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August 29, 2012

Lovely Molly

(2011, Dir. by Eduardo Sanchez.)

I have no idea where to start when it comes to Lovely Molly. This is a horror film that pulls the viewer in several directions, doing an impressive job of working through several layers of horror as it progresses.  This means that Lovely Molly is certainly a difficult film to deal with - there are moments that are utterly confusing right up until the last five minutes - but once the end credits rolled I realized I was enthralled by what I had just seen.

Mixing traditional filmmaking with a pinch of hand-held DIY seasoning, the film follows Molly (Gretchen Lodge) and Tim (Johnny Lewis), two newlyweds who have moved in to her childhood home in the country.  That sentence alone surely will raise a flag for horror fans - unused and old country homes never have been portrayed well in horror cinema - but the film doesn't take long to establish that this is more than a routine haunt-and-scare piece of fiction.  Molly, being the character who is closest to her setting (that darn Tim is conveniently "away" for work at plenty of the wrong times, and also she grew up there), begins to experience strange things as she gets reunited with her old home.  We only see parts of what she sees - along with some disturbing home video footage - and we're thus treated to an enigmatic plot that offers many potential reasons for Molly's changing fortunes.

Lodge, a first time actress who has no biographical information online that I can find (which means that she might be an ActressBot2000, but I won't accuse), is the first great thing about the film, as she grabs on to the title role and really makes the character something special.  To say that the character is going through some personal issues is an understatement, but the unique thing about Lodge's portrayal of Molly (and the way the character is written) is that the film tends to shy away from convincing the viewer that the events around her are entirely supernatural.  Molly's family issues - including drug use and potential sexual abuse - push the film in the direction of a dark and personal drama.  Questions about the validity of her fears should stick with the viewer for some time.

Director Eduardo Sanchez, one half of the team that was behind The Blair Witch Project, handles it all here (he also wrote and edited the film), and his past experience shines through.  Just as the actors in that film were - We still have that image of a weeping Heather Donahue snotting on the camera as she explains her predicament stuck in our heads, don't we? - Lodge and her co-stars are allowed to give intensely personal performances as they deal with the plot's developments.  Lodge bares herself physically and emotionally throughout the film, which only solidifies her command over the role.  At the same time, the director draws upon the imagery that makes a horror film great, and there are plenty of dark and dreary sequences that build an incredible tension.

The virtuoso performance and the eternally shifting plot come together to  lead up to a bold final 15 minutes of the film, a sequence of events that will answer some, but not all, of our questions about Lovely Molly.  I found myself completely taken aback by the final reveals, and the end of Molly's journey had my eyes wide open as the film went to a place I didn't really expect. An added epilogue scene only makes the film more haunting, and it left my mind open to consider where the film's central ideas could go next in the film's universe. 

With a knowledge of the film's stopping point now in my mind, I've got the movie running again in the background as I type this. As I watch the events come together again from the corner of my eye, I'm more and more convinced that my initial awe at the closing of the film was justified.  Lovely Molly is not an easy horror film to watch - like many of the great horrors, it touches too close to home at times and leaves plenty to our imagination at others - but once I saw all the pieces together I found the whole product to be a fantastic viewing experience.  This is one of the most ambitious new horror films in some time, and any fan of serious human horror should find a way to see Lovely Molly as soon as they can.

August 27, 2012

The Mike's Top 50 Horror Movies Countdown: #17 - The Blob

Previously on the Countdown: Number 50 - Happy Birthday to Me  Number 49 - Prince of Darkness  Number 48 - House on Haunted Hill  Number 47 - The Monster Squad  Number 46 - Hellraiser  Number 45 - The Fog  Number 44 - Creature From the Black Lagoon  Number 43 - Zombie  Number 42 - Tales from the Crypt  Number 41 - Bubba Ho-Tep  Number 40 - Phantom of the Paradise  Number 39 - Dog Soldiers Number 38 - Pontypool  Number 37 - Dark Water  Number 36 - Army of Darkness Number 35 - The Legend of Hell House  Number 34 - Poltergeist  Number 33 - The Abominable Dr. Phibes  Number 32 - The Phantom of the Opera  Number 31 - The House of the Devil   Number 30 - Evil Dead II  Number 29 - Dead of Night  Number 28 - Carnival of Souls  Number 27 - Nosferatu  Number 26 - Candyman  Number 25 - The Texas Chain Saw Massacre  Number 24 - Horror of Dracula  Number 23 - The Wicker Man  Number 22 - Suspiria  Number 21 - The Omen  Number 20 - Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told  Number 19 - Rosemary's Baby  Number 18 - The Devil Rides Out
The Blob
(1958, Dir. by Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.)
 Why It's Here:
It's kind of impossible for me to come up with a logical explanation for this. Heck, I just dropped this bad boy into the list ahead of the likes of Rosemary's Baby, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist, and more.  I have spent plenty of words on The Blob in my day, often discussing how much I love the teenage rebellion aspect of the film and the amorphous villain who reeks of simplicity, but can I argue that The Blob is a more well made and or scarier film than any of those I listed above? No, not really. So why's The Blob up here? Ummm...let me get back to you on that one.

The Moment That Changes Everything:
I've often talked about how the small town family plot is my favorite thing about The Blob these days - the film has as much in common with Rebel Without a Cause as it does with Godzilla.  But the film's horror hook - which is topped by the grand scale (for its budget, that is) movie theater sequence - is must see stuff for me.

