of the children during the film, you'd get lost easily.)  Mentally, she seems advanced beyond her years, and I get the feeling that she wants more from life than Haddonfield has to offer.
The film makes a point to bring up the topic of fate during Laurie's schooling, and it's stated that fate is viewed by some as "immovable, like a mountain.  It stands where man passes away.  Fate never changes."  In Haddonfield, Michael Myers - who has been called The Boogeyman at times - is the personification of Laurie's fate.  He is Haddonfield's own ghost in the closet, and he is part of the scenery for large parts of the film.  Laurie sees him outside of her classroom, spots him on her way home, and spies him watching from outside her bedroom window - all places where she generally might feel safe.  His appearance outside her window is particularly significant.  The bedroom seems to have been her "safe place", as she has finally calmed herself down after the worrisome walk home, yet there is her fate, staring at her from the backyard. 
Which brings us back to Michael Myers.  This isn't a vengeful brother, because that subplot wasn't invented until Carpenter was writing Halloween II. In Halloween's eyes, Michael Myers - again, like fate - is a force of nature.  With him in the picture, Haddonfield becomes a dangerous place to be for those who are open to suggestion. Laurie thought she outgrew superstition, but the events that have triggered a response from her only make Michael stronger.  Each moment in which she fights to believe there is no boogeyman only brings her more doubt, and as Michael finally approaches it becomes clear that Laurie has been tempting her fate all day long.

I wanted this piece to go in a different direction than it has.  I wanted to talk about the setting itself, about how Carpenter's small town reminds us that evil can lurk in the most normal of places.  But it's impossible to leave Michael Myers out of the discussion of our setting.  One of the most telling scenes in the film occurs when Donald Pleasence's Loomis visits the local cemetery and meets the local crypt keeper, who immediately relates that "every town has something like this" as he begins the tale of a fellow the next town over who killed his family at the dinner table.  Carpenter's vision of small-town America is designed to remind us that every town thinks they have a boogeyman - and this one just happens to be real.
I may be stretching when I consider Laurie's desire to leave Haddonfield - she may have simply been having a bad day - but the fact that Myers and Haddonfield go hand-in-hand is indisputable.  The film makes proving the connection between killer and setting its final act, rolling through a montage of the locations where fate has closed in on Laurie.  As we scroll through the sets, hearing Michael's heavy breathing mixing with Carpenter's iconic theme, there's no question that what we once thought was a man is part of this town's fabric.  And that makes Haddonfield one scary place to be.

