Sunday, 30 September 2007

Halloween

Not since going to see Jaws on the big screen (it was a revival – Jeez, I’m not that old!) have I been as excited/nervous as I was before last night’s screening of Rob Zombie’s Halloween. The 1978 original remains one of my all-time faves, so the excited/nervous ratio was something like: 77% “It's Halloween!” versus 21% “It's gonna be a travesty!” (The other 2% was me wondering whether or not to buy a drink.)

With Jaws, there was plenty of excitement compared to just a small ratio of nervousness (e.g. tickets might sell out; the projector might break down; should I get a drink?). As it happened, something actually did turn out to be wrong with the print, and the film kept skipping important moments – like when Roy Scheider went from splattering a scoopful of chum into the sea to suddenly jumping back in terror for what seemed to be an unspecified reason. I mean, I knew he’d seen the shark but what about the Jaws virgins in the audience? Perhaps they thought he was just scared of getting a bit of chum on his pants. I know I would be. Anyway, the point is: the slight amount of nervousness was justified... Jaws wasn’t quite the Jaws I knew and loved.



Halloween-wise, the nervousness was also justified. Not because there was anything wrong with the print, nor did I go thirsty during the screening... it was just that Zombie’s new vision of the classic slasher, well, didn’t really feel anything like the classic slasher. It felt more like a remake of the remake of Black Christmas.

Don’t get me wrong, I actually thought 2006’s Black Christmas was an enjoyably dizzy blur of blood and bitching, but I wouldn’t want to base another film on it. In Halloween 2007, everything from Michael Myers’ white-trash nightmare of an upbringing, through his violent escape from the asylum, to his stalking of various interchangeable teenagers and climactic chase through the cavity walls of a big old house, all I could think of was Black Christmas 2006 (as well as how you have to specify particular versions of horror films these days).

Halloween is, of course, reminiscent of its 1978 progenitor, and by reminiscent I mean it has all the same characters doing all the same things and getting killed in mostly the same ways. But dammit if I didn’t care who died or how – and that apathy extends to Scout Taylor-Compton as nominal main character and final girl, Laurie Strode. Taylor-Compton is likeable, and her appearance around halfway through is a welcome relief from the unsympathetic greaseballs who populate the move until then, but there’s little to distinguish her from her friends, and her giggling innuendoes quickly wear thin. The only death scene that genuinely perturbed me was the one reserved for the always lovely Dee Wallace, nicely cast here as Laurie’s mom. In the approximately four minutes Wallace is onscreen in Halloween, she exudes more warmth and personality than any other character. Which seems to be all the more reason to shove her face through a glass coffee table in crunchy close-up.


Moving away from John Carpenter’s original, the coloured-in backstory of Michael’s childhood offered by Zombie’s version is surprisingly successful, at least in terms of delivering the gory thrills. Creating a believably gruesome family background for him is another matter entirely, however, and the stripper-mom/abusive-dad clich├ęs offered up are trite and broadly comic. Considering Zombie’s apparent urge to explain explain explain, it’s perplexing how much seems to go unaccounted for – such as how Michael finds out about his one surviving relative when he escapes from captivity, what he wants to do exactly when he catches up with her, and why he wants to kill a bunch of other folk. This sort of stuff didn’t matter in the original, where Michael was simply a “shape”, a “boogeyman” and a faceless bringer of death, but the remake seems to set itself up to fail in this respect by lingering on some points but glossing over others.

In all, I might’ve enjoyed this more as a killer-psycho movie without the Halloween banner. I certainly couldn’t rate it higher than any of the Myers-related Halloween sequels, and that includes the lazy-but-stylish Part 5 and muddled-but-exciting Part 6. As for Mr Zombie... Rob, when you're looking for your next movie to remake, keep your hands off Black Christmas 2006!