It Makes a Great Double Feature With:
Most of the time, when I mention how much I love The Blob, people are like "Oh yeah man, Shawnee Smith is hot!" Or sometimes they're like "Oh, Darabont co-wrote that and gave it a great edge!" Or sometimes they're like "What's up with Kevin Dillon's hair?" And I'm like "THAT'S THE REMAKE, YOU TWIT!"  Seriously, it's a severe horror bugaboo of mine. But hey...I'll admit that the remake is pretty good. Just stop dismissing the original in my presence.  Watch The Blob with 1988's The Blob. You'll thank me later.

What It Means To Me:
Well, it means enough for me to ignore its (numerous) shortcomings and rank it among my twenty favorite horror movies, doesn't it?  I know in my heart that The Blob isn't a great film. I've known it's not even necessarily good since I was 8.  But I smile like a mad man every time I think about The Blob. If we can have popcorn movies in comedy and action and other genres, I can have my beloved popcorn sci-fi/horror classic with Steve(n) McQueen as an old teenager and a plastic jelly monster, right? I'm saying right. The Blob might not be the biggest or best, but it's one of the most important horror movies ever to me and I still kind of feel bad that I'm ranking it this low. I megalove The Blob that much.

August 24, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #138 - Capricorn One

Capricorn One is one of those movies that proves exactly what made the 1970s such a perfect time for genre cinema.  I guess it's not even really a genre film in the strictest sense - more on that in a minute, but for now I'll just say that it's barely a science fiction tale - but it's plotted in that perfect way that allows for maximum lunacy while pretending to be perfectly serious about its ideas.  This is a high concept political thriller that almost belongs alongside stuff like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, except for the fact that it almost belongs alongside flicks like Westworld and Soylent Green.  Heck, I was introduced to the flick on Monstervision, for cryin' out loud. And there's nary a monster to be found.
If you want to understand why Capricorn One lives in a perpetual land of genre grayness, just listen to this plot synopsis. A trio of astronauts - played by James "Amityville Beard" Brolin, Sam "TD Ameritrade" Waterston and OJ "Totally Innocent" Simpson - are set for the first manned mission to Mars.  Just before take off, they're whisked away by Hal "My Favorite Actor Possibly" Holbrook (and a jet, Holbrook can't fly like Superman in this) and told that NASA actually plans to fake the landing on Mars and that a nice big TV studio in the middle of a desert will double as Mars.  It's a good idea - except for the "good" part - until the three amigos of the stars realize that the story only works if they're dead and can't tell anyone about the interstellar hoax.
Oh, and Elliott Gould shows up, playing the same Elliot Gould he always is.  He's kind of like Max von Sydow in that you wish he could some how compile all of his characters into one big multi-talented persona that looks like something off of that TV show Dollhouse, except not Eliza Dushku hot. In the case of van Sydow, you realize that there's no way he could be a combination of Jesus, and Exorcist, Ming the Merciless, et al.  But in the case of Gould, I'm not sure I'd bat an eyelash.  If someone walked up to me and said "Hey The Mike, did you know Elliott Gould is a rich casino owning detective spy reporter?" I'd be like "Yeah, that makes sense." Did I have a point here? Oh, it's that Elliott Gould plays a reporter who wants to go all Woodward and Bernstein and uncover the hoax, which puts him in the mix as kind of the film's non astronaut hero.
So yeah, you kind of have to work past the idea that Americans are so dumb that they would believe some well lit screen and a bunch of sand on TV would pass for Mars (is that really so hard to do?) to get in to Capricorn One, but the film never wavers as it presents its goofy ideas.  I'm sure I've talked about this before when covering '70s flicks, but it bears repeating. The folks who made movies in this decade were SO GOOD at pulling us in and making us care about something that was utterly ridiculous. Ir's really amazing. I don't know how they did it. Were the people of the '70s that much more naive than those of us who sit around today complaining about all the details? Did they just have a better sense of humor than us? I'm always talking about suspension of disbelief (It's the absolute number one thing you MUST have to love movies, you guys!) but the people of the, they were living it.
Capricorn One runs a little over two hours long, but it feels like an epic adventure of grander proportions. There is Gould's All The President's Men-ish quest for the truth, there's the journey through the desert that our three fugitive astronauts must make (I don't want to spoil anything, so I'll just say that Brolin is a ManBeast), and there's the sneaky side of the plot that deals with politicians and bigwigs and Holbrook's fantastic NASA head who is a prototypical "I did it for the country!" big bad.  And just when you think they couldn't add anything else to the adventure (or another piece of star power to the cast), TV's Telly Savalas shows up as a cog in the final act that adds plenty of laughs and a dollop of charm to the proceedings. 
Director Peter Hyams - who would go on to make some genre hits like Outland and Relic (Relic is seriously underrated, you guys!) and End of Days (I'm saying it...this one's underrated too!) - seems to be one of the few directors in Hollywood history that is most willing to amp up the ridiculous when no one expects him to - and the result here is a film that moves at a cracking pace and never loses the viewer for a second.  The film is obviously designed to be something of a talking piece about political corruption and how much we trust the media, but Hyams seems to have his tongue in cheek the whole time too. This film has so much fun with its silly premise, and that's a big reason that it's still terribly entertaining today.
Capricorn One isn't the kind of flick I usually cover here - it's not horror, sci-fi, and there's next to no blood - but it's a perfect example of what popcorn thrillers can be when done right.  Somehow, a director managed to put together an A-List cast and make a film about a faked space mission. A film that includes a car speeding out of control through traffic (perhaps one of the most insanely "Wait, did that all just happen so quickly?" moments in film history), some rattlesnake eating, and one of the most bizarre final moments in the history of cinema. And despite how it sounds, it's SO INCREDIBLY GOOD.  Capricorn One spits in the face of logical Hollywood expectations and manages to become one of the most entertaining films I've ever seen....and it does so in style.