October 28, 2010

Midnight Movie of the Week #43 - Horror of Dracula

It's often hard to see that Horror of Dracula, which seems tame by today's standards, is a film to which almost all of the horror traditions we believe in can be traced back to.  Blood?  Got it.  Breasts? Not quite bare, but on display.  A silent killer?  Not quite, but Count Dracula only speaks 13 lines - all to one character - and Christopher Lee would go completely silent in the next Dracula film he did (Dracula - Prince of Darkness).  These days it's hard to believe that this film was once deemed violent and controversial, considering everything that's happened to the horror genre from Psycho to Saw.  (This is the only time I'll ever connect those movies, I swear!)  But it's true; I can't think of a single horror film pre-Psycho that resembles the future of horror like Horror of Dracula does.
Still, the great thing about Hammer's first take on Dracula is that, at its core, it understands the allure of Count Dracula.  This wasn't hard to miss at the time - Universal's version that starred Bela Lugosi was STILL playing in some theaters (despite being 27 years old), and another Dracula film - The Return of Dracula, starring Francis Lederer - would open a month before Hammer's film had its premiere in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  (If you had asked me to guess where Hammer's first Dracula film premiered earlier in my days, I'd have never, ever guessed Milwaukee.)  That American black-and-white film was quickly forgotten by audiences - even after the producers added a color shot that mimicked the stakings in Horror of Dracula.
Horror of Dracula marks the first time that Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee would appear as the top-billed stars in a film together, and both did their part to keep the film relevant.  Though the role of Van Helsing had been played before and would be played again, I've always felt that Cushing does to it what Karloff did to Frankenstein's monster.  This is the textbook example of a vampire expert, and this Van Helsing even makes comments about the similarity between vampirism and addiction to drugs, which would become a hot button issue in vampire films of the '80s and '90s.  A lot of credit has to go to the writing by Hammer's unsung hero Jimmy Sangster, but Cushing doesn't need much help to make the role his own.
Plus, we've got Lee.  His turn as Dracula, though marred by difficult contact lenses that at times rendered him blind on set, is the rare new take on a classic character that soars.  His physical presence - at 6'5" tall - is key to the film, as he's certainly more imposing than that Hungarian fellow who never drinks wine.  This is another bit of flash forward to the future of horror - in which killers got bigger and slower and quieter - but Lee's size is not the only thing that makes his Dracula effective.  The man shows a keen ability to play both the human Count and the inhuman Dracula without speaking for the film's final two acts.  There's a startling - and effective - disconnect between the proper Count he plays at the beginning of the film and the snarling beast he becomes when threatened.  Lee became Dracula just as Cushing became Van Helsing, though Lugosi's staying power has kept both portrayals fresh.  (I'll never be able to give up on the "Creatures of the night..." line from Bela.)
There's a lot more to love about the cast of Horror of Dracula.  Michael "Alfred Pennyworth" Gough is excellent as the skeptical Arthur Homewood who slowly comes to believe Van Helsing's tales.  More exciting are the main female roles, including Virginia Madsen lookalike Melissa Stribling as Lucy, and Carol Marsh (who might give the film's best performance) as the doomed Mina Harker (one of the film's biggest steps away from the source material).  I'd be ashamed to not mention Valerie Gaunt as Dracula's undead bride in the opening scenes.  With her pale flesh and revealing dress, she is an unforgettable part of the film's hook.  From the first time we see her trying to seduce - and then feed on - Jonathan Harker, we know this film is a different kind of monster than any Dracula that Universal produced.  The sexual aspect of the film would carry on throughout, leading up to a meeting between Dracula and Lucy that ever-so-slightly implies rape. 
The staged nature of the production is directed well by Terence Fisher, with a deliberate pace that seems to fill the runtime with as much information as was possible.  Composer James Bernard sets the tone - literally - for Hammer's series of horrors with his haunting and occasionally aggressive score, and the sets are luscious and memorable - despite the fact that Hammer nearly fired the set designer for being too different from Universal's film.  The combined efforts of those involved - plus some fine costumes and effects - make the 81 minute film feel like an epic production on a grand scale.
And then there's the gore.  Though it's incredibly minimal by today's standards, the amount of blood shown on screen - usually dripping from mouths or necks, and at one point spurting from a chest - was extremely unheard of for the cinema of 1958.  Horror of Dracula had to fight cuts by censors, and a few moments when the film fades to black remind us that the film probably wanted to show even more than it did.
When summing all these things up, Horror of Dracula becomes the prototypical Hammer horror in my eyes.  The film, like so many that would follow it, bridges the gap perfectly between the romantic side of horror that prevailed in the 1930s and the disturbing and violent films that would follow.  We've lost that balance over time, as society becomes less willing to accept stories which don't relate to their own world (leading to things like Dracula 2000, for example), but when I look back at the greatest moments in horror history, Horror of Dracula stands tall.  We don't always notice the impact that this film - which seemed to just be a remake of a classic property at the time - has had on the landscape of horror, but we should.  Horror of Dracula is as relevant (and also as fantastic) as a horror film can be.
And that, my good Midnight Warriors, is exactly where I want Hammer Films Month at FMWL to end.  It's been a heck of a journey, and I wish I could cover more, but there's no better place to stop then at the top.  Fear not, because I have a couple of special posts lined up for the weekend that will surely give you some Halloween treats, and I'm sure our friends at Hammer will be back on FMWL from time to time.  Until then, it's been an honor to share some of their work with you all, and I hope you've enjoyed!

