Archive for the “Spooky Month” Category

It’s clear that studios had hopes that these “horror movies as action films” would go bigger than they eventually ended up going. It wouldn’t make any sense to give Peter Hyams, the man who gave the world Timecop, a prestige project based on a best-selling novel like The Relic if you didn’t expect a big return. What they ended up with was an incoherent mess that, as pretty much every critic at the time reminded us, was trying to ape the vibe of Alien “but in a museum!” while making it clear that no one involved in the production actually understood why Alien worked.

We open with a not at all culturally sensitive scene of creepy anthropologist John Whitney observing native religious rituals in South America, and then later becoming so panicked over his artifacts being shipped back to Chicago that he stows away aboard a freighter. Some time later, the boat arrives in Chicago with the entire crew killed, and a mysterious series of murders involving decapitations begin to occur at the natural history museum, with intrepid biologist Penelope Ann Miller caught in the middle of gruff detective Tom Sizemore’s investigation. Political pressure stalls the investigation so that the Mayor can attend the museum’s lush new gala, which results in the local 1%ers being slaughtered by a giant lizard-bug creature that eats human brains. Penelope eventually figures out that the creature is a bizarrely mutated John Whitney and blows up him, saving the day.

It’s a mess, honestly. It’s hard to see what, exactly, the film-makers were aiming for, as they keep cutting between elements of actual suspense and mystery and scenes where problems are solved with guns and explosions. The characters are all stock, with no real depth, and there’s a creepily racist undertone that pops up from time to time, from Miller’s rival scientist, a cheating, scheming Asian nerd, to Miller’s constant comments about “primitive” people, to the wholescale othering of Native Americans and their mutative herbs that underlies the film’s plot. But where the film really fails is in it’s half-assedness as an adaptation. Relic, the novel, had a sequel out in time for the film, but the film not only kills off recurring characters, but also completely excises a central character that would have opened up the film to franchise potential. It speaks to the sort of laziness that typifies the film.

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So, before they became an action movie imprint, the Warner Brothers/Universal production studio “Dark Castle” was a churner out of relatively cheap “horror movie as spectacle” films, in the tradition of William Castle. In fact, several of their early films were gored up versions of classic Castle films. Steve Beck’s Ghost Ship was an early effort, when they were still concentrating on doing very gorey horror films with an action movie sensibility, before they started putting Ethan Hawke in Fast and Furious knock-offs. Now, to be sure, the “horror as spectacle” trend wasn’t limited to just this one studio, but nobody hit it quite as hard as Dark Castle, nor with such a distinctive half-assedness.

After a mood-setting opening sequence, that attempts to inter-cut horrific violence with a cheery glam 60s aesthetic, we cut to Gabriel Byrne as Murphey, captain of a salvage crew that includes Final Girl lead Juliana Margulies as first mate epps and Karl Urban before anyone cared who he was. They are approached by Ferriman, a weather pilot who has spotted an abandoned ship in the Bering Sea, and offers to share the location of the ship in exchange for a substantial cut of the salvage profits. The crew agrees, as pickings have been slim and the promise of a luxury liner means good money. When they arrive, they discover that the ship is the Antonia Grazia, a well known lost ship. While patently ignoring plenty of clues that something is wrong, even Epps seeing a ghost, several times, the crew continues to explore the ship, eventually finding the remains of a previous salvage crew and crates full of gold bars. Celebrations are cut short when their ship explodes in a not at all suspicious accident and the crew must now attempt to pilot the sinking and rudderless Grazia home. The crew is picked off by ghosts one-by-one, as a ghost girl gives Epps a visual info-dump, revealing that the gold came from the Lorelei, another lost ship, along with a survivor, who convinced several of the Grazia crew members to kill the passengers and remaining crew and take the gold, before being killed themselves by the survivor. Who is revealed to be Ferriman, an apparently immortal supernatural being with a not at all portentous name. Epps destroys the ship, freeing the souls of the passengers and is rescued, only to learn that the cycle is bound to repeat.

It’s hard to find things to like about Ghost Ship. Big, loud and dumb was the name of the game with the spectacle horror films, and there’s fairly visceral thrills to be had from time to time. But the film confuses gore and special effects with actual terror, which often leads to unintended comedy. Somebody, at some point was paying attention, as there are hint-heavy murals in the background of a number of shots, not to mention the heavy-handed naming convention at work with Ferriman. Rumor has it that the script the cast was shown was almost completely jettisoned by the time filming begun, with a more psychological film turned into a jump-scare film. It’s plausible, and several cast members certainly act as if they’re in a different film than the one they ended up in.

So, in the end, we go back to that old distinction between “good” and “entertaining.” Ghost Ship isn’t good, but there’s enough of something there that was once good to wring a half-way competent “dumb fun” picture out of.

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The 90s, culturally, were not all that great. At best, the high-water mark for a lot of 90s productions is that, down the road, they’re less cringe-inducing than most 70s and 80s media. Horror films were at a particularly low ebb as major productions, and when they did get made, they were often some kind of strange hybrid with another genre. Such as Stephen Sommers’ Deep Rising, which is a very broad, gorey horror film/action film hybrid that really does neither genre much credit. On the plus side, it does have a frequently wet Treat Williams* out-handsoming a bunch of other actors.