August 22, 2012

FMWL Indie Spotlight - Volkodlak

(2011, Dir. by Bjorn Egil Eide.)

Volkodlak, a little vampire opus that's straight outta Norway, might trick you into thinking you've taken a trip in the Way Back Machine and landed in a much simpler time in horror history.  This 25 minute silent film sets out to present a horror story that would have been right at home a hundred years ago, and achieves some success.

While this is certainly a low budget affair, the first thing that leaps from the screen about Volkodlak is a booming musical score that really makes the film feel grand.  It's a tad overbearing at moments - with no dialogue you kind of have to fill the air with something - but when it's at its best the film sounds like it would fit in with Nosferatu (or at the very least a Castlevania video game).  When this music is combined with some classic shots of the moon or the dark countryside, the film hits its highest highs.

On the flip side of the equation, Volkodlak loses some of its antique charm at times.  I particularly struggled to accept the film as it got closer to its actors, because the young cast look more at home in our time than they do in classic horror cinema.  It's a minor beef - it's not like there are any young actors of 1915 around and still young- but it did take me out of the film in a few moments. The costumes and makeup didn't do a lot to hide the actors' modern images in close shots (probably a budget issue, which I get) so the film did lose a little of its edge with me in some scenes.

Aside from minor stylistic concerns, it's the simple plotting and authentic visuals that accomplish most of Volkodlak's goals.  The filmmakers mimic the silent era as well as they can, and wide shots of the characters moving through the castle combine with the exterior and setting shots to really hammer home the feel of a classic vampire tale.  The plot is very basic - one Count, one swordbearing dude, and one girl are the main cogs - but it is exactly the kind of story this kind of film needs.  There's a little bit of violence and a little twist as the plot moves on, but the visuals are really what we're here for and they don't disappoint when they matter.

On another positive note, the production doesn't feel like it's trying too hard to point out its influences or wink at the audience; an area where many filmmakers who want to pay an homage to past films lose their way.  Director/star Bjorn Egil Eide might be guilty of taking his film too seriously at times, but I'd rather have a film that leans too far in that direction than one that turns in to one big joke.

Volkodlak is incredibly raw and might not look just like something from the silent era, but it does more than enough in its better moments to make up for some of my nitpicks.  The film is probably best viewed as an amateur experiment in horror, but I think that fans of silent horror will find some positives in this short tale.

If you'd like to try Volkodlak out for yourself, here are the links to part one and part two of the film on YouTube.  If you like what you see, be sure to head on over to let the fine folks behind Volkodlak know by commenting and/or liking the videos. And, of course, if you're still not sure, hit up the trailer below.

August 20, 2012

The Mike's Top 50 Horror Movies Countdown: #18 - The Devil Rides Out

Previously on the Countdown: Number 50 - Happy Birthday to Me  Number 49 - Prince of Darkness  Number 48 - House on Haunted Hill  Number 47 - The Monster Squad  Number 46 - Hellraiser  Number 45 - The Fog  Number 44 - Creature From the Black Lagoon  Number 43 - Zombie  Number 42 - Tales from the Crypt  Number 41 - Bubba Ho-Tep  Number 40 - Phantom of the Paradise  Number 39 - Dog Soldiers Number 38 - Pontypool  Number 37 - Dark Water  Number 36 - Army of Darkness Number 35 - The Legend of Hell House  Number 34 - Poltergeist  Number 33 - The Abominable Dr. Phibes  Number 32 - The Phantom of the Opera  Number 31 - The House of the Devil   Number 30 - Evil Dead II  Number 29 - Dead of Night  Number 28 - Carnival of Souls  Number 27 - Nosferatu  Number 26 - Candyman  Number 25 - The Texas Chain Saw Massacre  Number 24 - Horror of Dracula  Number 23 - The Wicker Man  Number 22 - Suspiria  Number 21 - The Omen  Number 20 - Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told  Number 19 - Rosemary's Baby
The Devil Rides Out
(1968, Dir. by Terence Fisher.)
Why It's Here:
The Devil Rides Out (given this less grandeur title The Devil's Bride in the USA) is unknown by many and considered second tier in the Hammer Films filmography by others. The cult-based plot handles demonic rituals in a grand manner, and Christopher Lee - who is of course known for playing on evil's team - knocks it out of the park as the righteous and upstanding occult expert who aims to stop these servants of Satan.  It is definitely a curio from another time - Lee has talked about wishing he could remake the film with modern special effects - but it still works if you can suspend disbelief and just enjoy the Satanic melodrama.

The Moment That Changes Everything:
There are plenty of high spots throughout Terence Fisher's film, and the script (by none less than the great Richard Matheson) seems to relish any opportunity to crank up the music and get all operatic.  The tension probably hits its highest peak when Lee and his acquaintances hold a seance that leads to lots of wind, a back-to-back staredown with evil and a whole heaping load of awesome.

It Makes a Great Double Feature With:
Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon is probably the most loved cousin to this film, and it's a pretty wonderful choice to double feature with this one. A recent find that I would also place alongside The Devil Rides Out is the also (co-)written by Matheson occult thriller Burn, Witch, Burn.  Like Devil, this one pitches its ideas as fact and never takes the foot off the gas.  For good old fashioned occult horror, you can't do better than these three films.

What It Means to Me:
From Midnight, With Love was just over a year old at the time, but in my mind, the day that I named The Devil Rides Out as the first Midnight Movie of the Week was the day this little blog of mine became a passion project.  The Devil Rides Out is exactly the kind of genre movie I want to find as a lover of film, and it's exactly the kind of movie I hope to inspire you to find by writing this useless drivel in my free time.  In a way, The Devil Rides Out is why I do what I do for the genre films that I love.