Rating: 3/5

Friday, 28 September 2007

Demons 3: The Ogre

What is it with Italian TV? Some of its prime-time TV movies dating back to the 1980s are so violent and gory it's only recently that the BBFC have seen fit to pass them uncut (for an extreme example, see A Blade in the Dark). While the same can't quite be said for 1988's Demons 3: The Ogre, I doubt we'll be seeing Amanda Redman in anything as slimy anytime soon.

“It’s not every day that one goes on vacation and finds the basement of one’s childhood fantasies,” remarks American horror novelist Charel Bates-Mancuso (Virginia Bryant), referring to the fact that the cellar of the Italian castle she’s rented with her family looks just like the one she dreamed about as a little girl growing up in Oregon. “Then you add to that a lost teddy bear and another person obsessed by the same nightmare—” Oops! Steady on, Charel, let’s not give too much away!

It seems that, as a child, Charel was plagued with Simon Boswell-scored nightmares in which she would tiptoe down into an enormous, creepy – and enormously creepy – basement on a dark and stormy night. Once there, she would discover a pulsating cocoon hanging from the ceiling, and witness the “hatching” of an ogre-like creature that not only chased her around the cellar, but also stole a flower from behind her teddy bear’s ear. No wonder she grew up to be a horror writer!


Now, twenty years later, Charel is married with a badly-dubbed child of her own, and is torturing touring the Italian countryside in a prominently featured Cherokee Chief (that raised suspension may well come in handy for backing over troublesome ogres later on). Having stopped off at a cafe for directions, the Bates-Mancuso family find that the locals go ominously quiet at the mention of the remote castle they’re heading for but, as Dad explains, “People are strange in small towns,” and soon they’re settling in at the vast country estate.

It’s not long, however, before things start to get a little, well, spooky… The castle’s basement looks strangely familiar to Charel – and, not only that, but she finds a teddy bear down there that looks just like the one she lost as a child. She also discovers collection of teeth inside an old desk, which inspire her to start a new book entitled A Drawer Full of Teeth: Fantastic Novel by Charel Bates-Mancuso (well, they do say you should write what you know). Then there's the ogre-shaped handprints she keeps finding everywhere... Could her long-ago dreams finally be coming true? And, if so, will Charel be able to escape the clutches of... [Demons 3] The Ogre?!

Despite coming from the same director, this mixture of gothic horror and haunted house story bears no relation to Demons and Demons 2 (the latter of which – confusingly enough – also starred Virginia Bryant). In fact, it’s one of four TV movies Lamberto Bava made in 1988, and was originally titled La Casa Dell'orco (The House of the Ogre) before being renamed for international audiences. While the Demons movies weren’t high art, they were fast-paced and very entertaining, something that unfortunately can’t be said for this film. For, while there’s an interesting story in place, it would have required considerable padding to stretch it out to the one hour-mark, never mind the 90 minutes of varying tedium on offer here. If you’re looking for another Demons film, you’d be better off with 1989’s The Church (itself also known as Demons 3 in some quarters!).

That said, it’s not a complete waste of time if you can get past the slow pace. The dream sequences, with their skeletal, slime-covered demon, are pretty effective, and the whole scenario is just off-the-wall enough to hold the interest. There’s also an interesting sequence in which Bava essentially recreates the famous underwater scene from Dario Argento’s Inferno – a set piece often mistakenly attributed to Mario Bava (Lamberto’s father). As such, the idea works on several levels, not least of which being the fact that it’s one of the more exciting sections of this film.

Anyway, here are a few things I learned about ogres from this movie:

  • Ogres “mate with women who smell of orchids”.
  • Ogres prefer medieval dress, incorporating a light, sleeveless tunic and ruffled collar.
  • Fully-grown ogres hatch from a glowing green egg sac, often found suspended from ceilings in abandoned basements.
  • For the ultimate scare, ogres may burst out from inside wine barrels.
  • Ogres leave distinctive handprints in flour, which disappear when you try to show them to anyone.
  • Ogres may or may not collect teeth and leave them in drawers (who the hell knows?!).