October 27, 2010

GIVEAWAY TIME! Win a copy of The Dead Path, by Stephen M. Irwin!

The fine folks over at Random House have a copy of the new horror novel The Dead Path, by Australian author Stephen M. Irwin, that they want to give away to one lucky Midnight Warrior!  I too will soon be reviewing this book here at FMWL, but I don't wanna make you all wait that long.  So, I'm going to give you all a chance to win it NOW!
First, here's some details on the book from the publisher:

Do you remember the last time a book gave you the chills? The Dead Path is the ghost story we’ve been waiting for. 

A haunting vision in the woods sets off a series of tragic events, leaving Nicholas Close lost amid visions of ghosts trapped in their harrowing, final moments. These uniquely terrifying apparitions lead him on a thrilling and suspenseful ride to confront a wicked soul, and will leave an indelible mark on lovers of high-quality suspense and horror alike. 

Nicholas Close has always had an uncanny intuition, but after the death of his wife he becomes haunted, literally, by ghosts doomed to repeat their final violent moments in a chilling and endless loop. Torn by guilt and fearing for his sanity, Nicholas returns to his childhood home and is soon entangled in a disturbing series of disappearances and  murders—both as a suspect and as the next victim of the malignant evil lurking in the heart of the woods. 

Stephen M. Irwin is the kind of debut author that readers love to discover—and rave about to all their friends. His electric use of language, stunning imagery, and suspenseful pacing are all on full display here. The Dead Path is a tour de force of wild imagination, taut suspense, and the creepiest, scariest setting since the sewers in Stephen King’s It.

You can also head over to Mr. Irwin's Facebook page, where there is an excerpt from the book available to peruse.  I've only just begun the book, which comes in a nice hardcover edition with a pretty GLOW IN THE DARK(!) jacket, but the prose Irwin uses in the opening pages already has me a bit hooked.    

How can I win the book, you ask?  Well, it's pretty simple (no crazy screen grab challenge this time, thankfully).  Leave a comment below with your name and email, and tell me one your favorite horror novels you've read.  I'll accept comments through Halloween night, with the contest ending at 12 midnight (CST) on November 1st.  At that point, I'll randomly pick one winner from all who have commented.

Thanks to Random House for thinking of us Midnight Warriors, and thanks to you, the reader, for being ready for a spooky novel from down under!

Hammer Films Month - Frankenstein Created Woman

The title Frankenstein Created Woman makes me think of the kind of spoof horror movie titles people come up with when they want to mock the genre.  You could make plenty of jokes about this playing at the same drive-in as Dracula's Accountant or Lassie Meets The Wolf Man, if you liked.  A true horror fan might suspect that it was a remix of the classic Bride of Frankenstein, but believe me when I say that there is next to no connection between the two films.  It turns out that Frankenstein Created Woman, which finally sucked me in tonight, is pretty much exactly what it sounds like it is.
 In the movie, Dr. Frankenstein (played by Peter Cushing for the fourth time) puts the soul of an assistant who's wrongfully sentenced to death into the body of the young, physically scarred woman who loved him.  The titular woman is played by Susan Denberg, a former Playboy Playmate of the Month, who appears to be a sweet little thing.  But the soul of the wronged man has some power over her, and it leads to some trouble for the young men who set him up.
As you can probably tell from that description, this has little in common with any other Frankenstein film you've ever seen.  There's nothing that resembles Karloff, nothing that resembles Lee trying to resemble Karloff, and nothing that most would really call a "monster".  Denberg's Christina is able to put her hair in some pigtails - something I'm sure Karloff never tried - and avoid appearing menacing.  In fact, the character's mind might be the closest thing to Mary Shelley's book in the film.  When she does put on the innocent face, she reminds me, just a little bit, of the childlike monster that just wanted to be love.
The biggest thing that's missing in this Frankenstein tale is the relationship between Doctor and Creation.  The rage against his creator was a key to other versions of the story, but it is completely lost here.  Cushing's doctor is pretty indifferent to his creation once she's begun to want freedom, and she spends more time with the town doctor played by Thorley Walters, a bumbling type of assistant who seems to exist primarily to build up Cushing's competence.  Their relationship is very Holmes/Watson, and it's the latter who builds a relationship with the created girl.
As a revenge flick with a bit of soul-transfer, Frankenstein Created Woman isn't a bad film.  I had fun watching it, but couldn't help finding the whole thing a bit slight when it ended.  Cushing, Denberg, and Walters all do fine jobs, and Terence Fisher (as usual) does a great job of putting things together and keeping it entertaining.  It bears repeating that I was impressed with Denberg, because I didn't expect much from her when all I'd heard when researching this film was that she was "a former Playboy Playmate".  It's not an Oscar worthy performance, but she pulls off what is really three different roles (the scarred lover, the innocent creation, the vengeful killer) pretty well.  I just wish there was more to the film's plot, because there's not much in the film that's interesting on a psychological level. 
Of course, we'd probably be having an entirely different conversation if they'd just left the Frankenstein name out of the title, so I maintain the right to change my mind on this film later.  I'll give it another chance, and anyone who's not totally nerdy when it comes to the "fronk-en-steens" will probably not have the same problems I did. 
By the way, don't bother looking for Dracula's Accountant or Lassie Meets The Wolf Man.  I've already tried, man.  :(