August 17, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #137 - The Initiation

The Initiation is one of those movies that I always want to recommend to people, yet I never seem to recommend it to people.  That might be because it's really just OK as a whole film, but it also ignores the fact that The Initiation has pretty much everything I love about a slasher film that's just OK as a whole film.  And when the indomitable Stacie Ponder of Final Girl offered up a Film Club Second Chance opportunity to talk about The Initiation...well, I didn't have any excuse left.  Here's all the pretty things about The Initiation that make me smiley.
Daphne Zuniga - she of Spaceballs and Melrose Place and The Dorm That Dripped Blood - stars as a wonderfully simple survivor girl.  By simple, I of course mean she has that perfect combination of the elements a survivor girl needs.  First of all, most guys on her campus would date her if they had a chance.  Secondly, she seems to be aware of her surroundings and only partially superficial.  And thirdly - and most importantly -she has weird dreams and a traumatic past.  Put that stuff together, shake it, add a pinch of thyme and spread it over a cracker and you've got a tasty survivor girl treat.
Around your survivor girl, there are a few things you need for the slasher recipe, and The Initiation has them.  Established mature folks who can show up and effect the plot? Yup, it's got Clu Gulager and Vera Miles as Zuniga's rich and secret-keeping parents.  A bunch of fodder for a knifey killer? We are, in fact, talking about a film with a bunch of sorority pledges and their doofus boyfriends.  A setting to kill for? Just wait till you see this weird supermall/tower thing that shows up in the final reel.
(Oh, and The Initiation also has that weird guy who wasn't Pierce Brosnan on Remington Steele, complete with crazy hair and awful tie/blue jeans combo.  I know the guy - James Read - has a name, but he will forever be the doofus from Remington Steele to me.  Which is awesome. His role as potential savior via science is just one more of the film's random charms.)
Rest assured, dear reader, that The Initiation isn't just about the parts.  Believe me, this film is put together in ways you wouldn't believe.  The past trauma aspect of most slasher films is present, as much of the film's mystery comes when the viewer is trying to figure out what the flashbacks and visions we see really mean.  Our leads parents, played with grand ol' intensity by Miles and Gulager, add a lot to the film with their over-the-top reaction to their daughters trauma, which provides plenty of cheesy slasher drama.
 And while that's all going on - and while we all KNOW that something's wrong because we're watching a movie where people die in bad ways - the bubbly and bumbling supporting characters make all the wrong decisions that keep our movie going.  Heck, one character gives this incredibly sad talk about sexual abuse that feels very much like that Phoebe Cates "Why I Don't Like Christmas" speech from Gremlins - and then decides it's time to have casual sex in a mall for fun now that she's shared.  You can not force this kind of ridiculousness. But sometimes, it just happens.
Lastly, just when you think the film couldn't be more perfectly ridiculous, you get the final plot twist.  And it is a treat.  I can't even go into it here (it is, after all, a final plot twist), but you just need to know it's there and it's waiting for you.  And you need to go see it.  So head over to Instant Watch or a video store or my Lair - I got the DVD right here, let's party! - and check out The Initiation.  You'll thank me later.

Oh and - as always with the '80s - there's the fashion.  The glorious, glorious fashion. Gotta love it.

August 15, 2012

FMWL Indie Spotlight - Screaming in High Heels

(2012, Dir. by Jason Paul Collum.)

The three women who are profiled in Screaming in High Heels - Brinke Stevens, Linnea Quigley, and Michelle Bauer - certainly have a special place in the history of smutty b-cinema.  The majority of their films - things like Nightmare Sisters, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama - are not what I was expecting when I became a horror fan after watching things like The Phantom of the Opera, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Blob.  So I've always found their slice of the horror pie - the one filled with direct-to-VHS titles that generally offered great nudity and terrible storytelling - to be a strange one.

For those who weren't around in the '80s, Screaming in High Heels documents who these women are and how they got here, but it also spends much of its time (perhaps too much) trying to justify why these movies were necessary and how these movies were so great.  There's an incredible bias on display, as the few people interviewed are directors and actors who worked on the films headlined by the three women, and some of these men seem a little too excited about their work.  There's a loving tone, to be sure, but the amount of superlatives thrown around makes it really hard to really believe that these guys are offering a fair assessment of a subgenre they made a living in.

(I do not intend to debate whether or not these men are right or wrong about the value of their films.  Where there's a niche, there's value in a product.  My thoughts on these films - most of which I am not acquainted with - is a different story for a different day.)

The heart of this documentary - as the title suggests - is the three women who headlined this era.  Each of the actresses appears and is frank and candid about their experiences, for the most part. (Though, I did think it was a little weird when Brinke Stevens explained how "she studied SCIENCE" and she came to LA "to get a job IN SCIENCE" like she was a bad sci-fi character. An area of specialty might have made her story more palpable.)  Bauer, who has distanced herself from acting more than the others, is the most down to Earth and accessible of the the three queens, while Quigley and Stevens seem to still fit perfectly with the image they represented in their heyday.  In each case, it's easy to see the intrigue each actress offered to their films (which is not just their willingness to get naked, of course).

