Archive for October, 2010

The Keep, 1986 ed., F. Paul Wilson
Wilson is one of those writers I’ve tried to warm up to a number of times. His “Repairman Jack” novels sound precisely like what I want in supernatural fiction, after all. But I just can’t quite bring myself to really like his work.
This is probably the closest I can get. It’s hard not to like a book about Nazis being horribly murdered in a Romanian castle. Just try to ignore the odd inclusion of Howardian High Fantasy heroes and villains by way of back-story.

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So, if you created an instant horror classic, which was a massive commercial success, and spawned the equally rare well-received and contextually appropriate sequel, what do you do for a threepeat? Well, if you’re John Carpenter and Debra Hill, you ditch everything that your audience wants to see in your franchise for a surreal pagan-themed thriller that casts the Irish as a race of child-murdering lunatics, alienating both the general public and hardcore fans and leaving those few who are actually willing to give your film a shot completely baffled at your film’s nonsensical plot.

It makes a certain sort of perverse logic, actually. Halloween really was an instant classic and it represents the strongest bridge between the slasher genre and the mystery genre. (Setting aside the almost as brilliant, and earlier, Black Christmas, which Halloween certainly owes a debt to, because sometimes doing it right is more important than doing it first.) Unfortunately, after two films all that really could be said about Michael Myers had been said, and every subsequent sequel only confirmed that more and more. Not to mention that the success of Halloween inspired so many, frankly, utterly shit imitators and wannabes, and it’s not hard to see why Carpenter and Hill would maybe want to back away from that particular legacy. The downside to that, though, is that when you have control of a potentially lucrative franchise like that, you don’t want to just abandon it entirely. The devised solution, turn the “Halloween” brand into an anthology series, which each film continuing the themes of Halloween horrors, but with a new plot and characters periodically. And, actually, it’s a really good idea. The film itself, though…that’s where the problems set in.

The film opens with a man holding a Halloween mask running away from well-dressed men. He takes refuge in a gas station, and gets taken from there to the hospital, where his head is split open by a well-dressed man, who then sets himself on fire. Attending physician Dan Challis finds this whole situation awfully suspicious, especially when the pretty and half-his-age daughter of the dead man, Ellie Grimbridge starts asking questions as well. Their investigation reveals that just before he died, Ellie’s father was set to pick up a delivery of Halloween masks from the Silver Shamrock festival in Santa Mira, California; a novelty company in a sleepy mid-state town populated by Irish immigrants. The Silver Shamrock masks are the must-have item this Halloween, with their curiously tame and retro designs and maddeningly aggravating jingle which also promotes the “Horrorthon Giveaway” Silver Shamrock is hosting on television Halloween night. Challis and Ellie contrive to join a private tour of the company given to their top salesman and his family, and while on it Ellie sees her father’s car hidden in a warehouse. That night she is kidnapped by the security personnel from the company and Challis breaks in to rescue her. He is quickly captured and Conal Cochran, the company’s charismatic owner, explains his plan; to return Halloween to a night of terror and death in celebration of his Pagan heritage, by using chips from a megalith stolen from Stonehenge which have been placed inside the masks and, when activated by an electronic signal hidden in the Silver Shamrock commercial, will burn the heads of children wearing the mask and cause them to vomit up snakes and insects. Challis eventually manages to escape with Ellie, destroying the factory and Cochran in the process by causing the megalith to overload, but before he can warn the world about the commercial he is attacked by Ellie.
Because she’s a robot built by Cochran. Which pretty much destroys the entire plot and internal logic of the film.
The film ends on pleasingly ambiguous and downbeat note with Challis able to get the commercial removed from only two of the channels broadcasting it, with the fate of the commercial on the third channel (this being 1982) left unresolved.