Ultimately, nothing in Demons 3 makes any real sense – which wouldn’t be a problem if it had the shock-logic of City of the Living Dead or the whirling intensity of Suspiria. Instead, everything remains unexplained in favour of a frustrating gag ending. With a little more belief in itself, this might have achieved a real sense of creepiness; as it is, it’s the silly moments you’re more likely to remember.

Rating: 2/5

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Perfect Stranger

The information age has brought with it all kinds of new fears, from identity theft, online fraud and computer hacking, to paedophile rings, torture websites and terrorist recruitment. Perfect Stranger taps into the greatest and perhaps most primal of these – the fear that the boss might walk by while you’re looking at porn on the internet.

In Perfect Stranger, this fear is essentially played out over the course of an entire movie, as journalist Rowena Price (Halle Berry) goes undercover as a conspicuously glamorous temp at the ad agency of Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis). Hill is a millionaire who may or may not have murdered her twitchy childhood friend (Nicki Aycox), with whom he may or may not have been having an affair, conducted largely via Instant Messaging. Naturally, this leads to lots of scenes of not-particularly-cinematic online chat, in which Rowena pretends to be someone else in order to ensnare the boss, and the participants read out whatever they're typing for the benefit of the viewer. And there’s also the aforementioned frequent suspense sequences where Rowena must hide what’s on her computer screen from Mr Hill, or explain what she’s doing poking around his office.

The film marks Halle Berry’s third foray into woman-in-peril territory (following The Rich Man’s Wife and Gothika) and she basically gives the same performance again here. This wouldn’t be a problem, since the role requires her to do little more than look scared in a low-cut blouse anyway, were it not for that fact that – oh the horror – Perfect Stranger turns out not to be a proper woman-in-peril movie after all. That’s right; despite what sounds like a perfectly workable suspense set-up, the film wallows in the once-shocking, now lame tradition of The Sixth Sense (eight years ago, dammit!) of preferring to have a twist instead of a climax. So what you get is three-quarters of a decent thriller followed by one quarter of senseless what-the-fuckage, which more-or-less throws the story right out the window of Rowena’s implausibly fabulous apartment.

Anyway, I did say “three-quarters of a decent thriller” and Perfect Stranger is watchable on that level. It’s refreshing to see an A-list thriller these days that doesn’t thrust every plot point down your throat. You actually have to pay attention to keep up with this one, with much of the early exposition coming from the gossipy tongue of Clea Lewis, the ever-perky Audrey of TV’s Ellen, and a delight here as one of Rowena’s co-workers. But, oh, it’s not that I demand a rigid formula from my women-in-peril thrillers, just that I’d rather see a story go from A to B and make sense, than go from A to Z then back again, miss out F, M and R, and leap to “£” just for the sake of a shocking final twist.

Rating: 2/5

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Someone’s Watching Me!

I first saw John Carpenter’s Someone’s Watching Me! as a teenager, when you could catch a TV movie on the box every night if you stayed up late enough. (These days, the late-night movies are all things I saw at the cinema in the late nineties – ouch!) All I really remembered of the film was a chilblains-inducing moment in which our heroine is talking on the phone alone in her apartment... when suddenly a black-clad figure dashes silently past in the background! Well, I must have found that pretty creepy to have remembered it all these years (not to mention put it in italics) so it was with some anticipation that I popped Warner’s new DVD – released as part of their fairly accurately titled Twisted Terror Collection – into the machine.

Let me tell you: the moment is there, it’s a doozy, and it doesn’t take long to get to it. Someone’s Watching Me! establishes its stalker theme right off the bat, as the camera glides the length of a telescope before disappearing right into its darkened lens (a truly evocative shot that seems to implicate the viewer as – lordy – both voyeur and victim). Speaking of victim, it’s attractive, endearingly gappy-toothed Leigh Michaels (Lauren Hutton) that the telescope of terror will soon be trained upon when, after taking up residence in an L.A. apartment, she finds herself at the mercy of an obsessed observer who tracks her every move and telephones her at all hours with whispered threats.