The trouble with Screaming in High Heels, on the whole, is that there's just not a lot of intrigue outside of a few tidbits in interviews that perk your ears.  Unlike more accomplished genre docs - like the amazing Corman's World, which I covered earlier this year - the scope of this film is very limited.  We get the opinions of the three stars and a half dozen folks who worked with them - and that's it.  I suppose the argument could be made that this doc, like the film's its talking about, should be held to a much lesser standard than more financially sound productions, but it still feels like there's a lack of outside perspective.  Instead of fans and critics talking about these actresses and filmmakers, we get these actresses and filmmakers talking about fans and critics.  There's talk about families of the involved, but no actual talk with the families of those involved. Things like this hurt my interest in the film, and left me a little bored at times.

If you don't know much about these women and these films, and want to learn what they were about in their own words, Screaming in High Heels should interest you.  Just be prepared for a rather slight and one-sided look at these films.  The low retail price of the disc compared to other releases seems to reflect the short (it's barely an hour long) and sweet approach to the production. On the other hand, fans of these films and stars probably aren't going to learn a lot from Screaming in High Heels.  To me it feels more like a DVD extra than a full length documentary, because it doesn't dig deep enough to really cover a wide berth of topics regarding this movement in genre film.

Screaming in High Heels will be out on DVD on August 28th, and is worth at least a rental to those interested in learning about the best of '80s sleaze scream queens.  Horror buffs will probably enjoy the interviews, but might feel like they already know a lot of what's being said.  Still, this one's probably worth a rental.

August 14, 2012

The Mike's Top 50 Horror Movies Countdown: #19 - Rosemary's Baby

Previously on the Countdown: Number 50 - Happy Birthday to Me  Number 49 - Prince of Darkness  Number 48 - House on Haunted Hill  Number 47 - The Monster Squad  Number 46 - Hellraiser  Number 45 - The Fog  Number 44 - Creature From the Black Lagoon  Number 43 - Zombie  Number 42 - Tales from the Crypt  Number 41 - Bubba Ho-Tep  Number 40 - Phantom of the Paradise  Number 39 - Dog Soldiers Number 38 - Pontypool  Number 37 - Dark Water  Number 36 - Army of Darkness Number 35 - The Legend of Hell House  Number 34 - Poltergeist  Number 33 - The Abominable Dr. Phibes  Number 32 - The Phantom of the Opera  Number 31 - The House of the Devil   Number 30 - Evil Dead II  Number 29 - Dead of Night  Number 28 - Carnival of Souls  Number 27 - Nosferatu  Number 26 - Candyman  Number 25 - The Texas Chain Saw Massacre  Number 24 - Horror of Dracula  Number 23 - The Wicker Man  Number 22 - Suspiria  Number 21 - The Omen  Number 20 - Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told
Rosemary's Baby
(1968, Dir. by Roman Polanski.)
 Why It's Here:
A fantastic book I read last year - Shock Value, which is reviewed here, to be exact - certainly gave me new light on just what it is about Rosemary's Baby that is so impressive.  I've always found it to be one of the most engrossing paranoia horror films out there (Let's not kid ourselves - despite the ending and its implications, the horror of this movie comes from Mia Farrow's struggles to deal with her unusual pregnancy), but when I was given more information about the film's path to the screen it seemed to take on more significance.  The culture of horror changed - if not forever, at least for the next decade - when Paramount Pictures was bold enough to let a young hotshot auteur turn a William Castle production into something that shook the mold of the horror film completely.

The Moment That Changes Everything:
From its opening, Rosemary's Baby is a different kind of horror film than we'd ever seen before.  Even today, almost 45 years later, there aren't many films like it out there.  But the final minutes change the movie again, and the restraint shown by Polanski during the finale is perhaps the most masterful touch of the entire film.

It Makes a Great Double Feature With:
At this point in this list, I'm really digging for double feature picks. After all, most of the best horror films are the best horror films because they stand above everything else out there.  So I'm going with the easy one here, and suggesting fans of Rosemary's Baby might want to pair it up with Polanski's other psychothriller about a blonde in peril, Repulsion.  It's a more surreal ride than Rosemary's - which seems like a tall task, but it is - and it's got some visuals that will drop jaws.

What It Means To Me:
I kind of feel like 19 is too low for Rosemary's Baby - especially since the next few spots contain a lot of slighter but more personal favorites.  It's a truly important piece of cinema that has to be one of the 10 most groundbreaking horror films out there. This film really did help to change the perception of horror when it was released (if only for a time), and it still packs a punch on repeat viewings. Rosemary's Baby belongs among the best horror has to offer, and it seems to get better every time I see it.

August 10, 2012

FMWL Indie Spotlight - Beyond the Grave

(2010, Dir. by Davi de Oliveira Pinheiro.)

A zombie apocalypse movie from the heart of Brazil, Beyond the Grave (or, Porto dos Mortos, if you're so inclined) takes a shoestring budget and puts together a film that looks like an epic horror adventure.  The road-tripping film uses its surroundings very well, and the biggest success here might be just how much the film makes it look like the world has ended.

Hopping from place to place and covering several violent characters, Beyond the Grave is primarily centered on a man in black played by Rafael Tombini, whose image will probable evoke memories of Robert Rodriguez' films.  There's certainly a bit of El Mariachi in the violent-but-heroic character, who moves through the film with a chip on his shoulder and an eye for revenge.  We learn bits about the character - the film is heavy on monologues that deal with past hurts - but mostly we just need to understand that he's a lone wolf who will take down those that oppose him. 

The opposition, as is generally the case on a zombie apocalypse, is twofold.  Sure, there are bloodstained zombies roaming the countryside, but the biggest challenges come from some possessed killers who reign terror upon the few remaining humans that our nameless lead shows compassion for.  This makes for a pretty interesting switch in expectations in the middle of the film, but also leaves the film feeling a bit disjointed as it moves on.  I kind of feel like it forgets about them zombies for long stretches of the film, .