The kernel of the idea here is actually pretty good: Pagans returning Halloween to its roots because it is their holiday, dammit. It’s a clever tweaking of the attitude some Christians take to secular Christmas celebrations. But then, it’s a Nigel Kneale idea, the man behind Quatermass. Unfortunately, his name doesn’t appear on the film because he had it removed, rather than live with the studio-mandated inclusion of several gorey, and incredibly silly and not at all necessary to the plot, scenes included in order to justify an R rating and satisfy the demands of the target audience. Who, as I said earlier, really only wanted yet another slasher film with sluts being sliced up, not a satiric riff on The Wicker Man set in California. It’s a case of the audience not quite being worthy of the material they’re being presented with, and the film suffers because of its desire to please them. Which isn’t to say that it would be a perfect film without the gore-hound pandering. The plot holes in this film are legendary. The film implies that the Horrorthon is rolling out cross-country. But if it’s being simulcast, no self-respecting kid on the West Coast is going to give up prime Trick-or-Treating hours to watch a commercial. And if it’s going time-zone by time-zone, of which there are four in the continental United States, than again, only the kids on the Eastern time are going to die. Maybe Central. But surely by the time it gets to Mountain the link between the commercial and kids fucking dying would be noted. About the only hole that’s addressed is the question of how a Stonehenge megalith was transported from Salisbury to somewhere near Gilroy, and even that is only by so purposefully lampshading the problem as to make it moot.

So, no, not good. But I’m strangely inclined to give them points for effort.
Except for the robot thing. That’s just fucking stupid.

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Sometimes screenwriters turn out to be good directors as well. Sometimes actors turn out to be good directors as well. In 1988, make-up and special effects artist Stan Winston got to try out being a director with Pumpkinhead. I suspect it’s probably safe to say that the jury is still out on whether or not make-up artists are cut out for direction. Pumpkinhead did spawn several sequels and developed a cult following, but then, it’s a horror film from the 80s with a distinctive and marketable monster and it starred Lance Henriksen. It would probably have been more surprising if it had somehow not developed a cult following.

I say the jury’s out because, while the film has a couple of charms, this is pretty much its most subtle scene:

The film opens with a flashback to rural grocer Ed Harley’s childhood, when his family refused to give shelter to a man being pursued by a creature for a crime he may or may not have committed. We then cut to Ed and his son doing chores and leading a pretty satisfying life, alone in the mountains just getting by. Later, at Ed’s grocery store, some brash young city folk stop off to buy food and play with their dirtbikes. While Ed is briefly away, his son is killed when he runs after his dog onto the field where the teens are dirtbiking. The teens are split as to whether to leave or call for help, and eventually all but one go before Ed returns. Ed, reminded earlier in the day of the creature, called by the mountain folk Pumpkinhead, takes his son’s body out into the mountains to a woman reported to be a witch, asking her to unleash the creature to exact revenge. This turns out to be a less than ideal plan, as Ed soon discovers that not only is the guilt for the accident equally shared, but that the creature simply doesn’t care and Ed must experience each kill himself. The teens, meanwhile, find themselves in the usual spam-in-a-cabin scenario when Ed decides to take the creature out himself. After much chasing of teens and monsters through the woods, Ed eventually figures out what was obvious to the audience all along, and kills himself, since the creature is fueled by his own need for revenge. The film ends with the witch burying Ed’s body in the same pumpkin patch which birthed the demon, his final fate to be the body fo the creature the next time it is summoned.

The primary problem with the film is a basic lack of imagination. The creature itself bears more than a passing resemblance to the creature design from Alien, including spiky shoulders, elongated heard and prehensile tail. Oh, the color is different, but the orangey-flesh tone of Pumpkinhead only serves to make the creature somehow even more penis-like. And a penis with Lance Henriksen’s face is just disturbing on any number of levels. There’s also the question of the pacing. The film starts slow. Then it builds to a long middle section. Like, a really long middle section. Minute after minute of people talking. Or driving. Or digging. And it goes on. And on. And then on some more. Which pretty much just leaves the last act of the film for Pumpkinhead to actually show up and start killing people, thus largely negating the tension of wondering when the monster is going to appear. It also doesn’t help that, despite some of them being culpable in a child’s death, the majority of the teen victims are far more sympathetic as characters than Ed Harley or any of the other mountain folk. From the beginning, during the flashback, it’s established that the existence of Pumpkinhead, much less his use, is a sign of the “unchristian”-which here we can read as incapable of compassion or mercy-nature of the people in the community. That Pumpkinhead chooses as his first victim the only teen who did actually stay and try to help Ed’s son drives that home.