Williams is Finnegan, a salvage boat captain who has been hired to escort an ethnically diverse group of mercenaries out to an undisclosed location in the South China Sea. While he very pointedly overlooks that he has hired himself and his crew out to what is clearly an extremely illegal operation, the luxury cruise liner Argonautica is having a culturally non-specific Asian-themed celebration as part of its maiden voyage (seriously, there is a Samoan fire-dancer, Japanese drummers, and a Foo Dog puppet all in the same pan shot at one point). While grifter Trillian (played by Famke Janssen) gets locked in the ship pantry after failing to rob the vault, a mysterious saboteur disables the ship just in time for a mysterious something to collide with the ship from the ocean’s depths. When Finnegan and the mercenaries arrive a few hours later, after being disastrously struck by a speedboat that fell of the cruise ship during the collison, they find the ship deserted but evidence of a massacre. Rounding up a handful of survivors, including ship owner Simon Canton and Trillian, it becomes obvious that Canton’s plan to use the mercenaries to rob the ship and sink it for the insurance money was interrupted by, of all things, giant fanged tentacle monsters. The cast is whittled down one-by-one, until of course we are left with only our handsomely white and flirtatious male and female leads, and then we get to our big denouement, where Treat Williams fights Cthulhu with a gun.

Deep Rising is, to be sure, not a good film. But one of the things one must learn to deal with as a film consumer, especially with certain genres, is that “good” and “entertaining” are not the same thing. Deep Rising is an entertaining film. There’s an effort made to have a certain degree of artistry to the film. Interesting contrasts are made between the use of red and blue as colors, with the warm red marking the world of wealth and decadence and the cool blues marking the deadly forces of the ocean and nature. Some stylistic jabs are made at framing and camera positions, with long narrow shots marking how limited the movement of the characters is, which ties into the notion of the creature “herding” them towards the larder, itself an echo of Trillian’s pantry imprisonment. There are some nice off-center, titled shots intercut with each other which echoes the “bobbing” motion of the boats and the insecurity of the characters. And there’s a big, mostly unexplored central theme of parasites feeding off hosts, with Trillian robbing 1%ers, Canton willing to kill to collect insurance money, and the creature itself doing basically the same, but on a grandly amoral and indifferent scale. But all these nifty little ideas are never developed because the film mostly cares about dumb, inappropriate jokes, comic relief, and big guns being fired at CGI monsters.

Still, Treat Williams fighting what is basically Cthlhu and then escaping while firing a rifle from a speed-boat. That’s kinda cool.

* A late in development replacement for Harrison Ford. And yes, they put iconic Han Solo lines in his mouth.

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Adam Wingard’s You’re Next does a lot of things right that you wouldn’t really expect it to. The home invasion genre of horror is one that usually has a lot of overlap with slashers or torture-porn, so it’s hard to find an approach that feels fresh. It’s also one of the genres that is more prone to solipsistic moralizing, something that is generally never a good sign in a horror film, specifically in the way many films seek to indict the viewer for wanting to see people be horribly brutalized in the name of entertainment even though the film-makers are the hypocrites themselves for presenting the material the way they do and denying the viewer a proper catharsis (I blame Haneke and Funny Games for setting the tone for the genre). What Wingard and screen-writer Simon Barrett do that’s interesting, is largely play with that voyeuristic aspect, but in a self-aware and frequently comic way.

The film opens with a scene of a couple having sex, shot mostly through the windows of their house. He takes a shower, and emerges to find her dead and the words “You’re Next” written in blood on the window before he is killed himself. The next shot is a nicely composed scene of Aubrey and Paul driving out to their deeply secluded woodland mansion to celebrate their anniversary, soon joined by their son Crispian, a struggling professor, and Erin, his grad-student girl-friend. Over the next day they are joined by snobbish son Drake and wife Kelly, daughter Aimee and film-maker boyfriend Tariq, and troublesome youngest child Felix and girl-friend Zee. For the first half of the film, it plays as an earnest indie family dramedy, the kind of self-consciously “important” film where actors mumble and talk over each other to tell a story of privileged white people having problems pretty much only comfortably wealthy white people have to face. Once the family sits down to dinner and, in the midst of an argument, begin to be killed off one-by-one by killers in animal masks, the gears shift into full horror mode.

Much of the action is confined to the house, giving the film a somewhat claustrophobic feel that add to the siege panic of the dwindling number of survivors. The focus almost immediately becomes Erin, who rises to what at first blush seems to be a rather rote “Final Girl” sort of role before we learn that, no, actually she spent her entire childhood in survivalist camps in the outback training for just this sort of thing. Deaths are quick and relatively gore-light, as the film depends more on atmosphere and the dwindling cast numbers to build tension. There are surprising moments of levity, veering towards an almost inappropriate comedy of errors level at times. For careful viewers, there is even a strongly seeded mystery, disguised as a “twist” that becomes apparent as the film develops to it’s, frankly, inevitable climax.

Why the film works as well as it does, I think, is because the film retains a sense of awareness of genre conventions but never becoming smug about it. There is a very deliberate use of recurrent horror motifs, such as a lone female survivor, a masked psychopath, and voyeuristic POV shots that the film makes deliberate usage of, but in a way that acknowledges that these are tropes that work for a reason, apart from some deliberate lampshading of the “Final Girl” idea. While some critics dismissed the film as “nihilistic” I think that description is a disservice. It’s grim, but it’s a grimness borne of black comedy, veering into satire. Yes, the bulk of the characters are unsympathetic, but they’re meant to be. This is an indie drama about a dysfunctional family where the problems are resolved not by bold declarations of familial love but by murderers.

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Halloween, 1981 ed, Curtis Richards
Today’s entry courtesy Mike Sterling

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