Special effects are one of the biggest worries I had about the film, as much of the creature effects are underwhelming.  The undead that are presented range from simple and effective to completely over the top, but none of the creatures really evoke much of an emotional response.  The possession side of the plot is handled very simply, possibly due to the film's low budget, but I was much more interested in that part of the film than its few zombie stragglers. 

The most interesting thing about Beyond the Grave, to me, is probably the tone of the film.  There are plenty of moments that feel like they were inspired by Rodriguez or Tarantino - especially when the director chooses to let music take over the film's soundtrack while a character does something cool - but the film never really takes off as a fast-paced adventure or a "something's around the corner" style shocker.  The film moves rather slowly with its emotions, and it seems like the goal was to really create a sense of emptiness and dread that fills this world gone mad.  There are a lot of things about the film that remind me of Stephen King's work - characters who can't find the normalcy they seek, discussions about hope, etc. - and I like where the filmmakers heads were at in this regard. I'm not sure their message got to me in every scene - perhaps something was lost in translation, or perhaps the dramatic impact of some reveals just misfired for me - but I was certainly intrigued by the film's bleak perspective.  I definitely enjoyed the film's departure from gore and mayhem in this more introspective moments, which looked great against the run down settings of the film.

I'm not entirely sure what I think about Beyond the Grave on the whole.  Parts of the film seemed to leave me wanting, while others had me very interested in the world that these filmmakers created and the plight of our one-note hero.  I know I'm going to be thinking about the movie for a while, but I worry that my thoughts will sway more toward what it missed than what it said.  Regardless, this is certainly an interesting addition to the horror pantheon, and I do recommend that horror fans - particularly those with a taste for the apocalypse - keep an eye out for this one.  It's the work of filmmakers who have something unique to offer us.

For more information in Beyond the Grave, be sure to check out the film's official site or its Facebook page.  In the meantime, here's the trailer for your perusal.

August 9, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #136 - Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II

Prom Night II doesn't sound like much of an idea.  Even the most fervent supporters of the slasher film will probably admit that 1980's Prom Night - which is most known for Jamie Lee Curtis' unfortunate dancing and a series of "Wait a minute, what the heck happened to get the guy from Naked Gun into this movie?" moments - is not an entirely successful film.  That Canadian slasher film was one of the first and most obvious ripoffs of the Halloween formula, but it missed most of the things that made that film and several other slashers great - particularly when it came to the film's sluggish pace.
And yet, when you find Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II, you'll find a horror sequel that's surprisingly talked about and has grown something of a cult following.  Primarily, I think, because Hello Mary Lou is kind of ridiculously crazy.  It's not your average slasher film - and Prom Night, in fact, is the definition of "average slasher film" - it's a body possessing mish-mash of themes from Carrie, The Exorcist, A Nightmare on Elm Street and plenty of other horror movies I'm probably missing.  This movie is basically the horror version of the Mongolian Buffet restaurant that's a mile from my apartment: it looks like one thing while it actually has all different types of things, things that are often put together in a pattern that lacks any type of common sense.  While these things are often disappointing on their own, but when you put them all together you get a decadent mixture that leaves you stuffed to the brim and content.
The film, like many slashers, starts in the past.  It's 1957 and Mary Lou Maloney is the slut belle of the ball at the good old fashioned high school prom.  Unfortunately for her, she cheats on her date, causes a big stir, and ends up set on fire while she's crowned Prom Queen.  The fire kills Mary Lou, but I guess there's a bright side to her predicament. She doesn't wake up pregnant the morning after prom gets to become a rageful spirit of destruction.
We flash forward to 1987 - the year of the film's release - and meet Vicki Carpenter, a mild mannered girl with extra Christian parents and a sweet side.  Vicki's biggest problems, aside from being a mixture of Carrie White and Nancy Thompson, come from normal high school problems like parental control and that one witchy girl who gets her kicks by picking on the girl who's not at all intimidating.  At least not until she inherits the spirit of Mary Lou through a conveniently preserved prom dress.
Unlike its drab predecessor, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (or, HMLPN2 if I get tired of typing that), enjoys breaking the mold that slasher films were stuck in early in the 1980s.  Part of me wonders why the film even bothered to inherit the Prom Night name at all (Probable answer = money.), because this film is such a different animal than Jamie Lee's Dance Party.  Director Bruce Pittman packs the film with wacky visuals and bizarre scenes - like an evil rocking horse or a naked and possessed Vicki stalking a friend in the girls locker room - that remind of abstract '80s horrors like Prince of Darkness or The Pit.
Like that Mongolian Buffet - I'm sticking with that analogy because it makes so much sense in my brain - the pieces of HMLPN2 aren't always good fits with the rest of the meal.  A first time viewer will probably mutter something like "Wait, what?" a few times, but that just adds to the charm as the film crashes through the its plot with a carefree disregard for normalcy.  There's a little bit of Evil Dead in the film's spirit, because anything can happen at any time in this film's universe.
As the story wraps up, it allows the great Michael Ironside to take over alongside Lisa Schrage, who plays the imposing Mary Lou with vigor.  Their performances, mixed with the younger folks (Wendy Lyon has impressive range as Vicki), keep the unpredictable film interesting as it moves with such a brisk pace.  This takes our attention off the little details, leaving us to remember the film in a positive light.
Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II isn't a titan of horror, even by '80s standards.  But it gets plenty of bonus points for effort, because it spares nothing in an attempt to do something fun with a brand name and a silly plot.  It's hard to call a movie that calls itself a sequel and seems to borrow ideas from so many others an original piece of horror - maybe it's more of a Mad Libs horror movie? - but I still would bet that most people who seek out this movie are in for a few surprises.