Aside from those issues, there are some interesting things the film does manage to do. It’s not quite the inversion of the “evil rednecks, virtuous city-dwellers” that I still would really like to see in a horror film, but at least it manages to offer a more nuanced view of both groups. Yes, that Pumpkinhead’s existence is tolerated by the locals, to a certain degree, is an indictment of them, but at least some of them understand that this is wrong. And while at least some of the city kids qualify as full villains, there are those who attempt to do the right thing. It’s also pretty close to an American entry in the “folk horror” category of films. It’s a genre that tends to mostly appear in British and European films and novels, since they’ve got the pagan backgrounds that usually serve as backstory. But America has folklore and folk traditions too, and it’s easy to imagine a Pumpkinhead like figure serving as a regional boogey-man. It’s something pretty different for American horror, so I feel obligated to give the film some credit there.

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I may have been too harsh on The Blob. This 1984 werewolf film from Claudio Fragasso goes to even greater depths in its dedication to being absolutely terrible than that particular opus. At least the people responsible for the remake of The Blob presumably intended to make a good movie. I’m not entirely sure that such a consideration even occurred to Fragasso.
Because Claudio Fragasso made Troll 2, you see.

The film opens with what is quite possibly the worst music video of all time. I’m sort of dumbstruck by it, because it is just so amazingly banal as to defy description. About the only thing that’s remarkable about it is that, yes, that really is Alice Cooper. I can only presume that it was just as cost-effective to actually hire Cooper to appear in the film as it was to license a song. From there we go to Cooper, playing Vincent Raven, and his crew traveling by van to the remote house where Vince lived as a kid, and witnessed his father brutally murdered by the locals for being a werewolf. By a remarkable coincidence, just as Vince arrives in town, packs of wild dogs have been terrorizing the countryside. We then get some blurry, badly lit scenes of people scaring themselves in the woods or the old house, including a long and protracted dream sequence. The highlight of this sequence is a book Vince reads late into the night about the “scientific truth” about werewolves…featuring a photo of Lon Chaney Jr. from The Wolf Man. An odd inclusion, but also a bad sign, given the maxim to never remind the audience of a good movie in the middle of your bad movie. The next morning, the crew assembles to film another video, and things pretty much go to hell when the locals show up. From there we get the locals killing one of Vince’s friends, Vince killing the locals, wild dogs killing the remainder of Vince’s friends, Vince killing the werewolf, and Vince’s girlfriend killing Vince because, yes, it turns out that he’s a werewolf too.
And then, just to make sure the producer got their money’s worth, the opening song plays again, over clips from the film.

You would think a Italian werewolf movie starring Alice Cooper would at least have some camp value. But, no, even camp requires a certain amount of competency in film-making to work. This is just a series of loosely connected events, framed around the idea of a werewolf stalking the countryside, maybe. Even the one possible moment of originality, when the film-makers decided that it would be a really good idea to mix An American Werewolf in London with Deliverance isn’t pulled off. It occurs too late in the film to be an effective twist. And how I wanted it to work. I hate, with a passion, that sub-genre of horror concerned with how the horrible, evil rednecks terrorize the good, wealthy city-folk, and I really wanted to see a satisfying hillbilly horror plot develop. Because it would have meant at least that some kind of plot was developing.

You can pretty much miss this. If the fact that it’s by the folks who brought you Troll 2 doesn’t warn you off, and you absolutely must see a movie in which Alice Cooper kills red necks with a shotgun, I’m really not sure what I could say or do to dissuade you.

Except show you this:

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The Tin Woodman of Oz, 1918 facsimile ed., ~1974, L. Frank Baum
This is the book where the Tin Woodman meets Fy-Ter, who also got all his limbs chopped off and replaced with tin ones, and then discovers that his sweet-heart married a man made out of the bits that were chopped off of him and Fy-Ter.
So, there’s that…

On the other hand, that bear is awesome.

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