We first meet Leigh as she’s shown around the ultra-modern Arkham Tower building by a realtor who explains how every apartment is controlled by a computer that does things like sense the strength of the setting sun and adjust the room temperature accordingly. (Not bad for 1978, huh? My computer still won’t do that.) I found this idea creepy enough even without the added bonus of a leering psychopath, but Leigh’s a busy woman-in-peril TV director and probably hasn’t had chance to see Demon Seed yet. In any case, she’s pleased as punch with the place, and is soon all moved in.

As satisfied as she is with the evening climate control (a good thing, since she never closes the curtains) Leigh’s housewarming is soon marred by a string of vaguely threatening phone calls and mysterious gifts – first a mysterious telescope, then a mysterious orange bikini. Her new gay buddy Sophie (Adrienne Barbeau) tells her not to worry and takes her out for a meal but, even at the restaurant, it seems that Someone’s Watching Her, when a bottle of wine arrives compliments of a swiftly exiting stranger at the bar. As the mystery man’s attentions increase, Leigh becomes increasingly worried for her own safety, and Arkham Tower comes to seem less like an intelligently air-conditioned playground and more like a glass-walled prison of doom!

Someone’s Watching Me! is a wonderful blend of Hitchcockian stylings, 70s TV-movie terror and, thanks to the presence of a young John Carpenter in the director’s chair, early slasher movie technique. Carpenter is clearly intent on giving things a Hitchcock flavour: we open with a bombastic Bernard Herrman-esque score played over some ersatz Saul Bass credits (all parallel lines and sliding names), plus there’s the Rear Window-ish plotting, an overhead shot straight out of Psycho, and at least one reverse dolly zoom; it’s so stylishly slavish to the Master, I want to call it De Palmaian but can’t really spell it. This being only months prior to Carpenter’s cinematic breakthrough, everything also reeks of Halloween, including the strong female leads, occasional steadycam use, and faceless killer. Even the heroine’s name – Leigh (as in Jamie?) and surname Michaels (Myers?) – had me thinking of the slasher classic.


Leigh isn’t your average woman-in-peril, just as Someone’s Watching Me! isn’t your average woman-in-peril TV movie. She’s confident, independent and refuses to allow anyone to control her life, characteristics that Carpenter (who scripted as well as directed) establishes early on in a barroom scene where, after rebuffing the advances of several male admirers, Leigh calmly approaches a single man with the pickup line, “Hello! I’m Leigh Michaels!”. Later on, when things get even hairier, she’s not afraid to follow her stalker into a deserted basement, break into his apartment or, in a particularly ballsy move during the trapped-in-the-dark climax, demand that he come out of the shadows and show himself. As she rants to Sophie at one point, “How dare he invade my life!”.

While we’re on the subject of Sophie, what a refreshing character she is: not gay-for-a-few-wisecracks nor even seemingly attracted to gorgeous Leigh; she’s just a great best friend who also happens to be a lesbian. The fact is simply noted and they move on. In fact, of all the characters Leigh comes into contact with (I doubt she could pick her nose without someone coming on to her), Sophie is the least predatory and most positive. This may be a comment on the late-seventies theme of all men as potential rapists – here used to ominous effect when a male co-worker blindly ignores Leigh’s rebuttals by repeatedly asking her for a date – but also shines as one of the least showy, most affirmative portrayals of a gay character from the era. (William Friedkin simply wouldn’t have had a film if he’d represented gay men as matter-of-factly as this in Cruising two years later.)