August 7, 2012

The Mike's Top 50 Horror Movies Countdown: #20 - Spider Baby

Previously on the Countdown: Number 50 - Happy Birthday to Me  Number 49 - Prince of Darkness  Number 48 - House on Haunted Hill  Number 47 - The Monster Squad  Number 46 - Hellraiser  Number 45 - The Fog  Number 44 - Creature From the Black Lagoon  Number 43 - Zombie  Number 42 - Tales from the Crypt  Number 41 - Bubba Ho-Tep  Number 40 - Phantom of the Paradise  Number 39 - Dog Soldiers Number 38 - Pontypool  Number 37 - Dark Water  Number 36 - Army of Darkness Number 35 - The Legend of Hell House  Number 34 - Poltergeist  Number 33 - The Abominable Dr. Phibes  Number 32 - The Phantom of the Opera  Number 31 - The House of the Devil   Number 30 - Evil Dead II  Number 29 - Dead of Night  Number 28 - Carnival of Souls  Number 27 - Nosferatu  Number 26 - Candyman  Number 25 - The Texas Chain Saw Massacre  Number 24 - Horror of Dracula  Number 23 - The Wicker Man  Number 22 - Suspiria  Number 21 - The Omen
Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told
(1968, Dir. by Jack Hill.)
Why It's Here:
If The Addams Family were more murderous and cannibalistic, it would look a lot like Spider Baby.  Jack Hill's macabre tale of a reclusive family of oddities lives on as one of the least known treasures in horror history.  With a deeply sinister sense of humor and a fond farewell of a performance from horror icon Lon Chaney, Jr, the film covers plenty of ground.  But it always comes back to a place that is dark and fun, a place that perfectly fits with what I love about horror.

The Moment That Changes Everything:
The opening scene, in which comedian Mantan Moreland plays a messenger that pulls what I like to call a "Scatman Crothers", sets up the murderous side of the film perfectly.  When it's paired with later events - like a teary eyed speech from the great Mr. Chaney - it reminds us how an unpredictable a film like this can be.

It Makes a Great Double Feature With:
The film that I'd most like to pair up with Spider Baby (based on historical connections) is coming up later on this list, so I need to think a little deeper tonight.  Really, Spider Baby is one of those films that could slide into different genres, playing well against a horror comedy like Ivan Reitman's Cannibal Girls or a sleazy tale of evil like The Hills Have Eyes.  I feel that it's a slight injustice to compare the film to these examples - both are much less interesting than Spider Baby - but it's hard to nail down a place for Spider Baby when it covers so much ground as a genre-bending film.  In fact, the best thing to play alongside Spider Baby - if you're up for a little music - would be The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  Both films bring the same frantic picture of a "family" gone bad.

What It Means To Me:
Spider Baby reminds me why I'm always looking for more great horror.  This is a film that I'd never heard of until recent years, and it may have slipped through the cracks if circumstances were a little different.  There has been a lot of horror made in the century, and if you don't keep looking for the good stuff you may miss out on something great.  To me, Spider Baby is dedicated to all those crazy horror buffs out there. Crazy folks like me, who won't rest until they've uncovered all the great horror they can find.

August 6, 2012

[REC] 3: Genesis

(2012, Dir. by Paco Plaza.)

I sometimes forget just how good the [REC] series has been.  Though a certain studio - *cough*SONY SUCKS*cough* - tried to ruin the first film for us (by buying it, shelving it, and releasing their own remake first), the original film's found-footage meets 28 Days Later concept would have rivaled Paranormal Activity in popularity had it just been a) released and b) in English.  Unfortunately, us Americans can't be trusted with nice things, and [REC] and its terrific sequel [REC] 2 have been left for most Yankees to find on DVD.

A lot of film franchises go through some addition as they go on, but it's the subtractions from the equation that make [REC] 3: Genesis such a unique direction for the series.  There are fundamental changes - Sony's no longer involved and the awesome Magnet Releasing is distributing the film, and co-director of the first two films Jaume Balaguero has left director duties to counterpart Paco Plaza - but the biggest change is that the found footage gimmick (and the quarantined apartment complex) from the first two films is just a memory.

The change in pace that is [REC] 3 is a surprising follow up to the second film, but Plaza's film seems comfortable being a parallel story to the events of its predecessors.  There's only a minor tie in to the first film, as one of the guests at a wedding is connected to the outbreak we saw there, but the aggressive and frantic zombie-esque aggressors from those films return with a vengeance.  The twist ending from the second film is part of this film's narrative - and Plaza finds some clever ways to remind us just what the creatures are - but the story is completely new and focused mostly on the newly married couple - Clara and Koldo - who find themselves in the middle of the carnage.

Without the handheld camera viewpoint for most of the film and with a more cinematic approach, [REC] 3 does seem to lose some of the tension of its predecessors.  This film is not "in your face" as much as its parents were, but the pace doesn't suffer.  Instead, Plaza's new direction mixes the survival aspects of classic zombie films with some gory humor, and the film plays like more lighthearted films like Night of the Demons or The Return of the Living Dead when it does let up on the gas.  There is still plenty of blood spewed, but Plaza finds ways to move between dramatic and comedic splatter to keep the film moving.  The split between comedy and seriousness is another new turn in the series, but neither side of that equation overwhelms the other and effects the bigger picture.