October 24, 2010

Book Review - Dr. Dale's Zombie Dictionary: The A-Z Guide to Staying Alive

(2010, Written by Dr. Dale Seslick)

I'm a little tired of waiting for the zombie apocalypse.  It's been more than 40 years since George Romero promised it, and all we've gotten out of it are some incredible films and books surrounded by a lot of really crummy knock-offs.  In the last decade, particularly, zombies have been all over cinema screens.  For every Shaun of the Dead or Dawn of the Dead remake, there seem to be 7 awful indie zombie flicks out there too.  They're even invading our TV sets, thanks to the upcoming The Walking Dead series on AMC.

I must admit that, under these circumstances, I'm also awfully tired of hearing about the "inevitable" zombie apocalypse.  I can't take zombies seriously right now, because there are too many of them out there, and some of them can now randomly run or jump or spit or teleport.  (That last one's on you, Lucio!)

So when the fellow behind this book - Dr. Dale's Zombie Dictionary - got in touch with me about a review, my instant mental reaction was to wonder if we really need more zombies.  I mean, if you've seen a handful of the myriad of z-films (or read any zombie literature), you probably have a pretty good understanding of them by now.  What more is there to offer?  Can a Zombie Dictionary released in 2010 really sustain itself and not become a one-note joke you've already heard?

I'm happy to say that yes, it can.  Because Dr. Dale's Zombie Dictionary is a very, very fun read.

It seems to me that Dr. Dale - if that is his real name - has a pretty good understanding of how saturated the zombie market is right now.  He arms himself with this knowledge, and parlays it into an understanding that most people that would be interested in this type of book already know the basics.  With this in mind, he focuses on things you might not have considered about the zombie apocalypse, and keeps things light.

For example, I've certainly never considered how the Utilitarian Furniture Mart known as IKEA might play in to the zombie apocalypse.  Dr. Dale has.  I've never given much consideration to how pixies or "Spiderman Zombies" might or might not come into play, but he has.  Dr. Dale covers a  lot of things that I have occasionally considered, but gave me new info on them, too. For example, whether or not I'd wear a helmet whilst fighting zombies has crossed my mind, but Dr. Dale's reasoning about helmets took my breath away. 

I was mostly laughing while losing that breath, but that's the charm of the book.  It makes sense along with zombie lore (making sure to reiterate the fact that running zombies don't exist), but has a lot of fun with how to deal with the undead.  In a time when George Romero is up to SIX Dead flicks, we need to maintain a bit of comedy about the topic to keep it fresh.  He also peppers in some hilarious analogies using pop culture.  Some of it is very British humor, and I may have been a little to yankee to get all the gags entirely, particularly when he talks about London's road planning.  It's also worth noting that the book is very up to date, referencing last fall's Zombieland and plenty of recent pop culture names.