In fact, there’s precious little to complain about in Someone’s Watching Me! I would’ve liked to see more of Leigh at work; she seems to spend less time there than talking to herself while alone (or is she?!) at her apartment but, since her job doesn’t have direct bearing on the plot, it’s justifiable. After all, she’s not technically a genuine Anchorwoman In Peril – being instead employed behind the scenes as the person who says “Fade in on camera three” during the news – but there’s more than enough woman, peril and indeed TV stuff here to justify the moniker. I’d even go so far as to say the film is absolute canon as the Anchorwoman In Peril genre goes... It’s certainly scary, thrilling and, er, glamorously seventies enough. Someone’s Watching Me, I’ll be watching you in future!

Rating: 4/5

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Reviews Index: A-Z

Aenigma (1987)
All the Colors of the Dark (1972)
Amsterdamned (1988) Review at Retro Slashers
April Fool's Day (2008)
Bad Inclination (2003)
The Bat (1959)
Bates Motel (1987)
Bloodbath at the House of Death (1984)
Blowup (1966)
The Brave One (2007)
Calendar Girl Murders (1984)
A Cat in the Brain (1990)
Cheerleader Massacre (2003)
The Corpse Grinders (1972)
Crooked House (2008)
Cruising (1980) Review at Retro Slashers
Dead of Winter (1987)
Demons 3: The Ogre (1988)
Dial: Help (1988)
Diary of the Dead (2008)
Don't Answer the Phone! (1980)
Door Into Darkness: The Doll (1973)
Door Into Darkness: Eyewitness (1973)
Exclusive (1992)
Eye for an Eye (1996)
Eyes of a Stranger (1981)
Eyewitness (1981)
Fear of Clowns (2004)
Friday the 13th (2009)
Halloween (2007)
The Hollywood Beach Murders (1992)
Horror 101 (2000)
Horror 102: Endgame (2004)
Hotline (1982)
The House Sitter (2007)
Hysteria (1965)
I Know Who Killed Me (2007)
I'm the Girl He Wants to Kill (1974)
In the Spider's Web (2007)
Incubus (1981)
Intensity (1997)
Intimate Stranger (1992)
It! (1966)
Jack's Back (1988) Review at Retro Slashers
The Killer Next Door (2001)
Knock Knock (2007)
The Last House on the Left (2009)
The Majorettes (1986)
Manhunt (2008)
The Manitou (1978)
Mirror Images (1992)
Mirror, Mirror 2: Raven Dance (1994)
Monster (2008)
Mum & Dad (2008)
Murder-Set-Pieces (2004)
My Bloody Valentine (2009)
My Dear Killer (1972) Review at Retro Slashers
New Year's Evil (1980)
Night of the Living Dead 3D (2006)
The Night Stalker (1972)
Nightwing (1979)
Obituary (2006)
P2 (2007)
Perfect Blue (1998)
Perfect Stranger (2007)
Perversion Story (1969) Review at Retro Slashers
Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge (1989)
The Psychic (1977)
Red Mist (2008) Review at Retro Slashers
Rehearsal for Murder (1982)
Run... If You Can! (1987)
Scream Bloody Murder (1973)
Scream Bloody Murder (2000)
Seconds Apart (2011)
The Sect (1991)
The Seduction (1982)
Sexykiller (2008)
Shark (1969)
Shark in Venice (2008)
Shark Kill (1976)
Shark Swarm (2008)
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
Slaughter High (1986)
Someone's Watching Me! (1978)
The Stalker (1998)
The Stepfather Trilogy (1987-1992) Review at Retro Slashers
The Strangers (2008)
Sweet Sixteen (1983)
Switch Killer (2005)
Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo (1977)
Terror Stalks the Class Reunion (1992) Review at Retro Slashers
The Thing (1982)
The Thing (2011)
Through the Eyes of a Killer (1992)
Too Scared to Scream (1985)
The Torturer (2005)
Trilogy of Murder (2004)
Twisted Nerve (1968)
The Unborn (2009)
Undercover Angel (1993)
View of Terror (2003)
Wet Gold (1984)
While She Was Out (2008)