With the added focus on gore and the romantic side of the script, the film is set up perfectly for Leticia Dolera (who stars as Clara) to shine, and she takes advantage of the opportunity.  Confined to a wedding dress and exceedingly runny makeup for the duration of the film, the role primarily requires Dolera to look the part of a woman who's fighting for her future, and Dolera does not miss a beat.  The diminutive actress handles herself very well throughout the film, and horror fans will surely enjoy her ability to handle a chainsaw.  The rest of the cast is made up of folks with a similar willingness to face the gory side of the film with their tongue in cheek, which leads to Clara standing up as a somewhat comic heroine in a horror film with a welcome slapstick edge.

The changing pace is probably the biggest obstacle to overcome with [REC] 3, and fans of the series who expect more of the same might find the tone to be too much to bear.  I do think the film feels slight in comparison to the first two films, but it's still a lot of fun to watch and a nice new twist on the mythology these filmmakers have created.  With Clara and Koldo's plight as the primary focus the film feels a little like a fan fiction tale, but the violent action and the unforgiving shocks fit the series well.  It's different, but I'd recommend it alongside the first two films to anyone who wants to see something special in the modern horror scene.  And, with [REC] Apocalypse in production - and promising to reconnect with the ending of [REC] 2 - I have a feeling that there's more great horror that will be rolling out of Spain in the near future.

August 1, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #135 - Total Recall

Now that it's been checked off on Hollywood's "To Be Remade" list, it's a good time to look back at Total Recall.  An inorganic combination of opposing elements - the bulk of Schwarzenegger added to the satire of  director Paul Verhoeven added to the sci-fi style of writer Dan O'Bannon - Total Recall has the potential to be both a jumbled mess and a unique triumph.  I, like many, believe the film fits clearly into the second category, partially because I'm all for what my father would call "amazing new combinations".
First off, there's the Schwarzenegger aspect of the film, which is basically the elephant-in-the-middle-of-the-room for a lot of people.  They fail to mind the fact that he starred in 3-4 of the greatest science fiction films ever made (NOT debatable, this is a FACT in my world), they get caught on his lack of diction and ridiculously serious face and the fact that he can't really...what's the word...oh yeah, ACT.  I - obviously - think those people are completely crazy.
I'm not going to argue the finer points of the art of Schwarzeneggerisms.  Yes, the guy has an accent thicker than bank vaults and yes, he walks into every single room the same way and does this weird look around thing that's exactly the same in every single movie.  But there is something amazing that Schwarzenegger brings to science fiction, primarily because his physique and personality seems custom made for a world in which reality isn't reality.  The guy's a perfect future hero (also perfect robo-warrior and perfect ancient battler, but those are different stories), because he can play doofus while still looking like an unnatural beast.  For example, there's the moment where he tries to explain the whole Quaid vs. Hauser thing to Melina after he meets her on Mars, where the big lug just seems to be a complete everydude.  But he's also got that whole looking suspicious like he's a future spy down well too, so it all comes together.  The fact of the matter is, this film doesn't work without Schwarzenegger in the role.  He's too perfect for what Quaid/Hauser is in a future society - especially when there's a disconnect between dream and reality.
It's no coincidence that many of the supporting characters in the film skew to opposite ends of the reality spectrum.  Sharon Stone's work as Quaid's "wife" is certainly perfect for the manufactured parts of the plot, because someone who acts, looks, and fights like her is probably either a secret sex agent or part of an elaborate dream sequence.  The same can be said for the villainous characters, led by Michael Ironside's leather jacketed pursuer and Ronny Cox' slimy politician, as these characters' actions sway the film toward the conspiracy/reality idea.  On the other hand, characters that are involved in the Recall side of things - like the doctor/intervention agent played by Roy Brocksmith in the film's most ambiguous scene and the other doctors of Rekall who seem right out of a Beverly Hills stereotype.  These characters sell the scientific/not reality aspect of the film, and much of the fun that the film offers comes from trying to find out what each person means to the question at hand - even on repeat viewings.
We don't get a ton of the sly satire Verhoeven is known for - the stuff that made Robocop and Starship Troopers so memorable at times - but Total Recall still manages to show the director's focus on how the media has an effect on the characters' journeys.  It is a television commercial that seals the deal for Quaid and his trip to Rekall, and most of the characters who aren't Quaid/Hauser or Melina spend most of the movie trying to convince Quaid to conform to the kind of life that society wants for him.  Like Robocop before, the director paints a line between those who want power and the people who want good old-fashioned justice.  Both Quaid and Robocop would be perfect for an old High Noon style western, and it's clear Verhoeven's take on the future includes a disconnect between the past and the future that seemed imminent in the late '80s.
Speaking of the future, we also get Dan O'Bannon & Ronald Shusett's vision of the future from a script standpoint, which allows for plenty of gadgetry and another showdown between old and new.  Like most great sci-fi writers, there are plenty of little twists thrown in - like televisions on the train and x-ray machines for detecting guns - that seem not at all futuristic these days.  But part of the charm of Total Recall, again like other great sci-fi works, is that changes to technology are handled with ease (the difficulty of traveling between planets is an absolute afterthought in the film) while past technologies (i.e. - guns, drills, flannel shirts) are kept around because they're useful.  The writers - following in the footsteps of the great Philip K. Dick - are having a lot of fun creating this reality.
Well, I guess I shouldn't get too caught up in reality - the interpretation of what Total Recall actually is is entirely up to you - but the point remains that the universe(s) created in Total Recall work on plenty of levels.  This conjunction between the star, director, and writers (leading all the way back to Dick's short story) makes Total Recall a versatile film that works as an action spectacle, as a statement on society, and as a tale of the future.  Don't underestimate the combination of elements at work here - I think they come together perfectly.