Dr. Dale's trying pretty hard to give us a lot of entertaining information here, and some of the topics in the 300+ page text do fall flat.  But the book still provides a lot of laughs, and there are plenty of truly interesting ideas inside the book too, including how Freud's idea of the Id might come into play.  Maybe it won't invade your psyche too deeply but, if nothing else, the book will come in handy to lighten the mood while you're dealing with zombies.  If you're reading this blog, you probably have a decent understanding of what you need to do when there's no more room in Hell.  But Dr. Dale has most certainly considered some things you haven't and his method of sharing them works well.  I highly recommend it.

If you want more info about the book, check out the official website here.  And, if you like, you can pick up your own copy at Amazon.

Paranormal Activity 2

(2010, Dir. by Tod Williams.)

That(Those?) pesky (alleged) demon(s?) that took move theaters by storm last October had a quick turn around, and are back on screens in Paranormal Activity 2.  I was initially rocked by Paranormal Activity, and a DVD revisit left me less scared, but still entertained.  The film represented exactly what I love about horror - a simple story of shocking events that got under my skin.  I was never quite sure how a sequel would work, so I avoided the build up to the film with plans to go in to it completely blind.  I wasn't sure about how the movie would happen, but I knew I was curious enough to dive back in to the Paranormal world.

I'll try to keep the details minimal throughout this review, but I have to give you a basic set up the film to get my points about the thing across.  The new film brings back Katie and Micah from the original, and focuses on filling in the gaps that surround the first film.  The focus is not on them this time - we've seen most of their tale - but instead is on Katie's sister and her family.  This family includes her husband (another skeptical male type), step-daughter (another dark-haired gal who's open to the paranormal), her young son Hunter (who's pictured in the poster), and the family dog Abby.  The story starts well before the events that occurred in the first film, but part of the story deals with the events that happened from a different perspective.  This is connect-the-dots cinema, folks.

Paranormal Activity 2 handles these tie-ins with the original pretty well.  Katie and Micah are present in the story - Katie far more than Micah, thankfully - but are kept at a far enough distance to make the film feel like its own beast.  It's safe to say that events here directly effect some things that occurred in the first film, but the camera never seems to wink at the viewer and does its best to maintain the "found footage" feeling of the original.  It doesn't quite succeed in this regard, and we'll talk about that more in a bit. 

More importantly to most, a lot of the scare tactics used in the first film return to the sequel.  A lot of them don't seem to carry the same weight they did back then (I guess that's the sacrifice you make when you have carpeted stairs instead of hard wood), but some seem to be even more effective.  There's one particular fright - which many have named as their favorite scare in the first film - that I felt was even more surprising and well-done this time around.  There are a couple of new scares added that work really well, too.  Most of the time you know something is coming, but are never sure of what - and the script did manage to surprise me a couple of times.  Particularly effective is a kitchen scene in which Katie's sister experiences a surprising jolt.

Having a toddling child as one of the focal points of the film also adds to the suspense at times, because no one really wants to see a kid get tortured by a (alleged) demon.  But this occasionally causes some unintentional levity in the film.  Young Hunter - or whoever the not-yet-credited child actor was - is an adorable little fella (a friend I saw the film with claimed "he couldn't have been cuter"), and there are a couple of moments of tension that are broken up by this little bugger waddling in front of the camera.  I know the movie wants me to be scared at these moments, but there's an "Awwwwww, cuteness!" factor that wins out in the moment.

Another drawback is that the sequel feels a lot more like a staged production than the first film did.  Instead of one lingering camera, we've got six mechanical eyes mounted in different areas of the house and another handheld number that now adds some night vision scenes to the mix.  While Paranormal Activity's camera lingered in one spot, drawing us into a moment when anything could happen, the sequel cuts between cameras often (at a couple of points it even seems to emulate Tony Scott by jumping three seconds ahead for no reason).  This takes away from the "reality" that the film is still preaching, and just isn't as interesting.  Some handheld night vision sequences remind of Quarantine (they're not scary enough to remind of [REC]), and they also distance the film from its predecessor.  I liked what Paranormal Activity did by making us simply stare at one spot, and the sequel's insistence on being mobile and covering more characters takes away from this.

It sounds like I didn't enjoy Paranormal Activity 2, but that's not true.  There's still a lot of fun to be had with this one, which produces some good scares and adds to the mystery of Katie/Micah's story that we already know.  The events that transpire around Katie's sister in the third act are handled tremendously (except when night vision comes into play), and are responsible for the biggest doses of unease I felt during the film.  The actress who played her (thanks for nothing, IMDB!) did a fine job with the character, and her and the returning Katie Featherston make pretty believable sisters.

There were plenty of hooligans in the theater that were content with ruining the experience for everyone, but I still enjoyed myself with Paranormal Activity 2.  It's a fun shocker if you don't take it seriously, and it still seems to understand slow-burn tension better than most mainstream released horrors of recent memory.  (We really have to consider ourselves lucky that it wasn't called Paranormal Ac2vity and focused on a plot about a streaming webcast of demonic events.) The disappointing thing about it is that there aren't as many surprises to be found this time around.  I, along with plenty of others, spent far too much time over-analyzing the first film (my favorite theory about that film is pretty much debunked here), and - through no fault of this film's - the mystique was gone here.  I liked the additions, and there are still plenty of questions left to be answered (that will surely be batted around in the inevitable third film), but the simple tale of Micah and Katie was more than enough to haunt me.

In fact, that film stuck with me for weeks after.  After about three minutes of discussion after this film, the only lingering mental effect on me was a desire to drink some orange juice.  I had to go to the store anyway, so I grabbed some, and it was pretty delicious.  That's a fine achievement - I don't remember the last time I was inspired to buy orange juice, which is full of Calcium and good for my bones - but it's not really what I was hoping for after what the first film did to me.

October 22, 2010

Hammer Films Month Screengrab Challenge Winners!

Remember that one time when you joined that screengrab challenge at FMWL?  Well, if you do, you're a winner.   That's right, we had two prizes and only had two entrants.

I'm hoping that either a) my screengrabs were just ridiculously hard; or b) everyone hates me and doesn't read the site anymore.  I'd rather believe that one of those reasons is true, and not c) nobody wants some awesome Hammer flicks.  Let's recap:

The Prizes:  The Runner-Up (aka: Second Place; aka: The First Loser) will receive.......
Warner Brothers' Four Film Favorites DRACULA collection, featuring FOUR! Hammer flicks that star Christopher Lee as Dracula!
The WINNER (aka: Numero Uno; aka: The Grand Poobah) will receive the same prize as the Runner-Up.  PLUS the winner will receive......
Universal's Hammer Horror Series DVD set, including a whopping EIGHT Hammer flicks!
The Winners:

Second Place goes to.......R.D. Penning of Dead End Drive-In!

And First Place goes to........Trick Or Treat Pete of Deadly Serious!

I'll be in touch via email to set up delivery of prizes!  Thanks for playing!

Oh?  You want the answers?  Fair enough.

The Screencaps:
13 Ghosts (original)
The Haunting
Dead and Buried
The People Under the Stairs
Blood and Black Lace
Lake Mungo
The Changeling
The Howling
The Exorcist
Phantom of the Paradise
Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy
The Sentinel
I, Madman
Four Flies on Grey Velvet
Paranormal Activity
Dracula A.D. 1972
Toolbox Murders (remake)
Just Before Dawn
The House of the Devil
Scream 2
George A. Romero's Land of the Dead
I Walked With a Zombie
The Legend of Hell House
The Hand
Dog Soldiers
Dr. Giggles
The Night Stalker
X - The Man With X-Ray Eyes
Man's Best Friend
Cold Prey
Halloween II
Fright Night
John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness
The Thing From Another World
Cat People